Thursday, January 12, 2006

Caught in the Frey

Okay, so people are losing it over James Frey's fictionalized memoir, and so future editions will have a content note at the beginning. I know it's a strange question to ask, but are memoirs actually required to be factually sound in the first place? I understand why people expect them to be, and actually, I don't think it's entirely ridiculous that they should get a refund for the book. And, again, I certainly don't think it's "disturbing", but isn't there a point to be made that memoirs do involve memory which is, in itself, a form of fiction? When historians use them we take them with a very large grain of salt. So, maybe there is merit to the argument that Frey and JT Leroy were novelists working in a certain genre...

I guess we do have less stringent style requirements for memoirs. Have you ever read Police Chief Moose's memoir? The writing is just dreadful. Even the individual paragraphs don't hold up as being actual paragraphs (they make several seperate and unrelated points). And, actually, most autobiographies are poorly-written. Memoirs a bit less so. But, I think we read them for the "insider's perspective". An author takes events from their life and turns them into literature, while a memoirist turns them into accounts. We simply do not expect the same level of writing. So, I can see a mediocre author with an hard sell book slapping the words "a memoir" onto it for an easier sell. I'm guessing that was Frey's story.

2 comments:

Julie said...

I was thinking about this same question, so thanks for articulating it. Is there some hard-and-fast definition of what a memoir really is? If it's a genre distinction, then genres themselves change and works vary within genres. Why can't "truth" (which is a mighty loaded idea anyway) be one of the variables? I guess it bothers me that the world/media (and I hate to say it, but at this point, it feels like this is a media-driven story--it doesn't seem to impact anyone--no readers are screaming "I wasn't going to do drugs because of this book but now I am because IT'S A LIE!") seem to have such a strict definition of what a memoir must be, but as far as I can tell, there are no hard-and-fast rules about it. For the love of god, just watch a documentary with a discerning eye someday, and you'll realize how unreliable the idea of "truth" in a non-fiction genre really is.

Rufus said...

Yeah, I've been trying to figure it out. According to the dictionary, a memoir isn't much different than an autobiography.
1) An account of the personal experiences of an author.
2) An autobiography. Often used in the plural.
3) A biography or biographical sketch.

Apparently, though, what happened with this book is that Frey wrote it as fiction, but couldn't sell it as such, and was advised to sell it as a memoir.

I think the story is probably going to die down before long.