James Frey Took A Fall For Us All

I was two months into my book contract for my first memoir when the Frey controversy broke.  I was riveted to the TV much as I had been on 9.11.2001. I know it’s heresy to compare a memoir scandal to the events of 9/11, but I’m just being honest here. That’s what us memoir types do, right?  And for me and for all writers of memoir and maybe even writers of fiction as well, that day and the dark Oprah days that followed were days of history making. A line was drawn in the sand between fiction and memoir. From now on there would be rules and we knew it.  A few weeks later my mother sent me a magazine article about the Frey debacle with a note clipped to it issuing the cheery encouragement: “Don’t let this happen to you!”

Today, Oprah did the first of her two interviews with Frey, five years after the A Million Little Pieces debacle.  And, once again I’m at the TV. But, my heart is nowhere near my throat this time. I’m curious, yes, but like most memoir writers I do know now what we roughly understand to be “the rules,” the unspoken contract between memoirist and reader that what you’re about to read lies somewhere in veracity between a lyrical poem and a court reporter’s notes, and when it veers toward the former, you will be warned in the Author’s Note. The author’s note is just one of the ways that our literary landscape has changed since Frey’s legendary Oprah visit in the Winter of 2006.  Now it is commonplace to for memoirs to begin with an Author’s Note, a disclaimer of sorts that gives a road map of where journalism ends and poetry begins.

But to understand why the Frey fall from grace was history making, we need to back up a bit.  Frey’s A Million Little Pieces first hit bookstores in 2003, which means he probably sold the book–I’m guessing–in 2001 or 2002 at the latest.  At that point in history, the memoir was in approximately its sixth year of its incarnation as an exploding literary genre, the literary equivalent of a first grader.  While there had always been lone wolf memoirs here and there to confuse the shelvers at Barnes and Noble–Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Baldwin’s Notes from a Native Son, Baker’s Growing Up, to name a few–memoir did not exist as a popular genre until the mid 90’s.  Before the mid-90’s writers who wanted to use their own lives as material–notably, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Nora Ephron, Silvia Plath–were likely to write an autobiographical novel, a genre that would allow the writer to tell her own story and make stuff up as she pleased. No questions asked. Or relatively few. But in 1995, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club flew up the bestseller list as a memoir and the next year, 1996 , Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes followed the same upward trajectory.

The next year, 1997, is a significant year for me as it’s the year I started in a MFA program in Fiction. There were very few programs at that time in Creative Nonfiction, the genre that would have allowed me to write memoir, but I hadn’t heard of them until after I was already in the Fiction program. I don’t know for sure that I’d even heard of memoir.  In my first year of the fiction program, two things became clear: I had a very limited imagination for plot, and I was very interested in writing about my own experience.  I wrote these weird essay-ish short stories, and with the encouragement of my teacher, David Shields (if you want to read the most mind-exploding expose of life in the borderlands between fiction and memoir, read his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto), I continued to blunder through–not assigning the word “memoir” to my work until 2001 when Brain, Child magazine published a long piece of mine about my family called “Women Like That, Like Us.”

It was around that time that I figure that Frey was running around New York, first shopping around his A Million Little Pieces as a novel and then finding no buyers, selling the manuscript as this new thing called memoir.   He said today in his return to the Oprah show that he’d been influenced by Henry Miller and in particular by the book The Tropic of Cancer (an autobiographical novel that would doubtless be sold as a memoir today) and that he hadn’t been thinking about what his book was while he was writing it.  He just wanted to write a book that affected young readers as The Tropic of Cancer had once moved him.  He’d thought of his book-in-progress not as memoir or a novel, but as “a statement of defiance.”  A self-taught writer, Frey had no professors or fellow students to debate what the writer’s obligation to the reader is or where the line before memoir and fiction lies. But even if he had been in school as I had been at the time, I don’t know for sure that he would have had the opportunity to discuss the ethics of memoir writing that would be commonplace in such programs today, in part because of Frey.

I don’t think Frey did the right thing. Ideally, he would have either published the book as fiction or as memoir with a hefty Author’s Note. He admits himself that he knew he was crossing the line, but I have to say, I understand it.   He says he saw himself as more of an artist than a writer. He says, “I was trying to write literature. I wasn’t trying to write a self-help book.” He says he was influenced by Picasso’s cubist self-portraits. It was 2001, and then 2003 and then 2006. It was the times, I’m telling you. It was the times.

About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at TheoNestor.com.
This entry was posted in Memoirists, More Stuff for Writers. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to James Frey Took A Fall For Us All

  1. Susan says:

    Sorry, but I haven’t yet reached the point where I’m able to cut Frey much slack. I don’t see him as taking the fall for memoir writers–more like dragging us down. He didn’t do the genre any favors and those of us who struggle to find an outlet for our work need to pay attention.

    Thanks for this post. I enjoyed your viewpoint.

  2. Very thought provoking post – esp. on the evolution of memoir. It recalls once again the American fixation on what’s factual. We always want to know – even with works of fiction – if any of the story “really happened.” But facts are different than truth – ironically it’s often literature and its made-up stories that most reveal the truth about humanity.
    I never read Frey’s book so I don’t know how egregious his falsehoods were. Either way, he wasn’t doing memoir writers any favors. Yet I also wonder if he is different than any of us with our flawed egos, recollections and desires to look better (or worse, in his case) than we really are. I do know that Oprah’s Shamefest back in 2006 with Frey and Nan Talese turned me off to her more than him.

  3. Helen says:

    I remember thinking how gulible people were to think this book was “true.” The scene where he rushes to rescue the girl from a crack house seemed like total (but engaging) fiction–a clasic hero’s journey. I took the book as being metaphorically true. The uproar had an element of blood sport — that someone was caught cheating and on television no less. I had the sense that people who hadn’t even read it were outraged. But we as readers have some obligation to use some judgment. The one piece I am sorry about it that this made it harder for other writers.

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