Thursday, November 26, 2009

The "Truth" in Memoir

 “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
  Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

These lines from John Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" might well express one side of an argument about truth in literature, most expressly truth in memoir.

In this argument, the beauty in Keats's poem may stand in for the overall effect of a piece, the beauty of the words on the page, the arc of the story, or even the refusal of meaning. Literal, factual truth and embellished "truth"  interact to create the final work. It is unimportant whether the reader knows which is which or the ratio between them. The writer's contract with the reader (if indeed one even exists) is fulfilled by the book the reader holds in her hands.

The other side of the argument about truth in memoir states that memoir is a form of autobiography. It is more than just slightly based on truth: By calling something a memoir, the writer makes a contract with the reader that there is more literal truth in the work than there is embellishment, and whatever embellishment exists is minor and only for artistic purposes or to protect innocent parties. Anything more than minor adjustments constitutes lying.

Anyone familiar with the case of James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces and the furor it caused has heard the argument, which was ultimately played out on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah chose the book for her book club in September 2005, and like all the books she chooses, it went right to the top of the best seller lists.

In January 2006, some smouldering coals about the supposed facts in the book burst into flame and high controversy erupted. (The link is to Wikipedia which has a decent rendering of the events and timelines and links to all the pertinent players.) I don't want to delve into the details of the controversy regarding who said what when; the argument about truth in memoirs is what interests me.

When Frey's embellishments were originally outed, Larry King interviewed him, and Oprah called in to defend him. Her comments employ the "Beauty is truth" side of the argument:
Whether or not the cars' wheels rolled up on the sidewalk or whether he hit the police officer or didn't hit the police officer is irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil, from the time he was 10 years old, drinking and -- and tormenting himself and his parents...And, out of that, stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today, and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves. That's what's important about this book and his story.
Soon though, Oprah, for reasons unclear, switched to the opposite side of the argument in which literal truth was more important than the beauty of the virtual truth of the message: On her show on January 26/06, Oprah chastized Frey publicly:
James Frey is here and I have to say it is difficult for me to talk to you because I feel really duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers. I think it's such a gift to have millions of people to read your work and that bothers me greatly. So now, as I sit here today I don't know what is true and I don't know what isn't.
Many things followed: Oprah no longer recommended the book; the existing imprint and future ones came to contain a disclaimer that the memoir was semi-fictional; critics and readers debated about "truth" in literature and memoir; both Oprah and James Frey have moved on, neither seemingly the worse for wear. Frey has written and had another book published - Bright Shiny Morning (2008), a safe work of fiction!

The question remains, though, about the nature of memoir and what readers can rightfully expect regarding the truth in a work of art.

In his article "Shelve it under navel-gazing" in The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley reviews Ben Yagoda's new book Memoir: A History. Yagoda delves into the long history of memoir and its precursors; he also takes up the question of truth and the concern over truth in memoir that has quite a history itself.

Part of the review deals with memory, which of course has much to do with truth. Yardley quotes Yagoda:
"the human memory is by nature untrustworthy: contaminated not merely by gaps, but by distortions and fabrications that inevitably and blamelessly creep into it." Memory "is itself a creative writer," and the combination of "memory like Swiss cheese, arrogant confidence in its integrity -- seems to be a human trait, and is certainly reflected in most autobiographies . . . which do not grant even the possibility that the chronicle they offer -- including the word-for-word transcription of conversations held half a century before -- is less than 100 percent accurate."
Both Yagoda and Yardley are clear: memoir is unreliable. So what's a reader to do?

I believe that Oprah's and the readers' anger with Frey was, and should have been, not so much because of the fiction that found its way into his memoir. Oprah had it right when she implied that the "truth" of the book was in its beauty, the beauty of Frey's rise out of addiction and the inspiration that gave to the world.

Where it all went terribly wrong was that in public, in person, Frey as himself, not as his memoir's persona, lied about the facts in the book. His publisher got it wrong too. If Frey had invoked the license of literature to give us a virtual truth, he would have been fine and people would have been happy with the beauty and truth his work had given them.



Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

ChrisJ said...


Thanks for the compliment. It's a work in progress!