Last October, Chris talked nonstop about this book she spent an entire weekend reading. Now Chris, a mother of three, holds down a job, plus she has a really hectic schedule at home, but this book caught her attention and held it, until she turned the very last page.
I thought the story sounded pretty amazing, and considered reading it myself. The book? James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which was recently exposed as less than the memoir that it apparently isn’t.
Chris has since said she feels betrayed. “I lived his life,” she said, when she heard reports of Frey’s misdeeds from The Smoking Gun. (Take a number, Chris.)
My thoughts returned to a literary event I attended last November in Pittsburgh, Pa., when the author who blazed the trail for current memoirists spoke about her craft. Mary Karr, of The Liars’ Club fame, was definite in her conviction about what a memoirist does – or doesn’t – do.
“Don’t make (crap) up. Don’t make (crap) up. Just don’t,” Karr said. Twice, for emphasis.
Karr’s comment was made during a Q&A session after she spoke on what – thanks to Frey – is currently quite a hot topic: “Truth and Lies in Poetry and Memoir.” Karr was a guest lecturer at 412: Creative Nonfiction Festival, and her response was to someone who asked if it was all right to depart from the facts when writing his memoir. Then she told him if he wasn’t going to tell the truth, to market his book as fiction – not fact.
That and many other things Karr said could be helpful to Frey. I personally found Karr’s every word compelling, which was why so many of her comments have returned to me, following the fray over Frey’s book.
“If it’s working right at all, the truth will ambush you,” Karr said.
That’s something every writer of fact – whether a journalist, an essayist or a memoirist – might want to pause to consider. I began working on my memoir about the same time I went into professional journalism. It took me years to complete, but when I was finished, I could look back and realize that, if nothing else, it painted a candid picture of the truth. Sometimes I grimaced at the rawness exposed on its pages. Which may be one reason I haven’t been all that diligent in finding a publisher for it.
Or maybe it was another reason, which Karr also mentioned. “The memoir is the only window into a family that shows the complexity of growing up with people who will let your (butt) down and you will mostly eat Thanksgiving dinner with them.” Maybe, just maybe, those of us with real facts to relate worry about opening that window on our families.
In spite of that, memoirs that are well-written – and which make for good reading – are also complex. Maybe that’s the problem with Frey’s work. Its complexity seemed to prove that the truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Ah, if only that was the case for Frey.
“Memoirists take the events they inherit and attribute meaning to them,” Karr said. There is a difference between taking something you inherit and using it in a productive way, and taking something you inherit and ruining it. I think it’s like taking the good family silver Grandma Nora left, and using it as gardening tools for planning perennials.
Personally, I think Karr is right. A good memoirist gives meaning to the things in his, or her, life. That doesn’t include a license to deliberately change the memories, though. Doing that is what gives memoirs the bad press they are now getting, thanks to Frey.
“Memoir was seen as a low-rent, trash form,” Karr said, in reference to the time period when she wrote The Liar’s Club, adding that this is because “people mistrust the truth of it.”
As a journalist who has always ascribed to the truth, to the facts, to the integrity that’s supposed to be a hallmark of my profession, I think other purveyors of truth might want to take a lesson from that. Think back to 1980, when The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke made up not only the story itself, but even the little eight-year-old in it, when she wrote that he was a heroin addict. It wasn’t until the article won a Pulitzer Prize – which The Post had to return – that the real truth became known. That there was no such story, no such little boy.
Then there’s The Boston Globe’s former award-winning columnist, Patricia Smith, who resigned in June 1998, after admitting she made up quotes for her metro column. Or how about May 2003, when we learned that New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was forced to resign when authorities discovered he not only made up quotes, but he also fabricated entire interviews that never happened?
One of those interviews was supposedly with the father of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the former POW from Palestine, W.Va., just an hour or so south of my Morgantown home. As a journalist, I would have given my eye teeth to interview Lynch or her family. To make up an interview, instead of actually going to Palestine to conduct it, just boggles this reporter’s sense of curiosity.
Speaking of curiosity, there was also Jack Kelley, who resigned in January 2004 after 21 years with USA Today. (An investigation later found that much of what he reported during his long career was fiction.)
All of these examples – the most recent being Frey – could signal cracks in a foundation with much deeper, more serious, structural flaws. Or they could just be a few bad apples. Whatever the case, each and every one of us who depends on the facts for our paycheck, have a more compelling reason to make sure we deliver the truth. Karr summed it up quite nicely.
“I want the reader to trust me,” she said.
So do I, Mary. So do I.
NOTE: For more information about ethics in journalism, see these articles:
“Ethically Challenged” by Lori Robertson
“We Mean Business” by Jill Rosen
“The Perils of Press Arrogance” by David S. Broder
“Stephen Glass: I Lied for Esteem” from CBS News, with Correspondent Steve Croft