Although our blogging is about children’s books, I feel compelled, after being pummeled with “James Frey Is a Lie” headlines, to address this issue. After all, many a teen addict has read his “memoir”, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and come away with a new respect for the powers of rehab. So, to me it should be considered a “crossover” book, certainly marketed to teens as well as adults.
So, here’s my thing: Does any of Frey’s alleged fabricating matter in the grand scheme of things within the world of literature and entertainment? Nope. We spent a lot of time discussing how autobiographies/memoirs can never really be entirely TRUE in my recent teen novel writing class with the fabulous Valerie Hobbs. Anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 knows that memories are plastic, not perfect. They change. Do we embellish memories of yesterday or ten years ago when relating them to make for a good story? Yes. Do we ever remember things EXACTLY as they happened? Of course not. (This has been proven in multiple studies of witnesses to crimes…my sister, the Public Defender, told me) Does every memoir on the planet have some element of drama added for effect, mixed in with some hazy, imperfect, dream-like memories? Absolutely!
So…James Frey wrote a very entertaining account of a crappy little snippet of his sad life. So, he “lied” to Oprah. Who cares? I’m not condoning lying to anyone, but what human has never lied? Not one, I bet. And what memoirist has not made stuff up? Can you assure me that everything Augusten Burroughs or Dave Eggers has said is true? (Love Dave Eggers, by the way. Seriously, I idolize the guy.) Now, my friend Jay makes a great point in reminding me that James Frey actually made stuff up that contradicted public and police records…okay, not the smartest move. But does the fact that he embellished truths really make his story less heartbreaking or inspiring? I don’t think so. Jay disagrees. He feels “duped”, manipulated into emotionally investing in a dude’s story BECAUSE it was presumably true. Then, to find out most of it is false makes him distrustful and resentful for being roped in.
Which brings me back to my original point (and I did have one). Does it matter that James Frey lied? Not TO ME. To be fair, I totally see why others are angry. No one likes to feel “duped”. People are mad that they bought into the story and felt for this dude, who apparently never had it all that bad. He “Vanilla Iced” us. He
“Milli Vanilli-d” us. But guess what? I’m still entertained. I still love “Ice Ice Baby” and “Girl, You Know It’s True”. You know why? Because they’re fun songs. And James Frey’s a hell of a storyteller. But that’s what he is…a STORY-teller. He’s not a role model. He has no obligation to be completely honest with us. He’s not a journalist, a Priest, a politician (people we assume will tell us the truth…uh, yeah, whatever)…so he made some stuff up. The heart of the story is true.
Guess what book changed my life as an averagely depressive 13 year old girl? GO ASK ALICE, by Anonymous. Marketed as a “real life” diary of a drug addicted 15 year old girl, this teen nonfiction book has been one of the most recommended 8th grade reads for thirty years. Is it all true? No. Did it still entertain me and inspire me to stay far far away from drugs and bad kids? Absolutely! Served its purpose. So, I could not care less if the girl really truly lived on the San Fran streets and ate garbage and got butt-raped by a trusted older couple...among other horrific things...or if someone made it up. It is a fascinating read nonetheless. But that is because I see reading for pleasure as ENTERTAINMENT. Period.
If I really want to learn something, I’ll bust out my old medical textbooks. Come to think of it, a lot of that stuff is based on assumptions and outdated research. Should my PATHOLOGIC BASIS OF DISEASE book be re-labeled “Fiction”?
Note to James Frey’s editor: Just replace the little “Oprah’s Book Club” sticker with a “Based On True Events” sticker, and you’re good to go!
I’m outta here!