By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Literary truth and literal truth

There is no “controversy” over James Frey’s admission that his book “A Million Little Pieces” is not the nonfiction memoir he had claimed it to be; only the exposure of a literary crime. There’s been a voluminous amount of commentary since last week. Michiko Kakutani’s, in today’s New York Times, is especially good.

Bloviation over whether a memoir has to be entirely true is especially troubling because, at root, nonfiction — whether it’s memoir, history, biography or social science — is a form of journalism, or at least its first cousin. If it isn’t true, it’s worthless, regardless of its literary merits. (I’m not talking about an inadvertent error or two. I’m talking about intent.)

Several years ago I published my one and, so far, only book — a nonfiction work on the culture of dwarfism that combined social criticism, interviews, medical and science journalism, historical research and, yes, memoir. Titled “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes” (that’s where the memoir comes in), it is currently out of print, although I have some hopes for a paperback edition.

Readers can like what I wrote or not. But the one promise I made every effort to deliver on was that “Little People” would be a work of nonfiction. I taped hours upon hour of interviews. I kept reconstructed quotes from years past to a minimum, and explained their limits in the footnotes. When my editor asked for more of our daughter, Becky’s, voice, I didn’t try to rely on the vagaries of memory. Rather, I sat down with Becky — who was 10 at the time — and told her exactly what I was up to. She could have cooperated or not. Fortunately, she wanted to do it, and we had our first serious conversation about her dwarfism. With a tape recorder rolling.

There are so many authors trying to do it right that it’s depressing to see someone like Frey succeed by cheating. The diminution of trust that accompanies such a revelation harms all of us — readers and, of course, writers, who have a hard enough time getting published and noticed as it is.

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  1. Anonymous

    Frey should be ostracized for his indisciminate use of Capital Letters alone.And we shouldn’t let Oprah off the Fraud Hook very quickly, either.

  2. John Farrell

    Dan, well written. And heartelt!

  3. Anonymous

    Dan.I guess the author saw the success of such non-fiction best-sellers such as “Unfit for Command”, “Plan of Attack”, and anything by Malkin and Coulter and thought those rules were NULL AND VOID. It’s really getting very hard to believe anything fits in the non-fiction category. Journalist are opinionist. Politicians are Marketers. I suppose complaining about the veracity of a book written by a drug addled addict seems a little strong when America has given a pass to the power addled addicts.

  4. Anonymous

    I trust the veracity of the news in the Globe. It’s the stuff that DOESN’T get in that troubles me.

  5. Anonymous

    Dear Dan, I heard a email or phone comment on NPR that said “consider it [Million Pieces] for what it’s worth – it’s the memoir of a confessed drug addict, not a competent historian”. Her point being, why should we expect the (on the wagon now) addict to correctly remember facts from when he was strung out? Perhaps it is not unreasonable for there to be a different standard for non-fiction books by professional authors — academics and journalists and even hack authors — and those by amateurs about their own pitiful lives. Your book has bits of memoir, and may be excused for not achieving full detachment due to your closeness to the subject, but it is recognizably professionally written. Autobiographies of criminals and crackheads are not.[full disclosure, I share that closeness to Dan’s subject, there’s a chapter on MY sister in Dan’s book.]Similarly, I don’t see how filing this Memoir in Non-Fiction would demean your fine book by contagion. Perhaps the public would be better served if it contained a warning label “may contain upto 2% False Memories”, but it’s still an attempt at Non-Fiction. Heck, would such a warning label on Henry the K’s or any other politician’s self-serving memoir be only 2%? TV and NewsPaper news reports of events I’m personally familiar with can’t hit 98%.– Bill R

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