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.