Writing the Truth
I remember I bought A Million Little Pieces by James Frey when I spotted it on the best-selling shelf at the Borders over a decade ago and eagerly added to my next-to-read list. However, I never got to read it. About a week later after I had bought it I heard the news that it was a fabricated story. I remember I felt disappointed and mad: what is the point of reading the book now? It has stood on my bookshelf since then, untouched and unread.
The funny thing is I love reading stories made-up and imaginative. Now I wonder if A Million Little Pieces came out as a novel, or even as a semi-autobiographical work, would I read it? Probably yes. I enjoy reading The Cider House Rules by John Irving, in which many elements are based on the life of Irving’s grandfather, among many other great books that have incorporated real-life experiences. I think in James Fray’s case, the publisher’s desire to feed into readers growing appetite for nonfictions back fired. Once the trust is broken between the reader and the writer, the damage is almost impossible to repair. Even though now I know Fray promoted his book as a novel initially, I will still not read it.
As Larson points out in Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs, “Novels purify; memoirs testify”. To testify, truth, and only the truth, must be told; and that is nonfiction writers’ obligation and contract to readers. Writing nonfiction is different, and in many ways more difficult than writing fiction or poetry. One’s memory can be altered through time and one’s perception about other people can be subjective. Details may be lost, dialogues forgotten. For example, when I was writing about my near-death experience of contracting hepatitis at the age of 6, I simply could not recall lots of details. My mom’s memory was the only other source as I could not reach many of the doctors that I had treated me anymore. That piece is still sitting on my need-to-finish folders, with other stories I’d like to tell such as my dad’s unexpected death, growing up in China and coming to the United States and starting all over, while I am searching ways to break the limitation of memoir writing but at the same time to maintain the genre’s integrity.
Essay: Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs
In this essay, Thomas Larson discusses the consequences and the cost of fabricating memoirs.
Article: The Man Who Rewrote His Life
Laura Barton interviews James Frey to discuss the lies he famously told in his memoir.