Two articles in the New York Times yesterday examined hugely popular memoirs that are proving to be fake. James Frey’s A Million LIttle Pieces is his story about his addiction and rehab efforts, told in excruciating, heartwrenching detail. (I read it and really enjoyed it.) Oprah chose it for her book club and it has been read by millions. It really is one heck of a story, and is very well told. But is it true? The evidence is piling up that it is not. Frey himself admitted he embellished details “for obvious dramatic reasons.”
And then there is the case of JT Leroy. The Times article said he was “young truck-stop prostitute who had escaped rural West Virginia for the dismal life of a homeless San Francisco drug addict” who is HIV positive. It was claimed that Leroy, with the help of a married couple, Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop, turned his life around and wrote three well-received novels based on his painful experiences. (I have not read any of Leroy’s work.) Evidence is now mounting that JT Leroy is a completely made up person and the books were written by Laura Albert herself. The person who appears in public (in dark glasses, a hat and wig) claiming to be Leroy, is actually Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey’s half sister.
These people really fry me. Why? The authors are lying. They are not content to let their work stand on it’s own. They have both dreamed up horrific backstories to make their work “more real” – grittier, and thus make their achievement of writing a decent book seem all the more astounding. It is a slap in the face of those people who really have endured the kinds of lives that these fakers are pretending to have gone through. And it is an insult to the reading public, a con.
I’ve been uneasy with the memoir genre for a long time, and Frey’s unveiling in particular, confirms the reasons for my uneasiness. Most authors (including me) use bits and pieces of their life as ingredients for their writing. But the point of writing fiction is that you make a bunch of stuff up. You find dramatic embellishments in your imagination. Memoirists like Frey want it both ways. They are too lazy to dream up an original story, so they lean heavily on the details of their own life. But they know that their life is truly not interesting enough for a book contract, so they throw in bits of fiction and pretend it is all true.
I guess I’m a purist. I love biographies. I love novels. When I’m reading them, I want to know where reality ends and imagination begins. I don’t like being conned.