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The Unforgivable Half Truths of Memoir

A decade since James Frey's memoir was exposed, we're still addicted to fiction packaged as truth.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Ten years ago this month, the name James Frey became a byword for autobiographical malfeasance when the website The Smoking Gun revealed what discerning readers already knew: His memoir A Million Little Pieces, about overcoming drug addiction, was a fusillade of lies. As the fallout commenced and the spectacle flared, one waited for the salient point to be emphasized: only half the scandal should have been over Frey’s fabrications. The other half should have been over his faultless inability to make friends with English sentences. Frey had lots of work to do before he could have been considered even a bad writer.

As a culture we’re not much interested in the booming inanity of a bestseller’s prose. What matters to us is a true story, and so it was Frey’s brazen mendacity that snared our attention. And of course we delighted in seeing him meet ruin, one brought on by what seemed his own machismo, hubris, and greed. It’s virtually a law of nature that we should applaud when the popular and powerful engineer their own demise. The only people who don’t applaud such a demise are among those who share in the popularity and power, since they must be uneasily aware of how tenuous their own perches are. But we are each of us, to one degree or another, vulnerable to such uncovering; every public persona is a put-on. The British rogue writer Willie Donaldson once imparted this snippet of wisdom:

The version of ourselves we present to the world bears no resemblance to the truth. If we knew the truth about each other we could take no one seriously. There isn’t one of us who could afford to be caught. That’s all life is. Trying not to be found out.

When Frey was found out, he indeed deserved to swing, but he shouldn’t have been the only one swinging. A book doesn’t arrive in the world by its author alone. Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese, was equally culpable in the duping; by her own admission, she didn’t vet the manuscript, and this despite the fact that Frey had originally attempted to peddle the book as a novel. That’s all you need to know about our literary coordinates in this country: As a novel, A Million Little Pieces didn’t measure up, but as a memoir it was tagged with the usual clichés, “brutally honest” and such. Then and now readers prefer memoirs to novels as they cling to the philistine belief that nonfiction is truer than fiction. Let’s not forget Oscar Wilde’s quip in his essay “The Critic as Artist”: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Fiction is that mask.

Of course Oprah Winfrey was in her own mechanistic way responsible for the Frey ruckus. If she and her mafia had been more literate—if they hadn’t been so hell-bent on hawking to the public a “true” tale of uplift and deliverance, so eager to applaud the exhausted memoir formula of confession and redemption, of travesty en route to triumph—they might have been able to detect the deceit that wafts from the opening lines of Frey’s story. They were somehow okay believing that he was allowed to board a commercial fight without a ticket or wallet, with a broken nose, swollen eyes, and clothes “covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.”

Every book is true or false in its sentences before it’s true or false in its facts. That’s part of what Wilde means in his essay “The Decay of Lying” when he suggests that the “truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.” Near the beginning of Frey’s book, you’ll find this line: “We pull into the Parking Lot and park the car and I finish a bottle and we get out and we start walking toward the Entrance of the Clinic.” That short and seemingly innocuous line has four things wrong with it, not including the faux immediacy of its present tense. First you see the garish and ill-fit upper cases, then you hear the accidental clang of “parking” and “park,” then you realize that the run-on is trying and failing to summon early Hemingway, and then once more, for good measure, you are walloped by ill-fit upper cases. The style, in other words, is trying to distract you from Frey’s deceit: Nothing in the sentence is true, even if everything is a fact. (In his own memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway spoke of “the one true sentence,” and he wasn’t referring to facts—he was referring to style.) Shrewd businesswomen indifferent to the deceit of style, Winfrey and Talese understood that the public wanted its fix, and their emerging unbruised from the scandal they helped create goes to show how much we need our dealers, and how disposable writers, bad and good, really are in the eyes of the public.

Frey might have been desperate to publish his first book any way he could, or he might have consented to gain from the public’s appetite for the sentimentality of modern confession, but he didn’t invent the odious market forces that allow such books to prosper. Anyone who’s tried to write a memoir knows that the temptation to embellish or invent in the name of “story,” or in the service of the sensational, is always present and never weak. The more you look into what researchers are learning about the fallibility of memory—its inherent loops and lacunae, its disruptions, deprivations, deletions—the more the memoir as a genre seems downright suspect. Recall how G. B. Shaw began his own self-history: “All autobiographies are lies. I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies. I mean deliberate lies.”

That insight became the blueprint for what is so far the smartest, most compelling American memoir of our century: Lauren Slater’s Lying. Subtitled A Metaphorical Memoir, Slater’s book recounts her ostensibly unremarkable life—a Jewish middle-class upbringing in Boston, an autocratic and delusional mother, a slack-spined father, the volcanic effects of those first sexual stirrings—through the magnifying lens of epilepsy, a disorder she never had. Slater employs epilepsy as the manifestation of her convulsive selfhood, as “a clenched metaphor, a way of telling you what I have to tell you: my tale”—a tale told from that realm where so many of our lives unfurl, between imagination and fact. And in that gutsy employment of metaphor, Lying becomes the truest memoir you’ll ever read. The chief difference between it and A Million Little Pieces is one between artistic assertion and deliberate deception.

“I dislike modern memoirs,” said Wilde. “They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering”—hence the urge to fabrication. After that typically Wildean insight, he goes on to mention the sixteenth-century Florentine artist Benvenuto Cellini, author of the magisterial Autobiography. Cellini’s book begins with this: 

All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand; but they ought not to attempt so fine an enterprise till they have passed the age of forty.

Those words should crouch like a dragon at the gate for anyone attempting to enter the land of autobiography. When Cellini advises us to wait until after forty to embark on “so fine an enterprise,” he means, among other things, that most of us need that long to acquire a selfhood and to see ourselves as we really are.

Cellini’s book reads like a chivalric romance penned by the most self-confident creator who ever lived—Shaw called him a “braggart.” As a late-Renaissance polymath, audacious artist, political mover, and rooster of appetites who could have kept pace with Casanova himself, Cellini had lofty standards for what he calls “excellence.” He would not have valued the therapeutic preciousness of so many of our contemporary memoirs, those yarns of twenty- and thirty-something wastrels schlepping from lost to found, tales which present the rather strange case of sweeping the dirt on top of the rug—what in a similar context Robert Lowell once dubbed “the raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience . . . dished up for midnight listeners.”

The apotheosis of such unseasoned experience, the presumption that everybody’s life is a dazzling memoir waiting to be written: that begins to get at the crux of the issue. In his 1940 essay “The Cult of Experience in American Writing,” Philip Rahv had this to say: “Bare experience is still the leitmotif of the American writer,” one that is “virtually exhausted,” denuded of revelation. “This inventory,” he wrote, “this initial recognition and expression of oneself and one’s surroundings, is all but complete now, and those who persist in going on with it are doing so out of mere routine and inertia.” In our literature of the 1930s, Rahv saw the emergence of a distinction between public experience and private experience: “American literature has tended to make too much of private life, to impose on it, to scour it for meanings that it cannot always legitimately yield.” What is sacrificed in a literature primarily of the private life? A literature of the political and spiritual life, a life of the mind and soul in reciprocity with society and history—a literature of ideas.

Rahv’s cult of experience has morphed into a cult of self-expression, the piety that ensures us how unique we all are while going out of its way to ignore how some are much more unique than others. For children and teens, self-expression is crucial. For writers, self-expression won’t do. Emotive personality is not enough. Eliot suggests something of this in his well-known dictum at the close of his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” The critic Northrop Frye, in a lovely little book called The Educated Imagination, was convinced that “there is really no such thing as self-expression in literature.”

Self-expression is simple, the heart’s knee-jerk uttering at midday. Art happens in the act of self-assertion, the marshaling of one’s complete selfhood, the imaginative alliance of spirit, mind, and heart that allows for a fresh style of seeing. The average memoir is at the fore of the kindergartening of American letters, wherein Emersonian self-reliance becomes salubrious self-expression. 

In A Certain World, what Auden proposes about the poet applies to all writers: “What the poet has to convey is not ‘self-expression,’ but a view of reality common to all, seen from a unique perspective.” In that same passage, Auden quotes Augustine: “The truth is neither mine nor his nor another’s; but belongs to us all whom Thou callest to partake of it, warning us terribly, not to account it private to ourselves, lest we be deprived of it.”

The Western autobiographical tradition starts with Augustine. In his Confessions, to confess does not mean a self-glorification dressed up as gaudy, pretended self-debasement—all that vaunting humility in the midst of another identity crisis—but rather a surrender, a giving over of the self to an eminence, an Other, in an effort to achieve the searing of grace. Our current conception of the self as clay for any literary molding might have been inaugurated by a different Confessions (Rousseau’s autobiography was published in 1782), but it wasn’t codified until the nineteenth century. The Romantics, you suspect, would have rapidly run out of things to write about if they couldn’t have written about themselves, their own revolutionary subjectivity in apprehension of the sublime. In an 1805 letter, sent after he finished his autobiographical epic The Prelude, Wordsworth referred to “a thing unprecedented in literary history that a man should talk so much about himself.” And we writers have been talking about ourselves ever since; we are, it seems, pretty good at it.

In Augustine, Rousseau, and Wordsworth, you are confronted by capacious minds asking Who am I? and How did I become me? whereas in many of our most popular contemporary memoirs—Running with Scissors, or Eat, Pray, Love, or the wildly derivative Wild, each one a writer’s view without a worldview—you are assailed by hearts wailing Here is how I feel about what happened to me. Part of what’s missing is historical awareness, a cognizance of the self as an agent in history and society. I don’t mean that Augustine reads like ancient history because he wrote in ancient history, but that he’s always awake to a continuum of past, present, and future, a continuum in which his life has meaning.

Despite Rousseau’s frequent bluster—“I am not made like any one I have met, perhaps like no one in existence”—his self and his story are positioned on the egoless sprawl of literature and culture. Rousseau isn’t expressing himself; he’s expressing a century. Rahv referred to “a lack of a sense of extremity and many-sided involvement which explains the peculiar shallowness of a good deal of American literary expression,” and “extremity” there means the extremity of spirit and mind that marks an Augustine or Rousseau, a “many-sided involvement” that comprehends the self as a member of something much grander than the personal and the obvious.

Next to its fabrications and its prose, what’s wrong with Frey’s book is precisely what’s wrong with so many: “Their art ends exactly where it should properly begin,” Rahv wrote of 1930s literature, by which he suggested that personal experience should be only the “substructure of literature” on which a writer erects an edifice of “values, ideas, and judgments.” The trick is to keep personal experience from unwittingly becoming the antithesis of imagination, which is how Lauren Slater’s Lying achieves its splendor. It helps, too, to be in possession of an unassailable intelligence and dignity, of the sort you see in Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, in Morris Dickstein’s Why Not Say What Happened? and in poet-mortician Thomas Lynch’s staggering personal essays in The Undertaking.

In the decade since the James Frey fiasco, social media has turned untold people into hourly memoirists in miniature. We live now in a culture of incessant confession, obsessive self-discovery—a nonstop spelunking into empty caves. The absurdly named “confessional poets” of the mid-twentieth century—Lowell and Berryman, Sexton and Roethke—look a touch constipated compared to your average Facebooker. How eagerly lives become doggerelized. What does it mean for the memoir as a form now that everyone, at any time, can instantaneously advertise his life to everyone else? Mailer never dreamed of such advertisements for the self.

Memoirists should be continually reaffirming to themselves their own principles. In this new ethos of endless self-advertisement, the memoir assumes a renewed responsibility, one that exceeds confessionalism. Social media can never be more than a schizoid manner of memoirizing your life, a scrapbooking and collaging that rarely amounts to more than an onslaught of the inconsequential. In a 1986 essay, Kingsley Amis wrote that “at a time when anything may be published there is a particular duty to be responsible.” Amis was reprehending the novelist’s use of vivid sexual description, but you see how his whistle to responsibility pertains here. Astute readers are outright skeptical of autobiography: Who wants more puerile confession and feel-good self-discovery, bloody sheets pinned to the clothesline, when in our tabloidal culture that’s all we get? 

Readers of memoir understand that total accuracy is not possible; they ask only for no calculated distortions. They ask for a moral reckoning, morality fertilized in style, and for imaginative assertions that do not contradict the facts. The onus is on autobiography to be more trustworthy, more discerning and dignified, artful and interior, built of a perception that reverses the ordinary, that strives into the accuracy and surprise of language, unafraid of sounding the fathoms of the soul.