Friday, November 13, 2009

Is a story just a story?

Recently, former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, addressed the W&L Journalism Ethics Institute for its 48th anniversary. This prompted a debate around the water cooler and on blogs and made its way to discussions on news programs. For, if you remember, Blair resigned from the New York Times in 2003 following an investigation that found he had plagiarized and fabricated a lot of the stories he had written for the paper. Some of his reporting was on the Iraq war and the Beltway sniper attacks. It was understandable that people were surprised that Blair would be addressing the Journalism Ethics Institute because we trust reporters to tell us the truth. We don’t expect them to fabricate or edit stories to make them more entertaining, as Blair did.

What about memoir authors who fabricate stories? James Frey and the debacle involving A Million Little Pieces comes to mind. Frey received a lot of attention from his book when it was published--Oprah praised him, A Million Little Pieces was in a million little bookstores, everyone talked highly of this new talented writer. But upon investigation, Frey’s story was proven to be inaccurate in parts, and some readers who had once been fans of the memoir wanted their money back.

Some authors don’t really care about the difference between fiction and nonfiction. A story might just be a story. But is it unfair to truthful memoir writers when an author, such as James Frey, fabricates tales to sell books? Does it prove that Frey is a talented writer that we believed his tales? Or is it infuriating to have loved a book as a memoir and find parts of it to be complete fiction?

How much tweaking should be allowed in memoirs to make them entertaining these days, and do you care about the difference between fiction and nonfiction storytelling?


-Rachel

11 comments:

  1. They need to change how they bill them, maybe fictional memoir? Thirty years of names, details, and dates are not always easy to remember...especially if you've done a lot of drugs/drinking. It doesn't make the volume less interesting to me.

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  2. There has been a perception that memoir sells better than fiction. My guess is that is inaccurate, but either way, a book should be marketed as what it is. My books, CRANK and GLASS are marketed as fiction, though the stories therein are 65% true. I fictionalized details, made composites of some of the real players, etc. Never would I have tried to market the books as memoir.

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  3. This is a really timely post for what I've been discussing on my own blog in regard to Myth. The line between fiction, history, and truth is very difficult and very fine. Sometimes it gets lost. Especially with history--and that's really what Memoir is. An historical record. But honestly, no history is really true. It's all about the point of view, and what "side" is being told. It has never been about the facts, not truly. Textbooks are written by the winners. If the government and historians can pitch the truth from their personal angles, why should we be surprised that journalists do it too? How can we expect them NOT to taint the truth?

    Now, I'll agree that it's one thing to taint your story/truth accidentally with your perspective and leanings, and it's another thing altogether to fabricate whole portions for dramatic purposes. Maybe THAT is the very fine line between Memoir/Journalism and Fiction. How much of it is done purposely.

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  4. A novel labeled as "based on a true story" (or not) is just as appealing to me as something on the nonfiction shelves, as long as it's a good story.

    On the other hand, if I found that news stories I'd read had been fabricated, heavily embellished or plagiarised, I'd lose faith in that writer and possibly the publication; I would no longer be a reader. I want my news to be accurate, but memoir? --I'm fine with a bit of 'storytelling' there.

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  5. I heard that Frey originally tried to sell his story as fiction but was persuaded that a non- fiction label would make it more popular with readers. While it was wrong of him to go along with this, whoever encouraged him to lie should bear some responsibility too. A story like this, however compelling, should not be billed as a memoir when it is fiction; it isn't fair to any readers who look to it as inspiration to break addictive behaviors. The fact that Frey lied about it doesn't diminish his story-telling ability, but what he did was still wrong.

    Most authors of memoirs distort the truth a little. James Herriot's veterinary memoirs were largely cobbled together of things that did happen to him, but he played around a lot with sequences. It doesn't make them any less fun to read.

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  6. I think major categories of contemporary memoir have developed that separate those written by persons of politics, business, celebrity, and the postmodern confessional.

    The postmodern confessional transcends journalism. It fuses objective memory, the affect of environment on perseption, and time in a subjective narrative. The result is an account of personal journey rather than a record of events. It is non-fiction literature.

    I think a lot of tweaking is tolerable in a personal memoir unless it defames the character of anyone mentioned or alluded to by the author or the author is a political or business figure.

    If James Frey made up events then his Little Pieces is fiction based upon a true story. If the events happened and the only complaint is that his account is subjective then I think it is a postmodern memior.

    Enhancing non-fiction by using fiction techniques, e.g. juxtopositing the accounts and motives of two or more witnesses to an event in order to add suspense or find the conflict, does not violate the integrity of the 5-Ws. It is journalism. It makes people care about the story.

    Jayson Blair fabricated facts. As you say, that is not journalism. It is fiction.

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  7. In his memoir "The Night Of The Gun," James Carr, who by the way got jerked around plenty by Blair, wrote, "All of which is not to say that every word of this book is true--all human stories are subject to errors of ommission, fact, or interpretation--only that it is as true as I could make it."

    Frey lied a bit. Blair lied a lot. Margaret Selzer lied her ass off and the Rosenblatts lied theirs' off.

    "Fictional memoir"? Not if it's supposed to be pretty damn close to the truth.

    There's nothing "postmodernist" about lies and liars. If you enjoy good writing, fine. Do you want to be lied to?

    Frey, Blair, Selzer, the Rosenblatts--they didn't even try to come close to what Carr wrote. Of reporting, John McPhee said, "You arrange it. You don't make it up." McPhee and Carr knew where the line is. So do most people.

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  8. I am totally OK with "based on a true story" being slapped on a novel, which is what I think James Frey should have done in the first place. I quite like books based on true stories because it keeps me guessing what is fabricated and what isn't. I actually find that more interesting than a truthful memoir.

    I am not OK with journalists fabricating stories in the name of entertainment. Journalists have a commitment to tell the truth and I won't tolerate being lied to. For me, I don't feel news is for entertainment, it is for learning the truth (in my Pollyanna view of the world).

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  9. I heard it explained once that a memoir is based on true stories, but we as humans cannot possibly remember every single possible little detail. So we make a little up.

    I think the trick is to keep the essential facts, events, or driving forces accurate, but is what the actual meal was for dinner on this particular night important? Unless it has some direct bearing on the story, probably not (such as my brother started flinging peas across the table, which splattered the wall and stained it green until we moved out of the house - that's important). The fact that you were just eating a meal is probably far more important. But we as readers appreciate details, so tell us you had meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and corn.

    The made-up portion is realistic in that it fits the flow of the story, and what the protagonist would/could do in a particular situation, but it may not be precisely accurate.

    Frankly, I read books based more upon their impact (what I can learn/gain) than what the genre is. My area of expertise is more in YA, so it is usually fiction. But I have read outstanding fiction, non-fiction, memoir, and everything in between in adult and YA. Its label makes no difference to me.

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  10. A work stands or stumbles on its own merits.

    Don't judge a book by its cover--or category.

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  11. This is the very reason i did so poorly in my creative non fiction classes - i just couldn't bring myself to tweak the truth of events to make them more entertaining.

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