Fiction, Nonfiction, What's the Dif?


In response to a Smoking Gun exposé showing that important parts of James Frey's best-selling "memoir" of addiction and redemption, A Million Little Pieces, were fabricated or heavily embellished, his publishers say, basically, so what? Yesterday Doubleday and Anchor Books, which published the hardcover and paperback editions, respectively, issued this statement:

Memoir is a personal history whose aim is to illuminate, by way of example, events and issues of broader social consequence. By definition, it is highly personal. In the case of Mr. Frey, we decided "A Million Little Pieces" was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections. Recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers.

In other words, whether or not Frey's account is literally true, it reflects a deeper truth. Which is fine, except that sort of book is usually called a "novel," as opposed to a "memoir," a term that indicates the events described by the author actually, you know, happened. In this case, the book's main selling point was its truth, as opposed to its literary qualities. After Frey sold the manuscript to Doubleday, he told The New York Times last month, "we were in discussions…as to whether to publish it as fiction or as nonfiction." But "when Doubleday decided to publish the book as nonfiction, Mr. Frey said, he did not have to change anything. 'It was written exactly as it was published,' he said."

Although "Mr. Frey asserted that he had presented his publishers with extensive written records of his time in an addiction-treatment center, as well as medical records and other documentation," writes Edward Wyatt in today's Times, Doubleday and Anchor's "statement that the book is supposed to be 'true to his recollections' implies that the publishers did little or no checking." Wyatt points to "the gap that has emerged between book publishing and the rest of the media, which in recent years have been under increasing scrutiny over the accuracy of their reporting." (Yes, he mentions the Jayson Blair scandal at his own paper.)

I'm not sure there's anything new about this gap. It's certainly not a development that has occurred just "in recent years." Based on my experience as a reader and an author (with two different publishers, both reputable), I'd say nonfiction publishers routinely do "little or no checking," beyond copyediting and vetting for libel. To judge from his own account and the reviews I've read (I haven't read the book), Frey did not get much of the former. As for the latter, it sounds like Frey avoided potential lawsuits by disguising people's identities (although that precaution is not noted in the book) and/or describing people who are, by his account, no longer with us (assuming they existed to begin with).

Avoiding libel lawsuits and telling the truth are, in any case, by no means the same thing. That's especially true when, as in this case, the fabrications mostly paint the author, as opposed to a possibly litigious acquaintance, in a negative light. But even with run-of-the-mill nonfiction, readers should not assume that any asserted facts have been independently verified unless they are potentially libelous. For the most part, they have to trust the author, which is what book publishers generally seem to do. After publication, of course, accuracy can be checked against other sources, and The Smoking Gun has done an admirable, dogged job of that with Frey's book. But as the article notes, with memoirs there's only so much that can be checked, and the rest you have to take on faith.