Monday, September 18, 2006

Novels versus Memoirs

The day after the Booker shortlist announcement, the Guardian ran an article on the disgraced American author James Frey. For those not familiar with the story, Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, an account of his life as a drug addict, became an all-time best-seller after being chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, but was later exposed by the Smoking Gun website as being semi-fictional, and a discredited Frey was forced to issue an apology (although the book is still selling well, apparently).

In the interview with Laura Barton, Frey makes this claim which tickled the Bitch's antennae: he says that initially he wrote the book as fiction, but that it was turned down by 17 publishers(including Doubleday who eventually published it), all of them asking 'How much of this is true?' and clearly in the market for non-fiction rather than fiction. Barton doesn't manage to ascertain at what stage the book began being touted as non-fiction - whether Frey made the decision himself before re-submitting, or whether the publishers were complicit in the transformation (Frey claims the latter, but his now ex-agent claims to have been duped by him).

Whatever the truth of this particular situation, it's extremely interesting that a fine writer, as Barton assures us he is (I haven't read the book), and a man who apparently longed to be a novelist, feels compelled to allow his work of autobiographical fiction to be launched on the world as a memoir, and exceedingly interesting that non-fiction is what sells now.

Laura Barton speculates that perhaps this latter 'is an indication that we are recoiling from a culture that has grown increasingly synthetic.' Yet, as I have argued before, it is good novels, with their particular universalising power, which are anything but emotionally synthetic, but have the real power of emotional truth. Perhaps the very reason that this book affected so many people so powerfully, was that it was indeed really a novel, with all the novelistic tropes and exaggerations and patterns which can so persuade the emotions.

Oprah claimed that, having identified so closely with the book, readers now felt betrayed. But could it possibly be that readers are in fact easier with the idea of a memoir because the experience in a memoir is safely identifiable as another's, and not our own as a good novel can make it? That the emotion evoked by a memoir is thus easier to handle, more safely sentimental?

And then we come to the Booker shortlist, only one of which I have read, Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. Now this is a book with a very moving story - that of a nine-year-old boy in Gadafy's Libya, with a dissident father under threat of arrest and torture and an unhappy mother driven to illegal drink - and, in view of the current asylum-seekers debate, a story which needs to be told. The thing which strikes me about it, though, is that, like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (which has an interestingly similar cover illustration), it takes the form of a memoir, and to my mind it suffers from that. The narrative is constantly interrupted and slowed down and deprived of dynamism by memories related in the past continuous tense (we used to ...) (or whatever that tense is called nowadays), and towards the end there is a memoir-like filling-in-the-gaps exposition which I found indeed distancing (although the book is then saved by a very moving end).

Interesting that The Observer, reporting on the shortlist on Sunday, felt compelled to point out the parallels between the events of the novel and those of Matar's life, as well as those between Edward St Aubyn's book and life. Why are we so keen nowadays to see an author's life in their books? Cult of personality, as I so often think? Or retreat into the safety of the otherness of memoir?


Anonymous said...

Great post, and very interesting observations of the novel vs the memoir.

As an agent, I feel quite strongly that Frey was shafted by his publisher and agent. Not only must they have known that embellishment was going on, they *did* know - I met an editor at Doubleday who told me, prior to the book's Oprah laurels, that he was sure some of the book wasn't true. It is deeply disingenuous of the professionals closely involved in the book's publication to claim they were duped by Frey, ruthless of them to drop him, and deeply immoral for them to continue to profit from the discredited works which they are merrily doing.

Anonymous said...

Too right. And anyway, what ever happened to reading the book as a book? Even if it's 'true', a book is first and foremost a construct, made up of deliberately chosen and juxtaposed incidents.

Shocking that the professionals have scapegoated him, for sure. And, in a different way, shocking that the media, literary press and reading world are so unsophisticated.

Anonymous said...

Katy: how do you mean, unsophisticated? Do you mean naive to be so easily fooled, or stupid not to understand that fiction and non-fiction are fluid and overlapping? It does seem that authors are being held to the standards of the law courts, while they plead the right to tell the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I don't really mind, plus I thought Frey's book was terribly over-written anyway, but I do think publishers should stand by their man - or at least stop profiting hypocritically from someone they morally repudiate.

Anonymous said...

hm, I am really interested in this subject. I just wrote a novel which is 85% true experience and its suffering from the Frey syndrome, getting rejected because it "would be better as memoir". So I'm Googling around and stumbled on your blog. Fiction Bitch, how can you possibly be a fiction bitch and NOT have read Frey's book? You lost me when you casually tossed this into your post. Read the book, the write your posts on fiction versus memoirs, because the landscape of publishing changed dramatically and importantly at the the point when Frey admitted he'd changed and fabricated certain events in A Million Little Pieces and yes it is a good book, a very modern book all the more for its messy "real life" history...