Fiction, Non Fiction, Stories and Lies
Welcome to the genre wars. Today's New York Times makes a big deal deal of Oprah Winfrey's confrontation with James Frey about his book A Million Little Pieces. It seems that Mr. Frey made up parts of the story and, horror of horrors, told his publisher and Ms. Winfrey that it was all true. Ms. Winfrey, assuming that she read the book, believed the story, accepted it as a true, first person account, promoted it, and pushed the book onto the New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller list. All of this promotion has gotten Mr. Frey some great advances and a deal for some additional books. And it's gotten him kicked out of Ms. Winfrey's book club.
I guess the drinking beer, telling lies, exaggerating, making up improbable stories and denying that they're made up genre has fallen into grave disrepute. Will there be no more fish stories? No more tall stories? No more yarns? No more Paul Bunyan? No more bullshit? Well, probably in your local saloon or locker room or at the water cooler, where I hope these all continue to be practiced, if not revered. But maybe not any longer at the bookstore.
It's not that Frey's is a bad story. It's really a believable, moving one. But instead, the issue has something to do with the writer's obligation not to straddle genres, not to mislead. The obligation not to assume a personna as narrator. There will be no more faction (fact plus fiction). There will be no more apocrypha. And why? Because the fuss isn't as much about the story as about who the author really is.
That matters, I suppose, because we're not just reading stories, now we're marketing celebrity. We should know better. We should stick to the writing.
Two quick examples. First, we have Jack Henry Abbott, who thoroughly conned Norman Mailer into making him a literary celebrity for writing In the Belly of the Beast, only to commit another homicide. The book, it appears, was made up of well honed lies for the unimprisoned gullible. And then we have Marlo Morgan, whose book Mutant Message Down Under was initially released as nonfiction, only to be later released as fiction when it was discovered that, oops, she didn't have a walkabout in Australia, she just made it all up. Are either of these books any better or any worse because they were works of fiction masquerading as fact? I don't think so. In fact, I like them both.
Apparently, real mystery, whether the story is true or made up, whether the author is really who he or she says she is, is no longer acceptable. And that's a shame. Oprah wants publishers to make sure that nonfiction books aren't just great stories. I suspect that it matters to her only because she's about the big business of marketing celebrity, and not really about whether the story, be it true or false, works.
Personally, I'm not altogether completely confident about my ability to differentiate between what's "real" and what's made up, and I'm not sure that it even matters. I like it that way. There's mystery. There's a choice about what I believe is the nature of "reality." I don't completely believe my own stories or anyone else's. I like that the improbable, events at the edge of common acceptance might be true (or not). The Lankavatara Sutra is entirely correct when it says, "Things are not as they appear, nor are they otherwise."
At any rate, I don't think we need the nonfiction police to make sure that books are appropriately shelved.