Critical Mass

Liars’ club


Only two years after the Frey Affair, we seem to have regained our innocence about that slippery genre, the memoir. How else to explain the shock and outrage surrounding the exposure of two more bogus books, Margaret B. Jones&#821#8217;s Love and Consequences and Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years? Jones (also known as Margaret Seltzer) strikes me as a case of Frey Redux: a middle-class dreamer wishing that she inhabited a down-and-dirty annex of Grand Theft Auto. As for Defonseca—well, the fake Holocaust memoir is becoming a genre unto itself. Binjamin Wilkomirski set the bar pretty high with Fragments (1995). But this fantasia, produced by an author who spent the war years in Switzerland, was preceded by Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (1965), which has long since been restickered as a novel rather than a work of autobiography.

In any case, the conversation rages on. Over at Book Babes, NBCC board member Ellen Heltzel admits she was suckered by Seltzer and takes the publishing industry to task for not vetting the merch:

Unbelievably, the book publishing industry is still having a hard time with fact-checking. This, after the public humiliation of the Frey affair and its denouement—all caught on Oprah, with a doyenne of New York publishing, Nan Talese, made to look like she has spent too much time in Manhattan and not enough in the Real World. That event should have scared the pants off of any sober agent or editor repping anyone who claims his or her book is their story. But apparently, no.

Meanwhile, at the newly launched Women on the Web (all of whom wear basic black), there’s a fascinating round robin on the topic of authorial mendacity. Liz Smith gives Frey and all his epigones a free pass:

Almost everything is fiction in any case. I recall that when Oprah put the blocks to James Frey because of his drug exaggerations, I thought her high-handed approach was overbearing. I expected her to give him a gun right there on air and encourage him to commit suicide. I just happen to have loved his book A Million Little Pieces and if he fudged a few things, I don’t care.

Love it or hate it (and on the basis of a cursory inspection, Frey’s book struck me as pathetic twaddle), A Million Little Pieces contains more than a few fudged bits. And some WOTW participants were considerably less forgiving. For example, WSJ columnist and ex-presidential ventriloquist Peggy Noonan applied the truncheon to the very same pack of fabulists. Why, oh why, do they lie to us? Noonan speculated:

Some of them—I mean those who aren’t just barking mad—seem to be operating under the rules of some kind of moral and ethical relativism. “I can make up a story about how painful the lives of the unnoticed, the marginalized, are, and in doing this I will help open the eyes of those who came from comfort, who had it easy. This is a public good.” They weigh their lying against the good they imagine might come of it, and vote for the good, giving themselves an out for lying.

If you just can’t get enough of this debate, you might glance at my coverage of a 2006 NBCC panel, “The Critic and the Memoir.” It included this exchange between moderator Laura Miller and NYTBR kingpin Sam Tanenhaus, who took essentially the same position as Liz Smith:

Miller began with Tanenhaus, whose stubble and consistently creased forehead gave him a Don-Johnson-at-grad-school look. Her question: in the wake of so many memoir-related scandals, was the Book Review changing the way it handled such books? “In a word,” he replied, “no. Obviously it’s a fraught subject. And particularly in the case of James Frey, people want to know why we’re still listing his book as nonfiction.”

Good point, given the author’s carefully documented Munchausen tendencies. But Tanenhaus insisted that the memoir has always been on slippery ground when it comes to verifiable truth. “We begin with the presumption that a memoir is artificial. It’s very much a contrived form,” he argued, enlisting that notorious fibber St. Augustine to prove his point. And if we’re to believe his argument, the distinction is getting blurrier by the day. “What used to be the novel has migrated into the memoir,” he said, and essentially suggested that we throw in the towel on this puppy. “If we didn’t pretend that the factual value of a memoir is so great, then we wouldn’t have this confusion in the first place.” (He did add that the Book Review would “look more deeply into an author’s history” if the book was billed as a “confessional memoir”—but aren’t they all?—and cited Tony Hendra’s controversial Father Joe as an example.)

Epistemology be damned—it’s simply not nice to make your readers feel like a million little putzes. In any case, feel free to read the rest here. And please, pile into the comment thread, giving us adequate time to verify all your statements and review your high-school transcript.