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An Author to Go With It

James Frey and his scandal

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, February 08, 2006.

Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It is sometimes thought a memoir, but it is not. And at the end he writes:

Once, for instance, my father asked me a series of questions that suddenly made me wonder whether I understood even my father whom I felt closer to than any man I have ever known. “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.”

Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?

“Only then will you understand what happened and why.

James Frey, you must know, is a writer who fooled virtually everyone with his book on a life of crime and drug addiction, which he had supposedly overcome. It had been written as a novel, I’ve read, but he was encouraged to make it into an autobiography in order for it to sell, a clue, surely. A few hours in jail became months in prison, and his life is pretty indistinguishable from a lot of teenagers and young men. His rap sheet is a lot closer to Arlo Guthrie’s littering charge than even mine is.

But his career set off a huge controversy about lying, lying in books, knowing deception by publishers, the gullibility of Oprah Winfrey and everyone else who bought into it. Always, concern is voiced for the poor, poor members of the public who were deceived, the dears. We’re shocked - shocked! - that such a thing could happen.

And when I listen to those protesting about Frey’s falsifications, I recall two things. First novels are just about always autobiographic and, secondly, autobiographies are always untrue. A good story needs no justification. If it clicks, it has merit.

I don’t like to dump on Lillian Hellman, a remarkable woman and a great writer, but she was a liar far worse than Mr. Frey. She made up the story Julia, which got made into a heroic movie, and which lionized herself. She was such a liar that an even better writer, Mary McCarthy, called her on it. Hellman sued till the far less rich McCarthy had to fold her tent, but since the death of both, history has proven McCarthy correct. Her brother Kevin, whom I briefly knew, was very bitter about all that, but took some pleasure that time did, indeed, tell. Hellman’s lies were evil and self-promoting and she financially destroyed a fellow writer out of vanity and spite.

Let’s not forget a book called In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbot two decades ago. This book of life in prison so captured the imagination of many American writers, especially Norman Mailer, that the author, a convicted murderer, was put on parole. Since that time, it seems many of Abbot’s prison tales were lies as well, described by other prisoners as the con jobs only the ignorant would think actually happen in prison, and Abbot was just pandering to a vain audience of poseurs – writers – who pretended to a worldly knowledge and human insight they didn’t actually have. And since Abbott killed again while on parole, this had consequences.

A century ago, there were only four types of books that were almost guaranteed not to lose money. First, murder stories. Then, novels in which the heroine is forcibly overcome by the hero in romantic claptrap. Third, spiritualism and the occult, and fourth, books on Lincoln. To compare the centuries, we need to blend popular reading matter into the television shows which replaced the novel to make a valid comparison. And to a large degree, the subject matter is exactly the same for the first three: murder, melodrama, the occult, but fittingly, the Great Emancipator has been replaced by books and shows about, or of interest to, Oprah Winfrey, and these track remarkably close to those subjects of importance to her life: her weight, her sincerely felt obligations as a good citizen, being loved or not. Winfrey may or may not have been deceived, but I don’t think she initially cared, or that the audience really cared.

Was Capote’s In Cold Blood true? Mostly, sorta. But most books on famous murders aren’t true as decades of claptrap about Jack the Ripper or the Black Dahlia murder proves. No book on the occult is true in any sense. Most self-help books are sure to be nonsense, as critics of Dr. Phil, an overweight blowhard whose status puzzles me, continually point out. And the good Doc is a Winfrey protégé. And seriously, who in their right mind believes the memoirs of famous lovers or famous novelists? Hemingway? Hellman?

A good story needs only to be told to have value. Even to atheists, the Christmas story is still meaningful and enlightening. Truth is important, but that’s rarely what people want or, really, expect. They want to see their lives, as lived, held up as an example of goodness and truth by mirrors distant and close. They want validation of their lives and beliefs. And they’ll knowingly listen to lies to get it.

And maybe, now, they understand what happened. And why.