Sunday, September 20, 2009

Truth or Fiction? The Conflation of Genre

Some of the most powerful books I have read over the past years surf the uneasy line between fiction and fact. These are books that have become renowned specifically as a result of their ambiguous trajectory. Books around which controversy has spun a web of intrigue so thick that the authors involved have been lucky to emerge relatively unscathed, personal and professional lives altered but intact.

Last year a strange thing happened in my workplace. Out of nowhere a pile of dog-eared paperbacks appeared in our ‘break-out’ space, lining the windowsills in a haphazard manner. Correctly surmising that these were on their way out, headed for the tip unless someone rescued them, I pounced immediately, picking from the rabble at least one treasure – a well-thumbed copy of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

I had heard of this book. Notably, in an earlier life, a freer life, a life in which I had the time and inclination to watch daytime TV, I had watched an Oprah episode during which James Frey appeared to promote his memoir. I have since learnt that the Oprah episode I watched was the first of two featuring Frey. The second would be very different from the first.

On the episode I watched, Oprah – and her audience – purported to be blown away by the raw authenticity of Frey’s writing. A Million Little Pieces is the story of a 23-year-old man whose out-of-control drug and alcohol addictions have destroyed his life and his body, probably irrevocably. He enters a rehab centre in the knowledge that a relapse will mean almost certain death. His journey towards redemption is fraught with gut-wrenching pain, the development of intense personal relationships, and an unflinching honesty which draws the readers in, totally absorbed. And the book’s real drawcard is the fact that the protagonist is Frey himself.
I couldn’t put the book down. Apparently, neither could Oprah.

Frey won great accolades for the book. The editors at picked it as their favourite book of 2003. The New York Times gave it a rave review. Readers all over America and the globe spoke in awe of this most truthful account of drug addiction and rehabilitation. Frey’s genuine confrontation with pain lent awareness to an issue affecting thousands, millions of people the world over.

In late 2005 / early 2006 investigators discovered that significant elements of Frey’s memoir were untrue. Controversy erupted. Readers felt duped. Frey’s literary manager dropped him. Oprah invited him back on her show in order to ask him a series of accusatorial questions. During the show she told him – point blank – that she felt betrayed. In front of a live-TV audience and hundreds of thousands of at-home viewers, Frey was forced to list the inaccuracies in his book, and to justify every departure from the truth.

Readers subsequently launched a lawsuit against Frey’s publishing house, seeking a refund because the book was not what it had claimed to be. They were outraged.

I knew all of this when I started reading A Million Little Pieces, and I picked up the book as a result of the controversy, not in spite of it. What blew me away while I was reading it was Frey’s ability to write in a manner so honest that the story appears to be unerringly true. Had I not known otherwise, I would have been utterly convinced the book was indeed a memoir. Surely, I thought to myself, the power to write so convincingly is itself an extraordinary gift? The book is fast-paced, gripping, exciting – the alteration of facts makes no difference to the authenticity of Frey’s writing. I was 100% hooked.

A couple of years ago I read another book, equally honest, equally controversial. Nikki Gemmel’s The Bride Stripped Bare is erotic fiction at its best. A bored housewife turns to adulterous liaisons with various strangers - including a beautiful virgin - in an effort to re-invigorate her monotonous (but outwardly satisfactory) suburban life.

The novel was published anonymously. Only after publication did the British press unearth Nikki Gemmel as the author. The frankness of her treatise on women’s sexuality became, with her identification, all at once a controversy of the strangest kind – readers across the world were convinced, once she was found out, that Gemmel’s book was not, after all, a novel, but a memoir. Surely, critics reasoned, there would be no need for anonymity unless Gemmel had something real to hide. And she was, after all, married, a housewife, a mother. Just like her protagonist.
The authenticity sought by Frey’s readers, Gemmel’s readers projected onto her, even though her book was classified as fiction. Such perversity. Are we so much more willing to believe the worst of our writers?

In explaining her wish to write anonymously, Gemmel has said that it is difficult for women to write honestly about sexuality, even in our post-feminist world. She says she views anonymity as liberation, particularly for women writers, and cites Virginia Woolf as saying about women that “anonymity runs in their blood – the desire to be veiled still possesses them.” Gemmel has also said that honesty is the most shocking thing of all – a truth she has experienced first-hand since her own unveiling as author of The Bride.

If honesty is so shocking, why was it more upsetting for readers to discover that James Frey was not entirely honest? Why is it so astonishing to find that writers – whose role, one could argue, is precisely to spark controversy, discussion, debate in society – have subverted traditional notions of genre, blurring the line between fact and fiction, in order to provoke? Isn’t that, in fact, what we should demand of them?


  1. Thank you. You're one of the first get what I actually do, or want do.

  2. Big Jim... I am honoured you stopped by. Love your work.

  3. Readers resent having their emotions manipulated. It is like the moment you realise you have been played by an insincere lover.

    The degree of resentment varies according to which emotions are manipulated. The victims of HG Well's sham radio play are likely to be less scarred than those who have invested love or empathy in a deception. Part of it is anger at themselves. Committing your most precious feelings and giving part of yourself to a fraud impairs your ability to fully do so again.

    If you read such a work while being aware of the deception, or of the possibility of deception, the emotional investment is different and the damage not nearly as great.