Over at Video Dog they have a series of clips from Oprah’s interview with James Frey. Frey literally squirms. He and Oprah dance around the particulars of what happened when to whom; every time Frey admits to some ‘artistic license’, (like the fact that his girlfriend killed herself by slitting her wrists instead of hanging herself in the shower; and when this happened he wasn’t in jail, but was merely in Florida), the audience wails and Oprah looks like she just found out there’s no Santa Claus. Frey’s publisher, Nan, really gets to the meat of it.
Nan: I do not know how you get inside another person’s mind…
O: This is my point, Nan… because then anybody can just walk in off the street with whatever story they have and say “This is my story.”
Nan: That is absolutely true. And people in publishing and editors…
O: Well that needs to change.
Nan: No you can’t stop people from making up stories. We learn by stories.
O: You can if you’re going to call it a memoir. You can make up stories and call them novels, people have done it for years.
Nan: A novel is something different than a memoir. And a memoir is different from autobiography. A memoir is an author’s remembrance of a certain period of his life. Now, the responsibility as far as I am concerned is… does it strike me as valid, does it strike me as authentic. I’m sent things all the time and I think they’re not real, I don’t think they’re authentic, I don’t think they’re good, I don’t believe them. In this instance, I absolutely believed what I read.
Of course there’s a difference between a novel and a memoir, and a novel does not become a memoir just because you were thinking about yourself when you wrote it. She is saying that memoir-writing is not reportage, and that publishers, editors and writers should not be held to any kind of journalistic standards in this regard. I agree, and I don’t see that it’s much of a problem. The Frey case is not really generalizable because the entire problem was created by Oprah herself, when she publicly went nuts over the book, and so Frey played to Oprah’s expectations, realizing his gravy train was coming in, and almost certainly at the behest of his publisher. If there’s more than that going on, like if the book really was shopped as fiction and then marketed as memoir, then that’s not good either, but on the scale of injustice it’s pretty close to the bottom. I’ll become outraged at that right after I’m done writing angry emails to all those “teen” porn sites whose models are CLEARLY over thirty. It was Oprah who celebrated Frey, trumpeting the importance of his factual account for informing the very serious and real problems of actual people. Frey was just too greedy to be up front about his perspective on “emotional truth” and so forth. That makes him a common or garden dipshit.
But the real purpose of this post is to tell you all about a memoir I’m reading right now, Nick Flynn’s ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY. It’s a memoir of Flynn’s relationship with his father, an alcoholic vagrant whom he meets for the first time in his adult life while volunteering at a homeless shelter in Boston. It’s a pretty good case study in what Nan calls “authentic.” Particularly affecting, I thought, was a passage describing his father’s last attempt at honest employment before being arrested for fraud and spending two years in county jail. I’ll reproduce it here, because it’s so damn good:
As the winter ends, Jonathan finesses a place to sleep and steady pay in exchange for painting a house the upcoming summer in Cambridge. Jonathan proposes that he and Scotty become partners, fifty-fifty. The owners, a couple he met at an art opening, will be in Sweden for the summer. Free rent, easy work, steady cash, my father plans to rewrite his novel in the evenings and on weekends. Scotty, wary, knows Jonathan always tries to get something for nothing, always tries to get over. But he imagines they’ll put in a few good hours each day, make their way through. A house is a finite project, after all. The worst that could happen is what always happens – that Scotty will work harder.
The job has a charge account at the hardware store—paint, brushes, scrapers, drop cloths. Jonathan charges his coveralls—white, denim, professional. If he has someplace to be later in the day he wears them over one of the Brooks Brothers suits he’d charged to my grandfather ten years earlier (As president of a company I had to look the part). He likes to keep a brush and scraper in his back pocket, even if he doesn’t use them all that much. The first morning Scotty wakes up at seven and Jonathan’s already up and drinking coffee, wearing his spotless coveralls. They sit at the kitchen table in the pleasant sun, suffused with good fortune. Mid-May, the owners won’t be back until September, no urgency, summer spread out before them. They can work half days if they choose. They can take three-day weekends. They can stretch it out. Scotty follows my father’s lead, says he isn’t worried. The owners left five hundred to start off, when they need more it’ll be wired. Sounds fine. Scotty says he wouldn’t mind quitting early some days, getting into the studio, keeping up with his sculptures. Yes, my father agrees, that’s what’s important. Anyone could paint this house – they chose us because we’re artists. In a few years they’ll be able to point to this house and say, Jonathan Flynn painted that. That’s worth something to people like this.
They talk briefly about how to begin. The bushes need to be wrapped in tarps, pulled away from the house. The ladders laid out, ratcheted up into the eaves, the scraping begun. The scraping, followed by the puttying, followed by the priming – the preparation, they agree, this takes time. Scotty puts his coffee cup in the sink and pulls his paper cap over his eyes. My father reaches for the bottle of Johnnie Walker that has been centered on the table the whole time. A drink to our good fortune, he proposes, pouring a shot into his cup. The scotch, Scotty will later learn, is charged to the owners as well.
Every morning this is how it will play out – first coffee, a piece of toast, maybe a shot. Then Scotty will climb the ladder and continue scraping where he left off the day before. Jonathan circles below, the paintbrush in his back pocket, surveying, pondering, taking stock, pointing to spots Scotty’s missed. Jonathan prefers to stay off the ladders, focusing his energies on the porch. By ten or so Jonathan says he’s making a run to the hardware store, doesn’t return until nightfall. Shattered. It doesn’t really matter – they’re keeping track of their own hours. Still, within a week Scotty begins quitting at noon. Then he starts skipping days.
By mid-August Scotty’s vanished. My father circles the unpainted house. Three months and not even the scraping’s done. The porch has been primed, as high as he can reach, and now he must start in with the ladders. He doesn’t like ladders. That low-life, he mutters, leaving him in the lurch, after all he’s done. Sorry-assed kid. The owners are due back in three weeks. Yesterday Jonathan had to tell the husband, by phone, that it might not be done in time. This made the husband bullshit – he’d been wiring Jonathan five hundred every month, always heard glowing reports,fine fine, and now it’s still undone? Jonathan’s cut off from the money, if he wants the balance he’d better finish.
At this point Jonathan realizes that he’s been too conscientious. All that scraping and priming was just so Scotty would feel needed. No one will notice the eaves anyway, no one will climb a ladder and look that close. As long as it gets a fresh once-over. Jonathan sets the ladder, brings a scraper for a quick scrape, just the big stuff. A paper bucket half full with the final coat. No time for primer, not anymore.
A little hungover, maybe even still drunk from the night before, he climbs. Maybe a little hair of the dog, why not? – forty-four, son of near-aristocracy, father of three, soon-to-be-famous author, forced to creep around roofs in the sun, to work beside morons, for goons. As he falls he thinks, If you are hurt they will come with their ambulances, they will put you in bed and feed you, they will let you rest. Or maybe that’s just what I’ve thought, the times I’ve fallen.
A brilliant anecdote, it captures perfectly the rationalizations and ironies of being a fuckup. Whether or not anything like this ever happened, it sounds authentic to me. What’s more, the powerful final sentence acknowledges the space between reality and authorial imagination, and that events, whether remembered or related second-hand, are coloured by individual experience, and not in a way that could ever be fact-checked, and anyways why would you want to. It’s not like Flynn is on T.V. counseling alcoholics based on the lessons in this book.
I didn’t really see the same kind of sensitivity in A Million Little Pieces, which I felt had neither subtlety nor any real attention to honesty; it was like reading Chuck Pahlaniuk describe life as an addict: punchy, graphic, outrageous. (I still enjoyed it, and, to be fair, I read it while hiding in the stock room at the bookstore where I used to work, so maybe not the best environment for a sensitive reading…)