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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    American writing: A million little farces

    Fakes have played a big role in the news over the past few weeks. A counterfeit currency ring was busted in India, South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk faced international censure after the discovery that he had doctored the data in his research on cloning, Pamela Anderson made some public appearances and author James Frey made headlines when it was discovered that his best-selling “”memoir,”” “”A Million Little Pieces,”” was almost entirely a work of fiction.

    A little background: James Frey released “”A Million Little Pieces”” in 2003. It sold nearly 3.5 million copies to become last year’s second-best-selling book. Oprah Winfrey made Frey’s story a part of her book club, the publishing equivalent of a golden ticket; though not necessarily a guarantor of literary merit, book club selection certainly ensures massive sales.

    Frey’s story is a survivor’s tale – sort of. He grittily recounts his fall deep into addictions: to drugs, to alcohol, to rage. He tells readers of his stints in jail and rehab, the death of a close friend in his youth, his drunken attempt at hitting a police officer with a car. And he wraps his tale up neatly with a tough kind of redemption: Frey stares down a shot glass and angrily decides his affair with liquor is over. He cleans up his life post-rehab, and writes it all down for us to read. He, it seems, finally gets it together.

    However, things began to fall apart for Frey about a month ago. Records of Frey’s supposed jail time failed to materialize, as did proof of a relationship of any type with the “”close friend”” who died; soon nearly every detail of the book was up for question. After initially dismissing criticism of his book, Oprah changed her mind and brought Frey back on the show, said she felt “”betrayed”” and kicked him out of the club.

    So, why does it even matter?

    By fabricating what he claimed to be truth, Frey violated what amounts to a covenant of trust between author and audience. Maybe those seem like intense words, but this is a huge deal.

    First-person accounts like memoirs create our collective history. Though we’re not directly part of it, Frey’s story is ours: a tale of life in our times, in our country. In a way, his story is our story.

    Frey’s creative liberties cast a negative shadow on the entire genre of memoir. Jessica Wertz, a psychology and family studies junior who read “”A Million Little Pieces”” last year after seeing it recommended by Oprah, commented that discovering how much Frey had falsified made her “”skeptical of all the other memoirs I’ve read.””

    Of course, Frey isn’t the first memoirist to invent his past. The pseudonymed author Nasdijj of “”The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams”” recently made headlines when his Anglo heritage was revealed – a stark contrast to the Navajo upbringing he wrote about in his dark memoir. Examples like these destroy a means of recording history and sully the good name of those telling very real and important stories through memoirs.

    There’s something else disturbing at play here. The reason that these fake memoirs have been so successful is that they’ve served a major market need. We, the American book-buying public, have made a cult of suffering. Oh sure, the stories that sell the best are ones that tell of redemption, trials undergone and overcome. But the vast amount of authorial attention is paid to the nitty-gritty of those struggles, with a hastily tacked-on reformation at the resolution of the book.

    We’re furious at James Frey because he’s reminded us that the suffering the reading public so voraciously laps up is just a product, and feels every bit as moving even when it never happened.

    Frey’s fabrication brings shame to himself and embarrassment to the rest of us for creating such a market for it. But it also has to make us hope for a future when we’ll learn to embrace ourselves and each other for who we are – no matter how much or how little we’ve been through. Yes, that seems unlikely, but it’s better to embrace a future that might not be than a past that definitely never was.

    Lori Foley is a senior majoring in French and English. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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