Playing with the evidence?

Via the Harvard Book Store‘s newsletter, questions of authenticity, authoral integrity, history, memory, fiction, and evidence: a bit about James Frey.
I’ve done a bunch of thinking lately about these topics, and while I’m clear on fiction versus history, I wonder what sort of space memoir occupies, and at what point fictionalization amounts to fraudulent narrative. It’s pretty clear that Frey’s account does not agree with the documents — how much of this is simply misremembering and how much outright fabrication? Do his readers care?
Personally, from the excerpts I’ve read, I’m not in any hurry to read the book — it sounds like self-laceration for purposes of self-adulation, if that makes any sense — but I’d be interested to know what his readers think. Steph, who just finished it, said, “Who cares? It’s still a good story.” And I suspect that there is some truth in that. But if you’re penning fiction, why call it nonfiction?
A brief anecdote: in the used section of the Harvard Book Store, Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work… used to be found under fiction, but was at some point moved to the biography section. It makes more sense in biography, I suppose, since it is a memoir, names weren’t changed, and what was changed is outlined line by line in Mistakes… — but I always found myself looking for it in fiction.
I think AHWOSG works as nonfiction because Eggers’s technique makes it apparent when he is slipping out of the straight narrative and into imagination, conversations with himself, and other kinds of metalepsis (now here is a man who is interested in narrative). Take another example: Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties. Thought well-researched, it can be really misleading as a work of history, because the line between documented deduction and personal recollection is crossed and recrossed almost invisibly, and you have to be assiduously following along with the notes and paying close attention to his sentence structure to know in which domain you are at any given moment.
It seems as though Frey was working from the evidence, or at least had access to it in the process of constructing his narrative. However, it also seems as though he ignored the evidence much of the time. Did he achieve something closer to what he felt? Perhaps. Closer to the truth? Probably not, unless we want to get into some serious epistemological discussion.

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2 thoughts on “Playing with the evidence?

  1. RE “…well, I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but there’s something you should know about that /Jesus/ fellow you’re so big on…”
    I’d be tempted to respond “Pure Wax…” if it were not so impure a sucker punch looking for a pitiful response in outrage that someone would dare take a punch at Jesus (ha! that’s de rigeur these days, AND the man said to expect such outbursts 2K X 365 of them ago).
    Just what is it with the appeal of the impure (vs the pure made diminutive by comparison)? Only the flatulent (not to be confused with flaggelants) know…and they ain’t telling because they do not.
    Here’s the way it works (and why there is an actual space occupied by memoir): a person tells a personal story with all the innocence of their age and time. Later, the same person might retell (not to say “retail”) the same story all over again; but now he or she has undergone a change, whether as a result of maturing, simply aging, or because s/he has developed a cause celebre in life — a driving purpose that cannot be reduced, much less controlled: whatever the change may be, the result is a story even vastly different than the original tale, although not one iota of intended corruption may have entered into the telling.
    Eisenhower once wrote (and I merely paraphrase) that a man is forever marked by the most significant events of his time — usually a time between the ages of 17 and 28 — and that ever after what he observes is translated in his life through the lens of that/those experience/s. ” One can readily surmise why and be dead on correct: we can each only be whom we are for that ephemeral moment when that is what we are, and so we cling to those moments most enduring, for they fill the empty space that we dread — too often correctly — we might be.
    Memoir matters as a distinct form and the space it occupies is the combining mind and heart of the honest story broker: the “writer” (choose a medium and use the appropriate word in replacement, if you must).

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