“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.” – Stephen King, Joyland
In the summer, my brother and I would walk to our small town library. Sometimes, we’d cross paths with a man walking his mountain lion on the sidewalk. One time, the mountain lion bit my arm, and I needed fourteen stitches.
It’s crazy, but it’s actually mostly true. I was afraid for my life when I saw the mountain lion, but it never actually bit my arm. But it’s plausible, and who’s to say I’m wrong? It’s my memory, after all.
I technically could sell this story as a memoir. But when someone starts digging into my history and finds that, although there was a man in my hometown that had a pet mountain lion, there are no hospital records of me getting stitches.
This sort of thing is nothing new to the literary world. The most recent case of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces brought this to the public’s attention. Frey’s gritty, gripping tale of addiction was marketed as a memoir, although years earlier, Frey had tried to sell it as contemporary realistic fiction. When no publishers picked it up, he pitched it as a memoir. When Clifford Irving received a three-quarter million advance for The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, he delivered. Only, Hughes proved he had never met Irving, and Irving spent 17 months in jail for his lie. Misha Defonseca wrote a harrowing tale of her childhood during the Holocaust, only to be disproven by a genealogist who found that Defonseca was Catholic. “Ever since I can remember, I felt Jewish,” said Defonseca. “There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.”
These transgressions were surely career-killers, amiright?
Well, not exactly. James Frey became a household name. His book Bright Shiny Morning, released after the scandal, was a bestseller. His lie only seemed to make him more popular.
I can understand how a reader would feel betrayed. I felt a twinge of it. But here’s the thing. I don’t expect most memoirists to tell the truth. I expect embellishment, because our memories are dirty liars. A Million Little Pieces is still one of my favorite books, even after The Smoking Gun revealed factual inaccuracies. Because a good story entertains or reveals some truth. And if it’s a really good story, it does both.
While I don’t care if a memoir’s facts are proven false, many people do. Like, say, publishers. Readers. Higher ups in the publishing world. While A Million Little Pieces sold even more copies after the scandal, you can bet that no one wants to publish another “memoir” by Frey, unless it’s about how he lied.
Remember the story I wrote at the beginning of this post? Here’s an interesting experiment. What is the first thing that you remember about it? I doubt that the first thing you remembered was that part of the story wasn’t true. And that is the power of story. A story doesn’t necessarily tell the truth, it just reveals it.