Drawing the Line Between Facts and Fiction in Memoirs

How can you write the story of your life when your memories don't exactly match up with the facts? Charges of exaggeration and outright lying have recently plagued James Frey, author of the best-selling "memoir" A Million Little Pieces. Karen Grigsby Bates looks into the scandal, and asks literary experts about where a writer should draw the line between fact and fiction in memoirs.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, are soldiers in Iraq experiencing Gulf War Syndrome? We have part two of our series.

CHADWICK: First this, Oprah Winfrey has made yet another author rich and famous by choosing him for her book club, but rich and famous can become rich and infamous.

Mr. JAMES FREY (Author, A Million Little Pieces): I have a long drug and alcohol history. My memory's very subjective. Everyone's memory is subjective. This, if in three weeks, we were both interviewed about what went on here tonight, we would both probably have very, very different stories.

BRAND: That's James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, on Larry King Live. His book was published as a memoir, but later revealed to contain facts that weren't really factual.

CHADWICK: Which raises the question, what is a memoir? For our Wednesday book segment, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates looks for answers.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, reporting:

James Frey's memoir of a youth spent in a haze of anger, alcohol, and drug addiction received the big sales that accompany all Oprah's books. But it also received close scrutiny by the investigative website smokinggun.com. Smoking Gun says that Frey exaggerated or outright lied about many incidents he claimed were true, like an extended stay in jail. Some readers are demanding refunds. The controversy bothered Winfrey enough that she called talk show host Larry King while he was interrogating Frey to say the criticism was irrelevant.

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk show host): What is relevant is that he spent years in turmoil, from the time he was 10-years-old, drinking and tormenting himself and his parents, and stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today, and to take that message to save other people, and allow them to save themselves. That's what's important about this book.

GRIGSBY BATES: David Kippen heads the literature division of the National Endowment for the Arts. He says that while readers often expect the same things of a memoir they do from an autobiography, the two are fundamentally different.

Mr. DAVID KIPPEN (Head of Literature Division, the National Endowment for the Arts): An autobiography tends to be one's life from birth, and then telling the story forward up until the moment you write the end, whereas a memoir often times can focus on a particular part of somebody's life. One hears about a memoir of addiction. So, a memoir is a much more focused approach.

GRIGSBY BATES: David L. Ulin is the editor of the Los Angeles Times book review. Before that, he taught writing personal history at Antioch College for five years. Ulin says, on a lofty level, memoirs have become more popular because they create a sense of community around a shared experience. Then there's the more base reason, nosiness.

Mr. DAVID ULIN (Editor, Los Angeles Times): Probably the real answer is somewhere in between those two things, that there is an element of prurience about this, and also an element of kind of communitarian impulse.

GRIGSBY BATES: Ulin and Kippen agree that memoirs can meet the criteria for high literature. They sight Frank Conroy's Stop Time, and Tobias Wolff's This Boys Life. But in recent years, the field has become crowded with sensational works. And, says David Kippen, as each new shocker becomes a bestseller, it plunges some authors into a top this kind of anxiety.

Mr. KIPPEN: You've got to either have some sort of harrowing experience, or failing that, as we've seen lately, you should not be shy about making one up.

GRIGSBY BATES: One of the persistent problems of memoir is, as Frey noted to Larry King, each person's truth is filtered through an individual sensibility. And sometimes what's recalled is painful to others, as well as to oneself. Judith Moore's the author of Fat Girl, a searing memoir of growing up overweight. Moore says her slender mother was especially offended at her daughter's bulk, as she reads from this excerpt.

Ms. JUDITH MOORE (Author, "Fat Girl"): (Reading) 'She said, when she got ready to whip me and raise the brown leather belt, and I cowered at her feet, she said, I'm going to cut the blood out of you.'

GRIGSBY BATES: It's strong, scary stuff. And it earned Moore a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle earlier this week. David Ulin says the best memoirists are as unsparing of themselves as they are of the people around them.

Mr. ULIN: They have to be willing to reveal themselves as flawed, as occasionally petty, as cruel, if that is in fact the case, and not simply be writing the book as a way of presenting their argument, as in a legal case.

GRIGSBY BATES: He and the N.E.A's Kippen say the market for memoir will continue to grow. A rep for R.R. Bowker, an agency that tracks publishing sales, says nineteen personal memoirs were published in 2005. There are already twelve published, or in process in this first part of 2006. And, says Ulin, this could be the messy birth of something new.

Mr. ULIN: What we may well be looking at is a separate genre. Something that exists somewhere between fiction as we currently conceptualize it, and non-fiction as we currently conceptualize it. Something that is a kind of hybridized form.

GRIGSBY BATES: Which gives rise to a new need, a name for whatever it is that keeps popping up on the shelves. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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