The Ethics of Memoir Writing Guests explore the ethics of writing a memoir. Is it acceptable for writers to embellish the events of their lives to provide a more exciting book?
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The Ethics of Memoir Writing

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The Ethics of Memoir Writing

The Ethics of Memoir Writing

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FRANK STASIO, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

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Right now: Is it acceptable to embellish a story, even if it's your own? And as an author of a memoir, what's your obligation to the reader? Is it to tell a really compelling tale or to be brutally honest with yourself? Those are some of the questions being asked about James Fry and his best-selling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." Earlier this week a Web site, The Smoking Gun, accused Fry of greatly exaggerating his past and distorting key events in his book. Fry's book was first published in 2003 but became a best-seller after it was selected last year by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.

If you've read "A Million Little Pieces," what'd you think of the book? And when you read a memoir, do you expect everything to be in it true and accurate? Join the conversation. Call us at (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Or send us an e-mail at totn@npr.org.

Right now Phillip Gourevitch joins us. He's a journalist and a writer of non-fiction and the editor of The Paris Review, who joins us by phone from New York.

Phillip, welcome.

Mr. PHILLIP GOUREVITCH (Editor, The Paris Review): Nice to be here.

STASIO: As an editor of The Paris Review, you select stories for your readers, fiction and non-fiction. What obligation do you have to your readers to say that, `Look, this is a personal story and it's true'?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: I think that if you say that a story's true, it'd better be. I think that--I actually don't think this is a very complicated issue. And it's a question of being straightforward. There--literature has provided us with a sort of infinite number of ways of telling stories: factual on one end of the spectrum--from pure factuality to pure fantasy and invention. And what we're talking about here is really a question of labeling and representing the actual nature of the story that you're telling.

And if I were to say to you, `Come on over and buy this leather jacket,' and then I were to say, `Oh, well, sure, it's fake leather,' I don't think we'd be having a discussion about whether there'd been any kind of, like, ethical or representational deception here, whether there was deception and, therefore, something to complain about. If I say to you, `Here, buy this car. It's a hybrid,' and then it turns out actually it's a gas guzzler--if I say to you, `Buy this war. There are weapons of mass destruction and they're tied to terrorism,' and then none of those are proved, you would have reason to question me.

All of these things are clear to everybody. So when you suddenly say, `Well, it's a memoir, it's his own story; there he's allowed to distort it,' that seems to me to be just basically bogus.

STASIO: But what about the argument that, look, even when you're reflecting on your own life, I mean, this is still a subjective view.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: That's understood when you explore the matter of memory. But, I mean, in the case of this Fry memoir, I got it that he's actually acknowledged that he distorted things, which means that it's not that he's saying, `Well, my memory--this is how I remember it. My memory may be inaccurate, but it is to the best of my abilities,' a kind of, `I'm conveying the truth of the nature of my memory.' And memory...

STASIO: Little different story.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: ...from factual reporting...

STASIO: Let's bring in novelist and poet Nicholas Christopher to the discussion. In addition to the 14 books he's written in various genres, he's a professor in the writing division at the School of Arts at Columbia University; also happens to be in the process of writing a memoir about his great-uncle. And he joins us from the New York bureau.

Thanks for being on the show.

Professor NICHOLAS CHRISTOPHER (School of Arts, Columbia University): I'm glad to be here.

STASIO: As a professor who teaches writing, what are the important distinctions you make when writing a piece of fiction and non-fiction?

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: I agree, the art--I don't understand why there's even a controversy here. You're either writing a factual book and using your memory as best you can--and with all of us, we're faulty to various degrees--or you're writing fiction, which means you're taking reality and transforming it for your own purposes. And this writer that we're discussing evidently came to a crossroads, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to write fiction or non-fiction. When he chose non-fiction, when he chose a memoir, which is not just a story as you see it subjectively--I mean, it's not one of these--I mean, I understand the truth has become relative in this country from the head of the government on down.

But when you're writing a memoir, you're saying--you're making a covenant with the reader saying, `The facts in here are accurate as best I can remember them.' So, you know, if there's a scene where you're writing a memoir about a member of your family and you're having dinner 10 years ago and you can't quite remember what the meal was or what the person was wearing, that's one thing. If you start appropriating other people's lives, as this writer did, as I understand it, and other people's tragedies and then transfiguring those, I think it's just unethical and bogus and lying after a while. It has nothing to do with telling your own story; it has to do with making up another story.

STASIO: And it really raises the question: Why not just call it a novel and be done with the whole thing?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: But I think...

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Well, yeah. I mean, that's what most of us do; we call it a novel.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Well, you made a very crucial distinction just now, which is that it's neither fiction nor non-fiction; it's lying. Fiction is not lying. Fiction is telling the truth about an active imagination. You're saying, `The truth is that I'm making this up in order to get at some other layer of truth.' And the test of your interest into this is going to be whether you find it a sort of a story that corresponds to human truth or experience or the recognizable world. This is somebody who actually lied, and lying is very different from fiction because he is deceiving you...

STASIO: But I'm wondering...

Mr. GOUREVITCH: ...and ...(unintelligible) you to a shared...

STASIO: Right.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: ...active imagination: he as a writer and you as a reader.

STASIO: But I'm wondering why a writer--and I know you can't speak for him, but if what you're saying, you know, essentially to your publishers is, `I've got a story to tell, but it's not that great, but if I mess with the facts a little bit, it'll be terrific,' why don't you and your publisher agree to call it--I mean, and assuming that he didn't have that conversation but thought to himself, `The story's not interesting enough,' why not just go ahead and call it--you know, write a novel?

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Because it takes a great deal of skill to write a novel. It's a lot easier to say--I mean, in a novel, you're using your imagination. So if you say, `Well, I beat up four policemen,' or, `I shot three people,' all of us can go around imagining stories that are more bizarre than the last one. But if you're writing a memoir and they're things that actually happened, I gather the only reason you'd lie is to have incredible shock value because you don't think the truth or the facts can convey the truth you want.

And I agree with what Phillip said; in a novel, you're actually going for a higher truth. And as someone who's written a non-fiction book about film and several novels, my fiction editor fact-checks me a lot more than evidently this fellow was. I mean, if you're writing a novel and you have a character in Venice and suddenly he's getting on a bicycle, someone's going to catch it and say, `You know, there are no bicycles in Venice.' I mean, you have to be accurate to be plausible when you're writing fiction. But that's very different, and within that constraint, you make up anything you want. But when you start appropriating from people, which he seemed to wanted to do, he evidently didn't feel he had the power, the skill, the--I don't know what to do it as a novelist, which is not easy. Perhaps he tried. I don't know.

STASIO: Let's go to the phones. Judy is on the line from Manchester, California.

Hi, Judy.

JUDY (Caller): Hi. I'm from Manchester, California. I read the book. I found it very powerful. I don't personally have a problem if I actually don't know what parts were changed. But I learned, when I was taking a qualitative research course in the PhD program, that sometimes a fictionalized account of something can be more powerful. And somebody mentioned shock value, but sometimes if it's somewhat--sometimes if you just recount facts, that's kind of cut and dry, but if there's an added fictionalized aspect to it--I'm at a loss for words exactly...

STASIO: Well, let me ask you a question.

JUDY: ...you can convey the feeling of the experience much better.

STASIO: But let me ask you a question, Judy. You say you read the book.

JUDY: I did.

STASIO: Do you--when you read it, were you reading it as though it were--did you believe it was true?

JUDY: I did. Yeah, I did.

STASIO: So, I mean, the point is you weren't reading a novel, and you weren't understanding it to be not true. You thought it was true. And you don't feel betrayed by that?

JUDY: I don't think he's the first person that has adjusted things, and, you know, this has come up before.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: There have been--I mean, this is a con, and it's an old...

JUDY: I don't feel like--you know, honestly I feel like he was trying to convey a raw experience. And I suppose from the perspective of, you know, maybe somebody who is--felt that their life was changed by this book, would they go back and say, `Oh, well, you know, he betrayed me and'--I mean, that's the value of this book, to me. I think that, you know, it speaks to people who are dealing with addiction.

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: But don't you think the story becomes quite different if I say to you, `I was in jail 90 days, and four policemen hit me with billy clubs,' as opposed to whatever really happened to him--he was in a holding cell for a day? That's not what happened to him as an addicted person. He wasn't in jail 90 days, which, for some people, could be a really transformative and upsetting experience. I mean, he lied to you there. He didn't embellish or enhance or dramatize the facts.

STASIO: Judy, I'm going to let you go, so that I can...

JUDY: OK.

STASIO: ...get some other callers on.

JUDY: That's fine. Thank you.

STASIO: But I appreciate that, and I'm going to pursue this just a bit because if it had the impact, if it had the--it it, as a lie, sort of changed Judy's outlook and touched her in a way that fiction sometimes does, the story that you tell people up front, `I'm making this up, but I'm making it up to get to a higher truth.' Fry gets to a higher truth anyway, only he lied.

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Well, you mean, what's the difference between lying and writing fiction? I think when you write fiction, again, as we said earlier, you're seeking a higher truth, presumably, if you're a serious novelist. When you're lying, you're conning people.

STASIO: I guess the upshot of the question, though, is if it has that effect, you know...

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Well, obviously...

STASIO: ...then doesn't it work the same way?

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Well, that's a slippery slope. I mean, if it has the effect of--I mean, if you hit someone on the head with a hammer and actually it helps their hearing, are you culpable of attempting manslaughter to assault them? I mean, I...

STASIO: All right. Phillip, you were going to say something?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Sure, you are. But, yes, what I was going to say is it--here comes this book, and the man is obviously playing for some sort of sympathy and sensation. He said so himself, first of all. I mean, none of this is a controversy that he's denying.

STASIO: Right.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: He's saying, `Yeah, I made it up in order to hype it.' And let's take the analogy of somebody who's actually asking you for something concrete. Here comes a guy on the subway, and he's somehow or other taped up his legs, so that he looks like he's got one leg. And he's saying, `I represent, you know, one-leggedness,' just like this guy says he represents addiction, all right? So you give him a buck, and you think, `Poor guy. My God, you know, look at what he's up against, and look at how he's handling it.' And then you get off the subway, and you see this guy, like, walking away on two legs 'cause he's unstrapped his leg, and it turns out that it was a con job; that he was playing your sympathies. He didn't perform a play; it was not a fiction.

STASIO: Yeah.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: It was an actual lie aimed at deception with an effect on you. Are you going to say, `Well, actually he really enlarged my view of the world, and I'm glad I gave him a buck'? I mean...

STASIO: Well, let me pursue that. Let me pursue that. But, first, I'll do a little housekeeping and remind everybody that they are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News and that I'm Frank Stasio. I'm talking to Phillip Gourevitch, who is the editor of The Paris Review, and Nicholas Christopher, novelist and poet and author of 14 books.

Well, that's pursue that. So you're out a buck, and you really feel like you were taken, on the one hand. On the other hand, what if you did say, `You know, I'm a pretty lucky guy, and I should become more generous'?--and this whole experience has made you a more generous person and given you a wider view about the pain and suffering in the world around you?

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Well, that's...

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Well, but that's not what's happened. We've walked up the street and looked back, and the guy has gotten up with our buck and run across the street, and we felt conned and duped and thought, `My God, I'm never giving a buck to anybody again.' Yeah. I mean, that's what's happened here. I respect the woman who spoke earlier, but I think there are a lot of people and people in 12-step programs and people to whom his, you know, concocted experience has spoke are probably very angry. Anyone who, you know, knows anything about 12-step programs or had people in their lives close to them involved in them know taking a fearless inventory, telling the truth are very important things. He hasn't done that for those people.

STASIO: All right. Let's go back to the phones. Davey(ph) is on the line from Georgia.

Hello, Davey.

DAVEY (Caller): Hello. I actually didn't feel terribly betrayed to find out it was like--it kind of struck me as false listening to it. I actually listened to it as a book on tape.

STASIO: Yeah.

DAVEY: And what I would feel betrayed by is how often he sort of put down the 12-step program and pursued sort of his own way of gaining sobriety, which would make his lying even more malicious.

STASIO: All right. Well, thank you, Davey.

DAVEY: ...(Unintelligible) trying to work through it would, you know, read his book and say, `Well, I can do it my own way, like he did.'

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, and also get root canal without Novocain and all kinds of other things: board an airplane while covered with blood. I mean, I think he betrayed those people especially, and it's--you know, Phillip used a few metaphors. The one I kept thinking of last night, when I was talking to someone else around this, was, you know, I give you a road map for how to get from Maine to Florida and then when you're midway through the journey said, `Oh, by the way, a lot of the roads on that map aren't really there, but good luck.'

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Right. And by then you were in Ohio.

STASIO: Let's...

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, exactly.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: But the other thing is, I mean, I don't think we'd be having this discussion if it wasn't about writing. There's a strange kind of relativist license that is being claimed for a memoirist. And it goes along with very much the kind of delicate material that he's working with. In other words, he's dealing with something that people feel very personally. And so if they read the book and they later find out that they were betrayed, but their emotional experience was actual, does that make his offense less? That's really the question we're asking, I think.

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Yeah.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: And the answer is no, though it may not be something they're ready to relinquish their experience of. I saw a case very much like this a few years ago with the Holocaust memoirist--a fake Holocaust memoirist who called himself Benjamin Wilkomirski, who was actually a Swiss Christian adoptee by the name of Bruno Grosjean. But he pretended to be this Jewish kid who'd been in Auschwitz at the age of five and later recovered these terrible memories. And the book was published to great acclaim, and the publishers were willing dupes in the thing along with him--with all of these other people. But he himself was self-deceived. He never said, `Yeah, I perpetrated a hoax.' Even after they tested him for his DNA and proved that he was somebody else, he said, `No, I'm not.' But there was a sense that he was playing on these sympathies of people who desperately wanted to be able to identify the perfect victim, a child...

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Yeah.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: ...to relate to him, to connect their own experiences to him. And it seems to me that it's actually far from being more forgivable because it's literature. It's more insidious because it's playing very deliberately on the kind of available sympathies of, more or less, the more desperate audiences.

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Yeah.

STASIO: And it--go ahead.

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: I agree. And I gather, you know, Mr. Fry said something to the effect, `Well, the definition of memoir'--and perhaps it's the third or fourth one--`is story, and this is my story.' Well, if someone said that to you over a cup of coffee in your everyday life, after telling you a whopper, you'd think that's ridiculous. If you're remembering something, you're remembering it as best you can, and you're giving me the facts. And you're perhaps dramatizing them or enhancing them with fine language, with musical language, whatever, but you're not distorting them completely and telling me it's true. If you're doing that, put a different label on it. I mean, I really don't think this is a complicated issue. I think it's being made complicated by people backtracking, whether it's the author, publishers, whoever, and trying to concoct, you know, all kinds of pretty ways of putting this when, in effect, it really was a con job.

STASIO: Well, I want to thank you both for joining the conversation today. Phillip Gourevitch is editor of The Paris Review and joined us by phone from New York. Nicholas Christopher is a novelist, a poet and a professor of writing at the division of--the School of Arts in Columbia University.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

Mr. GOUREVITCH: Thank you.

Prof. CHRISTOPHER: Thank you.

STASIO: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio.

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