In this week’s New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn has a fascinating look at the ancient and recent histories of the memoir genre. Naturally, he can’t help but address what might now be termed a subgenre, the “fraudulent memoir.” Wrapping up the section, he notes:
When readers defended Frey on the ground that his book, however falsified its “memories” were, had nonetheless (as he had hoped) provided them with the genuine uplift they were looking for, they were really defending fiction: an uplifting entertainment that can tell truths but cannot tell the truth.
Mendelsohn provides insightful evidence that James Frey’s own defense of A Million Little Pieces was indeed a defense of the role fiction has traditionally played. (“‘I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require,’ Frey explained.”) But the claim that Frey’s third-party defenders take up the same argument doesn’t quite fit, because we don’t process fiction in the same way that we process non-fiction.
That is, I would bet that a recovering addict reading Frey’s book would only be so inspired if she thought that the book were true (in the “the truth” sense Mendelsohn mentions, not the “truths” sense). Her awareness of the book’s falsifications would interrupt the particular kind of attachment to the narrative that’s necessary for “uplift” to obtain. “If I can’t hang my hopes on somebody actually having made this kind of turnaround,” she might think, “what good is it?”
In other words, what we think we’re reading greatly affects how we feel about reading it—and this emotion, formed at the time of reading, cannot be erased from the history of our experiences once reading is through. Even now, we don’t read Frey’s book as fiction, exactly; it would no doubt make for a lousy novel, composed too far outside the structural and linguistic conventions of that form.
Instead, we read Frey’s book and others like it as partially made-up memoirs, as ruses that didn’t hold up, as fodder for our amateur detective sensibilities. That’s an entirely different experience—and, as I mean for my title to suggest, a weaker one (on affective terms)—than reading a novel for its “truths,” or than reading a memoir for its “the truth,” as it were.