The Truth as Stronger than Fiction

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.

4 thoughts on “The Truth as Stronger than Fiction

  1. Cathy January 18, 2010 / 5:22 pm

    check out TELLING LIES IN MODERN AMERICAN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Timothy Dow Adams, which examines Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and Richard Wright, and Dorritt Cohn’s THE DISTINCTION OF FICTION, which looks at the notion of fictional biography and fictionality itself. I think we must must must look farther back than Frey when discussing this issue.

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  2. devan January 18, 2010 / 6:07 pm

    Oh, without a doubt—and thanks for the leads. If A Million Little Pieces fits my point especially well, it’s only because of the kinds of defenses initiated by Frey and (especially) by readers like those Mendelsohn mentions.

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  3. Anonymous January 29, 2010 / 3:37 am

    I’m with you that expectations lead the ways in which we read. It’s intriguing that you use, or rather Frey’s defenders use, the term “uplift” here. I’ve always been troubled by the term–there’s something so patronizing about it. One doesn’t expect oneself to be “uplifted” but rather some imagined (and troubled) other. I find it kind of intriguing how strong and long this connotation of uplift sticks around. And the way it is used to justify the most prurient kinds stories, from white slavery to addiction.

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  4. devan January 29, 2010 / 10:22 am

    Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. You make a really interesting point about “uplift,” which to me, too, has a certain offensive tone.

    I’d add that the compatibility of the concept of uplifting with certain kinds of religious thinking seems in line with your point about being pulled up by some “other.”

    (It’s of course a debate for another time whether the Other I’m speaking of is imagined or not. Har.)

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