Frey's 5% Rule
Call me uninformed, but I thought we'd resolved this whole "What is nonfiction?" debate a long time ago. I thought we'd covered it with Lorenzo Carcaterra and Sleepers in 1995, and again with Stephen Glass and Harper's and The New Republic in 1998, and finally with Lauren Slater's pseudo-memoir Lying in 2000. Call me naïve, but I'm thinking this debate really should be, by now, the "non-issue" that Frey's defenders want it to be. Go ahead -- call me simplistic, but I can't figure out why the publishing world can't get this straight. In the nonfiction circles I write and teach in, the distinction is very clear: if you're telling a real-life story and you're invested in sticking to actual events, you call it memoir. If you embellish to the extent where you're creating events and characters out of thin air, you're writing fiction.
Is this really so hard to understand?
Well, if we have to revisit this tired issue again, at least we're learning something new this time. We've learned the price of an author's integrity, for starters, and it's about 3.5 million copies. It's taken a bestselling author of Frey's magnitude to expose this fact: if a publisher decides a work that's based, however loosely, on a true story has more emotional oomph (and higher potential for sales) when marketed as a memoir, then memoir it is. We've also learned that Frey -- and presumably his publisher -- believes that you can invent 5 percent of a story and your book will still fall "comfortably within the realm of what's appropriate for a memoir." (As he told Larry King.) Theoretically, this should be true: most publishers will insist that memoirists change names and identifying details in their manuscripts to mask the identities of living characters (mainly to protect themselves from invasion-of-privacy lawsuits). And it's pretty well known that most memoirists compress time, create composite characters, recreate dialogue dozens of years past the fact, include scenes selectively, and even -- gasp! -- tweak scenes here and there to heighten dramatic effect. But making up scenes wholesale, creating a cast of characters to populate them, inventing words to put in their mouths, and then using these scenes as major plot points? Um, no. There's a word for this, and it's not memoir.
But Frey didn't initially set out to be a memoirist. He was, by initial intent, a novelist, and by prior avocation, a screenwriter, and A Million Little Pieces -- which I loved, loved!, by the way, as a stylistic tour de force -- had a scriptwriter's fingerprints all over it. I see these markers all the time: my nonfiction workshops in Los Angeles always have two or three disillusioned scriptwriters looking to genre jump, and even if they don't reveal this in the first class, their initial writing assignments always give them away: they're strong on plotting, conflict, and dialogue, weak in analysis and reflection. When these writers cross over to nonfiction, their primary allegiance is to story, not to form, and to moving the narrative along episodically. They're not, as a group, terribly attached to fact. (Refugees from journalism, incidentally, tend to approach memoir from the opposite direction, arriving with such a religious adherence to fact that they're uncomfortable recreating conversations or including any details they can't verify to an obsessive degree.)
I'm puzzled by the number of articles I've read quoting screenwriters who, in Frey's defense, remind us that writers make up material all the time. One screenwriter even claimed that if he didn't make anything up, he'd never have written anything. Am I missing something here? These are screenwriters, for Christ's sake. Their job, mandated by their form, is to capture the essence of emotion, not the reality -- to go for the feel of it, not the fact of it. I'd bet money that once Frey settled on his in-your-face, tough-guy, Fuck-you-all narrative persona to tell his story of addiction and redemption, he realized he had to come up with scenes to justify, illustrate, and support his anger. As a screenwriter, he'd know exactly how to do this. Lacking these scenes in real life, he might start with the truth (some drug dealing in college, a brush with a cop one night) and branch out from there. Way out.
There are names for writers who start with "emotional truth" and spin out from there to invent fully rendered, compelling, pivotal scenes. We call them novelists and screenwriters. Writers who start with emotional truth, and then identify and rely on true events to convey it? We call them nonfiction writers and documentary filmmakers. Imagine the hoo-ha that would erupt if we found out that Michael Moore invented meetings between George Bush and the Saudis that never really occurred, or if he'd handed scripts to those Canadian kids and told them what to say about guns. We'd feel duped, we'd be outraged, and rightly so. But documentary filmmaking, being a visual medium, provides its own authenticity. Memoir, being the product of an author's interpretation, relies on its author for proof. Who knows how much of A Million Little Pieces is truly factual, how much is interpretation, and how much is completely made up? Only James Frey, and after this week, I bet he's not telling.
The truth is, despite Frey's new five-percent rule, despite Lorenzo Carcaterra and Stephen Glass and Lauren Slater's influence over the past ten years, memoir still eludes neat definition or categorization. Memoir depends on the devices of fiction, yet asks readers to accept it as fact. It draws its lifeblood from the unreliability of memory, yet nonetheless presents itself as artifact. (Fiction writer Debra Eisenberg once told me I write "factions," a term I was hoping would stick, but didn't.) Until publishers and authors come to an unequivocal agreement about this, memoir will remain a weird hybrid of fiction and fact. And until then, memoirists will have to meet the standards of both: to achieve the literary excellence of a novel, and to meet the rigorous scrutiny of nonfiction. It's a tough job, but there's never been a shortage of applicants.