03 February 2006

Money Or Your Life

Quite a few of my fellow bloggers have been getting very exercised over this whole James Frey affair, and apparently it's major news up there in the USA (well, it must be if Oprah is involved). But it has utterly failed to attract much if any notice here in Aussie-land. I tried initiating a conversation about it with a couple of my well-read Australian friends (not as much of an oxymoron as you might think), and got only blank looks in reply.

Personally, I don't find it all that interesting myself, since I'd always assumed that most memoirists embellish the truth at best and flat-out lie, at least by creative ommission, more often than not. I can only guess that Frey came in for such a slamming because by being so careless in covering his tracks he gave the whole profession a black eye, and possibly also because he doesn't seem like an especially likable guy. But then people who feel the need to go on at great length and in enormous detail about themselves are seldom that popular, are they?

I say that advisedly, having recently written a fairly lengthy memoir myself (and agonising the whole time about having to leave so many things out). And if I'm going to be honest (as honest as any memoirist is ever likely to be), I'll have to acknowledge that if I'd written this book when I was Frey's age (early to mid-30s, I believe), it would have been just as dishonest as his, perhaps even more so. The reasons are twofold: first, I was insecure enough back then that I had to make everything about myself bigger and better and more elaborate for the sake of impressing people (it rarely worked, but it would take me a while to figure that out), and secondly, I'd been making up stories about myself for so long that I'd quite genuinely forgotten which of them were true and which were bald-faced lies.

When I first started thinking seriously about writing a memoir, which would have been sometime in my early 40s, I did a bit of research, visiting some of my old haunts and quizzing friends and acquaintances from my past. It was only then that I began to realise just how far removed from reality some of my most firmly and fondly held "memories" were. And that brings me to the dilemma which must confront even the best-intentioned memoirist: how do we resolve the frequent conflict between memory and what might generally be accepted as objective reality?

Having accepted that my personal narrative as I'd been telling it to both others and myself was deeply flawed and dishonest, I set about trying to redress the balance, to the point where I fear I might have gone too far in the opposite direction. In my memoir, I often second-guess myself, saying things like, "Well, it seemed this way to me, but so-and-so saw it quite differently, and perhaps he was right," and recounting the often bizarre and implausible events of my life with the diffident air someone might use to describe a trip to the mall.

"A good memoir needs to read more like a novel," an agent told me, which is what I thought mine did, but now that the novelisation bar has been raised so high by the likes of James Frey, the challenge facing any memoirist who wishes to hew closely as possible to the truth seems more enormous than ever. On the other hand, even the most principled memoirist might also find him or herself thinking, "Hmm, the 'truth' or 'over 3.5 million copies sold.'" It reminds me of the Jack Benny skit where he's waylaid by a holdup man who demands, "Your money or your life!"

Benny, whose character was a notorious skinflint, stood there silently stroking his chin for the longest time. At last the holdup man blurted out, "Well, come on, which is it gonna be?" Another long pause, after which Benny exasperatedly replied, "I'm THINKING."

1 comment:

Jesse said...

"apparently it's major news up there in the USA"

I don't know, I haven't really been able to bring myself to care about it.