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His So-Called Life

The New York Times Op-Ed Contributor
January 15, 2006

NOW that J T Leroy and James Frey have been busted for duping the public in order to sell second-rate books, the monstrous question of what's fair and foul in fiction and nonfiction has reared its much-bashed head. Asked to referee the ethical contest between the two writers, I'd call J T Leroy a fine little prankster and Mr. Frey a skunk.

Distinguishing between fiction and non- isn't nearly the taxing endeavor some would have us believe. Sexing a chicken is way harder. The nitty-gritty is that the novelist creates events for truthful interpretation, whereas the memoirist tries to honestly interpret events plagiarized from reality. And here's how readers know the difference: the label slapped on the jacket of the book.

J T Leroy's work was packaged as fiction, though alluded to as fact. If readers bought the Leroy novel "Sarah" - which tells the story of a young boy whose hooker mom dressed him as a girl and sold him to truckers - because it was allegedly autobiographical, well, they still got what they ponied up for. It's a melodramatic gallop through the psychic landscape of someone blurring the boundaries of gender and identity.

Some years back, Mr. Leroy weaseled me into taking a call by dropping Mary Gaitskill's name. But he dropped the literary pretext right off. He didn't read the books I suggested, and instead asked advice about his addictions or the kid he claimed to be raising with a couple who had "adopted" him. He bragged a lot about meeting celebrities like Gus Van Sant and Diane Keaton. He was flattering and coquettish and pathologically indirect.

But while Mr. Leroy was besotted with the news media, he was skittish about scrutiny, and initially, refused to be photographed or give readings. The only time I saw him, at a reading in a packed Soho gallery, he shyly mounted the stage for a few minutes, then let the likes of Nancy Sinatra and Lou Reed do the reading he was "too timid" too undertake (this from somebody wearing a platinum wig the average drag queen would dust furniture with and a flamenco-esque hat like the one Michael Jackson flaunted in his "Black or White" video).

In the end, Mr. Leroy's whole enterprise was predicated on the tenets of drag - lots of veils and subterfuge. It also played on the desire of readers to confuse author with character, a fallacy that permits fans of J. D. Salinger, for example, to believe that he really is Holden Caulfield. So it's fitting somehow that "J T Leroy" turned out to be a mirage.

In nonfiction, though, there's a different contract with the reader: you don't make stuff up. That's the cardinal rule James Frey broke when he embellished his criminal history in his memoir "A Million Little Pieces." (One example: three months in the joint, reporters found, was actually a few unchained hours in an Ohio police station.)

Now, Mr. Frey wants us to believe that the forms of fiction and nonfiction are so intertwined we can't distinguish between them.

In an interview last week, Larry King asked Mr. Frey why he shopped "A Million Little Pieces" around as a novel, but published it as a memoir. Instead of answering directly, Mr. Frey asserted that his book was in the American literary tradition of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Bukowski and Kerouac.

When Mr. King noted they all wrote fiction, Mr. Frey countered: "At the time of their books being published, the genre of memoir didn't exist." Forget St. Augustine and the intervening 16 centuries of autobiography.

In fact, Mr. Frey seems never to have read a memoir, or at least not one he found worthy of mention. "Memoirs don't generally come under the type of scrutiny that mine has," Mr. Frey whined during the interview.

But memoirs should always come under scrutiny: by their authors, as the books are being written.

I fell in love with memoir when I read Helen Keller's in fourth grade; had it turned out she was merely nearsighted, not deaf, blind and mute, my bubble might have popped.

And now, writing my own memoirs, I know God is in the truth. Only by studying actual events and questioning your own motives will the complex inner truths ever emerge from the darkness. I tell aspiring memoirists, if you're the kind of person who can't apologize, who digs in, trusts only the first impulse, then this won't be your form. The convenient sound bites into which I store my sense of self are rarely accurate - whose are? They have to be unpacked and pecked at - warily, with unalloyed suspicion. You must testify and recant, type and delete.

Call me outdated, but I want to stay hamstrung by objective truth, when the very notion has been eroding for at least a century. When Mary McCarthy wrote "Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood" in 1957, she felt obliged to clarify how she recreated dialogue. In her preface, she wrote: "This record lays a claim to being historical - that is, much of it can be checked. If there is more fiction in it than I know, I should like to be set right."

IN the decades since, objective truth (a phrase it's hard not to put quotes around) has lost power; subjective experience has gained authority. For many in my generation, Michael Herr's hallucinatory Vietnam memoir, "Dispatches," has become a truer record of the war than the "official" reports, which are clotted with fabricated body counts and the White House's lies.

As subjective experience has gained clout, memoirists have begun to employ novelistic devices to improve the genre's literary prospects, increasing their readership in the process. Since memory is informed by imagination, what we write is innately distorted, which undermines any memoir's "accuracy" in historical terms. (A paradox to me, since historians value diaries and letters as "first-hand" evidence.) Readers understand, of course, that no one lives with a Handycam strapped to her head for research purposes.

While writing my first memoir, "The Liars' Club," I sought advice from autobiographers whose works gave me a reverence for the genre - Mr. Herr, Frank Conroy, Maxine Hong Kingston. As a graduate student at Goddard College, I'd heard Geoffrey Wolff read from "Duke of Deception," which he researched using a historian's tools: interviews taped with his mother and his conman father's jail and medical records. Still, he told me: "Documents are funny things. I'm looking at a copy of my dad's résumé right now. It says he holds degrees from the Sorbonne. It lists the head of the C.I.A. as a reference."

His brother Tobias's "This Boy's Life," drawn solely from recollection, was an act of memory, not history. But that in no way casts it in the same pit as Mr. Frey's fairy tale, where events were seemingly concocted with impunity.

Both brothers Wolff told me that the truth was elusive and hard won. Morally speaking, we memoirists occupy inherently muddy turf - cashing in on the misery of our loved ones and exploiting those who trust us. "Take no care for your dignity," Toby wrote to me in a letter. Their example convinced me that truth in memoir was possible, even if it's imperfectly wrung from flawed introspection. And for some 15 years, I have clung like a marsupial to that idea - well as I could.

So I rejected the strong suggestion of one publishing executive that I include a touching goodbye scene with my mother. "But I don't remember it, " I told him, and readers were left without what I'm sure would have been a narratively comforting farewell. Sometimes to forget an event may be the most radiantly true way of representing it.

Mr. Frey seems to have started with his perceived truth, and then manufactured events to support his vision of himself as a criminal. But how could a memoirist even begin to unearth his life's truths with fake events? At one point, I wrote a goodbye scene to show how my hard-drinking, cowboy daddy had bailed out on me when I hit puberty.

When I actually searched for the teenage reminiscences to prove this, the facts told a different story: my daddy had continued to pick me up on time and make me breakfast, to invite me on hunting and fishing trips. I was the one who said no. I left him for Mexico and California with a posse of drug dealers, and then for college.

This was far sadder than the cartoonish self-portrait I'd started out with. If I'd hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I'd never had to overcome - a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties - I wouldn't have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth.

After the Frey scandal broke, I spent the day pacing my apartment like a prosecutor, cursing him. But on "Larry King Live" the other night, he looked so cudgeled that all my talked-up piety dissolved into pathos. Mr. Frey was being forced to do in the klieg lights what so many others have been schooled to do on the page. The pain in his expression would fill a book - a true one, I hope.

Mary Karr, a professor of literature at Syracuse University, is the author of "The Liars' Club," a memoir, and the forthcoming "Sinners Welcome."
Tags: books, random, writing

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