Wednesday, October 29, 2008

fictitious expectations

I haven't read James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. I've read the back of it a million little times but haven't yet been convinced. His new book, Bright Shiny Morning, is apparently 'fiction' and has received reasonable acclaim. The Guardian's podcast interview of Frey came on my iPod today and I hadn't heard it before. I found myself shouting at the interview (while walking home in a blizzard - I'm sure the locals think I'm cuckoo) because of Frey's pompous attitude and lazy answers, not to mention his use of the word 'gnarly' (which he then, cumbersomely, attempted to explain to the interviewer). (No one over the age of 25 should actually use the word 'gnarly', especially in an interview with the Guardian.) Frey still feels he did nothing wrong by fictionalizing his story and selling it as memoir, which then spent weeks on the nonfiction bestseller list (i.e. more cash for Frey). He claims that every memoir on our shelves has been somewhat fabricated. That he just got caught. That he started off wanting to write fiction, and even insinuates that getting his fiction published was his reason for writing the 'memoir'. He also wants to be considered in the company of Mailer, Hemingway and Wolfe, and considers his new book an attempt at that elusive Great American Novel.

The interviewer asked about Frey's use of Los Angeles as a character in his new book. Frey refuses to say whether the details in his book which seem factual are indeed so; he makes a joke about the reader's right to Google every 'fact'. His point is an interesting one: do readers actually suspend all disbelief when they pick up a novel? Or, as he seems to think, should readers accept fiction as fiction and not expect things to be accurate? Would a reader get annoyed if Hollywood Boulevard was a street in Pacific Palisades or Orange County was north of the city?

My questions here are twofold. First, is it expected to fictionalize memoir? Memoir is, after all, an individual perspective. Everyone's memories are tainted by time, events are often combined to create drama or comedy, scenes are selected or deleted to fit our personal evolution. Memoirs, or indeed memories, might not be as interesting without stretching the truth.

Second, if real places are mentioned in fiction, do readers expect facts? My current novel is set in Lisbon and Chicago, and I've spent days researching street names, historical timelines, geography, weather, everything. I feel I owe it to my readers to provide an authentic experience, even through the medium of fiction. How much leeway do you allow your authors? More crudely, where is the line between fiction and bullshit?


Susan Elena said...

I expect the characters and situations to be fictional but if the story is set on this planet then messing with location just gets too confusing.

As for memoirs, yes it's fine to miss bits out to keep things interesting, or as they say in Spaced "skip to the end", but if your life isn't interesting enough to tell the story without embellishing or making it up then you probably shouldn't be writing about it.

Jesse & James said...

I agree. I like realistic fiction---a reader gets excited when you can make a connection to something real and tangible, be a street name in your home town, or a place you visited on a great vacation. Fiction, however, is fiction, and the rest should have complete leeway. But that's just my 2 cents.