Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Million Little James Freys (or, He Ain't the First)

Would anyone have noticed James Frey if he hadn't hit the big time (the biggest!) by gaining the endorsement of Oprah? Probably not--along with countless other memoirists who threw some artificial flavoring into their story. It is the money that draws the attention.

So--if you're writing a memoir, either be honest or don't plan on selling many copies.

This entire mess happened not too long ago to similar fury. Remember the memoir SLEEPERS by Lorenzo Carcaterra? Mr. Carcaterra gained quite of a bit of notoriety over his memoir of growing up in Hell's Kitchen as a child and serving time in a horribly cruel and sadistic detention center. The book tells the story of four youths and how they were repeatedly abused and raped, essentially the slaves of the disgusting guards that worked there. The second half of the book deals with how the boys got revenge on the guards once they were adults.

The book was a bestseller, making the NY Times bestseller, Publishers Weekly and others. It soon became a movie with Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, et. al.. It was a compelling, excellent story, and all true!

Okay, not all true.

Okay, apparently not true at all.

Once the movie went into production (keep in mind, having Oprah bless your book is the only thing better than having Brad Pitt star in the movie adaptation of your book) people started nosing around to see if the story was true. Apparently, there were no court records of the supposed trial that took place in the memoir, as well as no proof the kids were ever in detention--and in fact, some people say the detention center never even existed.

You can find many of the details from the oodles of Amazon reviewers who slammed the book.

The point is--once again--that the book was a compelling memoir (very hard to believe unless it was true!) but horribly ridiculous and outlandish as fiction, which it apparently was.

Your memoir doesn't have to be wild or extreme to be compelling. Dave Eggers penned a memoir that really has little about it that is amazing (despite the title) but it's written so well that you can't help but admit the story is wonderful.

The moral? What is the harm in being honest in your memoir? Nothing. Like your mom told you when you were a kid: "Everyone will like you best if you just be yourself."