books

Why should he have to live what he writes?

If writers can script reality TV and celeb autobiographies, it seems picky to blame Frey

February 6 2006
books

Why should he have to live what he writes?

If writers can script reality TV and celeb autobiographies, it seems picky to blame Frey

February 6 2006

Why should he have to live what he writes?

If writers can script reality TV and celeb autobiographies, it seems picky to blame Frey

books

You can tell a lot about a society from its deceptions. A century and a half ago, the author of The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner felt obliged to invent a male identity for herself, “George Eliot.” These days, a writer would have to be either out of her mind or very poorly advised by her agent to pull some cockamamie career-ending stunt like pretending to be a white male author—unless perhaps you were the sexually abused son of the abusive “George Eliot Senior.” James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a “heartbreaking memoir” of “poetic honesty” (Bret Easton Ellis), was recently revealed to be somewhat heavier on the “poetic” than on the “honesty.” Instead of being a tough drug-addicted punk who brawled with cops while high on crack, took up with a doomed narcohooker, got tossed in the slammer and was wanted in three jurisdictions, Mr. Frey turns out to be some suburban Pat Boone-type with a couple of outstanding parking tickets (I exaggerate, but not as much as he does).

Oprah fell for it, as she’s wont to do. If memory serves, the last time it happened was with The Education of Little Tree, the bestselling memoir of a Cherokee boyhood by a fellow who proved to be not a Cherokee boy but a Ku Klux Klansman—Forrest Carter. Indeed, Mr. Carter claims to have written George Wallace’s “Segregation forever!” speech. But, drooling over all those authentic Cherokee rites of passage, neither Oprah nor Canada’s Jake Eberts, the Chariots Of Fire producer who outbid her for the movie rights, could see the Forrest for the Little Tree. I pulled the DVD down from the shelf the other day and was tickled by the slogan: “A boy of two worlds must learn to be his own man.” Forrest Carter was always his own man, but he did a very good job of learning to pass as a boy of two worlds.

BY MARK STEYN

Meanwhile, JT LeRoy, the 25-year-old transsexual whose account of his childhood as a cross-dressed prostitute pimped by his mother has been sold to the movies, was revealed not to exist at all. He’s not a woman who used to be a man or even a woman pretending to be a woman who used to be a man. He or she is, in fact, neither. There’s no there there. For talk-show appearances, they hired a lady who wore her wig off-kilter.

Is any memoir real? The other day I read in the London Telegraph a review of the latest searingly painfully brutally honest memoir of horrifying childhood abuse, Ugly by Con-

Kathryn Harrison's case is instructive. If I were her agent. I'd recommend seducing an aunt.

stance Briscoe. “Why did I put this strangely opaque memoir down with a feeling that there was something askew?” wondered the critic Julie Myerson. Twenty-four hours later, Ms. Briscoe’s sister popped up to say that most of the stuff in the book was invented.

On the other hand, at least Constance Briscoe is in real life, as claimed on the jacket, a black woman and not an elderly white male Old Etonian. Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of the searingly painfully etc. account (translated into 12 languages) of his early years in the Jewish ghetto of Riga and then in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, was subsequently discovered to have been born in Switzerland and endured the living hell (at least from a literary marketing viewpoint) of spending the war in a prosperous neighbourhood raised by a middle-class Zurich couple. It surely can’t be long before some Abenaki lesbian literary agent writes a searingly painful memoir revealing that it was childhood abuse in Bergen-Belsen that led her to peddle dozens of fake memoirs to Random House.

We seem to have dodged this bullet in Canada so far, though it would seem to me the most likely explanation if “Margaret Atwood,” “Michael Ondaatje” and the rest of the gang were all cooked up by a guy called Gordie in Sudbury on one almighty bender of a Victoria Day weekend 30 years ago.

The novelist Christian Bauman has suggested that the book world got into this mess because bestselling memoirs significantly outsell bestselling novels. So, for a publisher, when some loser in his bedsit sends you his first stab at fiction, it generally works out swell for all parties if you suggest sticking “non-” at the front. The case of Kathryn Harrison is instructive. A decade ago, she was an indifferent-selling novelist. Then she wrote a book about having sex with her dad and it did boffo biz, rocketing her to the front line of literary celebrity. The jacket photo tells you what’s going on: on her novels, Mrs. Harrison looks like a conventionally attractive successful middle-class

author. On The Kiss-the sex-with-pa book —the blond hair’s been pushed back and the face seems raw, more exposed, more victim-like, the survivor confronting the truth about her own past: the author re-invented as character.

But, of course, the confessional memoir is just another form of authorial pose. The Kiss is very sparely written, almost trance-like— like sleepwalking through a vat ofvichyssoise.

“I arrive at the state promised by the narcotic kiss in the airport,” Mrs. Harrison writes woozily, apropos her first coupling with dad. “In years to come, I won’t be able to remember even one instance of our lying together. I’ll have a composite, generic memory.”

Are you sure? In a promotional interview with Mirabella, one terse response rang truer than all 207 pages of the fey writerly presenttense memoir: “I wanted my father, let’s just say that. And I got him.” Kathryn Harrison has since written more conventional memoirs about her unresolved feelings about her mother and some postpartum anorexia. If I were her agent, I’d recommend seducing an aunt. The frisson that The Kiss offers is that it happened—to her, to the gal who’s telling you all about it. The words we apply to memoirs—“brave,” “inspirational”—derive only from their status as documentary truth. As James Frey told Oprah’s viewers, “I truly, truly mean it when I say if I can do it, you can do it”—conquer his addictions, that is, not fake a big gazillion-selling book.

The trouble with the memoir racket is that most folks who lead interesting lives don’t want to write and most folks who do want to write have lives that consist of sitting around in their underwear staring at the keyboard and getting up to refill the coffee mug every 20 minutes. Hard to work that up into anything “brave” and “inspirational.” P. G. Wodehouse, for example, would do his daily writing, then watch his favourite daytime soaps, decade in, decade out. As it happens, his fictional world is remarkably similar to James Frey’s. In both, the protagonist is a young man prone to unhealthy living and getting into scrapes with coppers:

“On the previous night, I had given a little dinner at the Drones to Gussie Fink-Notde as a friendly send-off before his approaching nuptials with Madeline, only daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett, CBE, and these things take their toll. Indeed, just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head—not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.”

That’s not so far from the way “Frey” wakes up: “I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colourful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.” The only difference

He endured the living hell (from a literary marketing viewpoint) of spending the war in well-off Zurich

is Bertie Wooster isn’t available to go on Oprah and announce he’s conquered his demons: “I say, old thing, dash it all, if I can do it, you can bally do it, what?”

But in an age when professional writers write autobiographies for celebrities and personal heartwarming anecdotes for political candidates and stilted dialogue for reality TV shows, it seems a bit picky to insist they eschew the gravy train of the bestselling memoir just because they didn’t personally experience the events they’re writing about. The memoir industry may be approaching the condition of the Australian art business, where so many fashionably primitive Aboriginal female painters were unmasked as wily male Caucasian opportunists they passed a law making it a crime to claim falsely to be a native person.

Or we could modify the reassuring closing credits from the movies: “No authors were harmed in the making of this harrowing firstperson narrative.” M