Commentary

Books about horrific personal experiences have come to dominate the bestseller lists. But the idea t

James Frey, the bestselling American writer, does not like bullshit. We know this because, since the publication of his vomit-heavy addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003), he has said so repeatedly in interviews. So intense is Frey's loathing that he has the initials "FTBITTTD" carved on his arm - apparently standing for "Fuck The Bullshit, It's Time To Throw Down".

All of which goes to show that you should never trust a man's tattoos. Last autumn, A Million Little Pieces was selected by Oprah Winfrey's book club, and went on to sell a staggering 3.5 million copies. Frey's blank-eyed description of drug addiction and the recovery process evidently hit a nerve. But then, early this month, the investigative website the Smoking Gun published an article exposing many of Frey's claims as false. In his memoir, for example, he writes of being with a school friend on the night she died in a train crash; records suggest that he wasn't. He claims to have spent three months in prison after going on a crack-induced rampage in Ohio, but it turns out that he has only ever spent a few hours in jail, after being arrested for drunkenly parking his car outside a pizza restaurant.

The upshot of all this is that a spotlight has once again been thrown on the memoir industry. In recent years, there has been an explosion in memoir sales and the genre now dominates the book charts (of the top ten general bestsellers this past week, eight were memoirs). In the age of reality TV, people seem to revere memoirs because they represent "the truth" - unlike, say, novels, whose authors have in the past often been seen as natural "liars". Today, even fiction writers are expected to make their work factually accurate; many novels are researched as carefully as biographies. Such blurring of fact and fiction has moved the other way, too, and in recent years memoirs have become more experimental, with writers such as Dave Eggers, Toby Young, Peter Carey and Joan Didion pushing at the boundaries of the form. This has led to some commentators suggesting that the "memoir" label be replaced with the less wieldy, but more forgiving, "creative non-fiction".

Frey is not alone in having been accused of fabrication. Last year, Judith Kelly's account of a horrific convent childhood, Rock Me Gently, was pulled from the shelves by her publisher after it emerged that many of the details of her awful "memories" were plagiarised from other works. Augusten Burroughs, author of Running With Scissors (another account of a horrible childhood), was slapped with a lawsuit by the family he grew up with, who claimed that he presented them, erroneously, as "an unhygienic, foul and mentally unstable cult engaged in bizarre and at times criminal activity".

All this raises the question: do memoirs have any value if parts of them are untrue? Does a memoir's value lie in its writing or in what it depicts? The answer depends on exactly what is fabricated, and how. In the case of the claim against Burroughs, the truth may well be subjective: any time you depict a real person, there's a good chance they'll hate what they read. In Frey's case, however, the falsifications clearly aren't subjective. You're either with a childhood friend on the night she dies or you're not. As such, the entire book is called into question, including its "emotional truth" (a phrase to which both Frey and Winfrey have clung).

The truth is that memoir can be an intrinsically exploitative genre. Descriptions of horrific personal struggles now dominate the bestseller lists, with Dave Pelzer the undisputed king of the genre. Such books tacitly compel readers to suspend critical judgement - which is forgivable if, like Pelzer, your mother made you swallow ammonia, but not so if your work is an exaggeration. Frey has regularly compared himself to Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Kerouac, but when he tried to get A Million Little Pieces published as fiction, it was turned down - not surprisingly, because the writing is mannered, relentless and ugly. By publishing it as a memoir, however, Frey was able to exploit his readers' sympathy.

The real question that the Frey controversy and others like it raise is: why have these books become so popular? Why do people choose to read accounts of hideous experiences, regardless of whether they contain any insight? It is often said that people find succour in these types of books but, having had a fairly disastrous childhood myself, I have to say that the last thing I'm drawn to is a detailed account of abuse - whether child abuse, as in Pelzer's case, or self-abuse, as in Frey's.

Given that our interest in these kinds of memoirs can seem pornographic, perhaps it's divine retribution that authors such as Frey occasionally exploit our prurience. In the meantime, one thing seems certain: writers will carry on writing memoirs. Many of these will be cliched and exploitative, but others will be original and genuinely moving. On 6 February, for instance, comes Rosalind B Penfold's Dragonslippers (HarperCollins), which is an account of an abusive relationship in comic-book form. It's a careful, non-sensational and enlightening work that consciously avoids posturing or self-aggrandisement. And as such, it is decidedly not bullshit.

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