A memoir is like a book with a Schrödinger’s cat inside. A memoir that leaves your impression of the memoir-writer or public events within the memoir intact, keeps the cat alive. But a self-serving memoir that puts a positive spin on everything the writer did effectively kills the cat as well as any regard you had for the writer. No one expects a memoir writer to be totally reliable: the memory plays tricks, scenes are cut to keep the book readable. Open the book and you don’t know whether the cat’s alive or dead. News of claims of damages, $2.35m in the case of James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”, and a demand for memoirs to be filed under fiction, initially appear as yet more of those ‘only in America’ type stories.
But, open up that headline grabbing damages figure and you’ll discover the poor cat’s choked on a red herring. The problem here wasn’t the book or the fact it was a memoir or the fact it was so viciously edited it almost strayed into fiction, the problem was the way the book was marketed. Fiction is a lie to tell a greater truth. Books like “A Million Little Pieces” were marketed as being ‘real’. “A real, true, shocking memoir” is a great piece of marketing. But it’s a false description that, justifiably, has severely damaged a book’s reputation. The marketeers should have been more careful, instead of using “real” they should have used “realistic”. The latter enables the cat to eat edible, cooked white herring and live.