Why do people like reality TV, memoirs and personal narrative? My thought? Because they are real. And people yearn for real connection through story. Why do people feel ripped off by fiction or fictionalization in this area? Because it is lying. And when we discover that the connection we developed with the teller while listening is based on a false pretext, we feel violated in some way. Yet, good stories need some added imagination to become stories, don't they? Hellz yah!
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We listen to "living" stories with awe and wonder because the person telling it also lived it. Or so we think. When what we hear and see in the performance does not add up we are confused. When the equation does not balance, we ponder and wonder. We will adjust our understanding of human possibility based on what we hear. So if what we are told is a lie, we feel cheated. Even angry.
Look at the the flap caused a few years ago by James Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces,: Jocelyn Noveck Associated Press wrote: "Does the author of a memoir have an unspoken contract with readers to be true to the facts? Even if those facts are intensely personal? Many have been asking that question since James Frey was accused this week of embellishing important parts of his best-selling (and Oprah-endorsed) memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," a searing account of his battle with substance abuse." Others, Mark Hvidsten, took this stance "His [Frey's] greater truth can't be measured by facts."
Frey's bio from wikipedia has this take on the story:
"The Minneapolis Star Tribune had questioned Frey's claims as early as 2003. Frey responded by saying, "I've never denied I've altered small details." In a May 2003 interview, Frey claimed that his publisher had fact-checked his first book. He stated, "The only things I changed were aspects of people that might reveal their identity. Otherwise, it's all true."
On January 11, 2006, Frey appeared with his mother on Larry King Live on CNN. He defended his work while claiming that all memoirs alter minor details for literary effect. Frey consistently referred to the reality of his addiction, which he said was the principal point of his work. Oprah Winfrey called in at the end of the show defending the essence of Frey's book and the inspiration it provided to her viewers, but said she relied on the publisher to assess the book's authenticity. Winfrey removed the references to Frey's work on the main page of her website, but left references in the Oprah's Book Club section earlier in the week.
On January 13, 2006, it was reported that all subsequent printings of A Million Little Pieces would include an author's note addressing concerns about the content.
Live confrontation with Oprah
As more accusations against the book continued to surface, Winfrey invited Frey on her show. She wanted to hear from him directly whether he had lied to her (and viewers) or "simply" embellished minor details, as he had told Larry King. Frey admitted to several of the allegations against him. He acknowledged that The Smoking Gun had been accurate when the website reported that Frey had only spent a few hours in jail rather than the 87 days Frey claimed in his memoirs.
Winfrey then brought out Frey's publisher Nan Talese to defend her decision to classify the book as a memoir. Talese admitted that she had done nothing to check the book's veracity, despite the fact that her representatives had assured Winfrey's staff that the book was indeed non-fiction and described it as "brutally honest" in a press release.
The media feasted over the televised showdown....Maureen Dowd wrote, "It was a huge relief, ...to see the Empress of Empathy icily hold someone accountable for lying," and the Washington Post's Richard Cohen was so impressed by the confrontation that he crowned Winfrey "Mensch of the Year."
On January 27, 2006, Random House issued a statement regarding the controversy. It noted that future editions of the book would contain notes from both the publisher and Frey on the text, as well as prominent notations on the cover and on their website about the additions. It also noted that future printings of the book would be delayed until these changes were made, and these additions were also being sent out promptly to booksellers for inclusion in previously shipped copies of the book."
from the May 9, 2008 edition of the Christian Science Monitor:
Memoirs: whose truth – and does it matter?
Two years after the James Frey scandal, a still-roiled genre thrives.
By Matthew Shaer and Teresa Méndez | Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor
"When it hits bookshelves early next month, author David Sedaris's new book, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" will carry a short preface, labeling the contents "real-ish."
Buoyed by the success of a few flagship titles – including "Eat, Pray, Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert, and "Beautiful Boy," by David Sheff – the memoir category continues to be a source of strength for a publishing industry that has watched sales of literary fiction slip in recent years.
Mr. Sheff's book, a tale of his son's addiction to methamphetamines, hit the top slot on The New York Times bestseller list two weeks ago, and a movie deal is reportedly in the works. (It has since dropped to No. 4, behind a memoir by Julie Andrews.) "Eat, Pray, Love" is listed as No. 2 on the paperback list; the quasimystical account of self-discovery became a favorite of Oprah Winfrey, who endorsed the book exuberantly.
But memoir has also suffered a string of high-profile scandals, beginning in 2006 when the website The Smoking Gun found "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details" in James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." This year, author Misha Defonseca admitted that her widely read "Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years," was a fake: Ms. Defonseca lived in Brussels during World War II, is not Jewish, and was not raised by wolves. Then in March, Margaret Seltzer said she had manufactured "Love and Consequences," a critically acclaimed tale of gang life in South Central Los Angeles.
"Fiction has lost its allure because of this primitive belief that memoir is more worthy, more authentic," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University, and author of the memoir "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage." At the same time, he says, "The bubble of a wholly reliable reminiscence has burst."
"I thought, OK, that's a good word. It's 'real-ish,' " Mr. Sedaris explains. "I guess I've always thought that if 97 percent of the story is true, then that's an acceptable formula. Put it on a scale. Is it 97 percent pure?"