When a Memoir Isn't 

James Frey wakes up on a plane to find his four front teeth gone, a hole in his cheek, a broken nose, liquid oozing down his face, and his clothes covered with multiple bodily fluids. He asks the attendant where he is going.

Now Oprah understands, but Frey still does not get the full picture, "I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the author to write from memory instead of a strict journalistic or historical standard."

While any nonfiction classification carries with it an Achilles' heel, memoirs may carry an Achilles' foot. Frey spends all but 12 pages of "A Million Little Pieces" as a resident of Hazelden, a drug rehabilitation center. He safely fills these 400 pages with coarse, staccato conversations and simple descriptions of rooms, feelings and circumstances. Since a memoir is a subclass of autobiography that can be less structured and more intimate, Frey fulfills the definition through his subjective renderings of daily life in the treatment center. Proof is not necessary here. Literary license is in full play.

Where Frey errs is in his recall of events outside the rehabilitation center. Even the best use of dialogue in a subjective section will not save the memoirist if he does not disclose accurate details of situations noted by witnesses, police reports and medical records. Timelines and events are objective happenings. Nonfiction, even in its most creative form, preserves the fact.

Like many public libraries, Richmond Public places memoirs in the Dewey subject number. "A Million Little Pieces" falls under drug addiction — 362.29, next to "The Smoker's Book of Health." Readers searching the section for information have the right to assume that any book they choose will contribute to their knowledge of addiction.

A book that "tells a good story" of a drug experience is placed under the autobiographical novel in the fiction section.

What moves a book from a memoir to an autobiographical novel? The novel classification allows the writer to change names and to re-create events for a more dramatic effect. "There is no pretense of neutrality or exact truth in the presentation," as noted in Wikopedia. Well-known autobiographical novels include "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, "The Things They Carried" by Go Read Richmond author Tim O'Brien and "Old School" by Tobias Wolff. The author takes the autobiographical events and restructures circumstances and details until the product fits his story.

Mary Karr, a memoirist and author of "The Liar's Club," suggests that "it's easy to find the line between fiction and nonfiction." Perhaps it should be easier. Libraries buy materials based on reviews from professional sources such as Library Journal, Publisher's Weekly, Booklist and Kirkus Reviews. These publications receive advance copies of books from publishers which they review. The larger, better-known publishers furnish the majority of these books, so size and reputation count for a lot in book selling.

Initially, the publisher decides the fiction or nonfiction placement. When the library has book in hand, the staff can disagree with the placement and shift the book according to collection practices. As creative nonfiction grows in popularity, the decision becomes harder and reclassification more frequent. In recent months, Richmond Public Library has received books with cover blurbs indicating that the author has written a "nonfiction novel" or a "historical account with a creative edge" or "a reinterpretation of the original facts." The waters of classification are murky.

The tip-off that all is not well with Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" is in the opening text. A Writing 101 class understands that the first few paragraphs of a work must grab its audience. Frey wakes up on a plane to find his four front teeth gone, a hole in his cheek, a broken nose, liquid oozing down his face, and his clothes covered with multiple bodily fluids. He asks the attendant where he is going. A sure-fire start for the reader, but because the book is nonfiction, the first question becomes, "How did this unconscious guy, a victim of a horrendous accident, get on the plane in the first place? Who would let him pass the gate?" Logic trips Frey again and again. Place the book in fiction, and it becomes an intriguing story. No questions asked.

Frey's proven untruths will not hurt his book's success. Controversy spurs sales. "My Friend Leonard," his sequel to "Pieces," is also a best seller. Book holds climb daily at Richmond Public Library on both books.

Recently Oprah declared "Night" by Elie Wiesel her next Book Club choice. After a controversial first novelist, the choice of a well-respected literary name is a wise move. But one stark similarity remains between her two choices. The classification of "Night" changes from library to bookstore to reader. Is this title fiction or nonfiction, autobiographical novel or memoir?

Sound familiar? S



Beth Morelli is collection development manager at Richmond Public Library.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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