To Read Or Not To Read A Novel James Frey stares disgrace in the face
By Anne R. Allen
The verbosity generated by the debunking of American writer James Frey’s "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, has been heavy and deep.
But I haven’t heard mention one of the underlying central issue: a fiction writer called his book nonfiction in order to sell it. What does that say about the state of the novel in modern culture?
Frey wrote what many agree is a heart-stopping read, but he wouldn’t have become an overnight Oprah-megastar if he’d called his book a novel. He’d more likely be unpublished, scrounging, like the rest of us, for postage.
And hey, if I had a chance to get my chick lit novels published by Doubleday and land a big movie contract, I might be tempted to try to pass them off as memoirs, too: A Million Little Designer Labels, maybe, or A Million Bad Dates With Guys Who Look Like Hugh Grant.
When the Smoking Gun found out I’m really an old hippie chick who couldn’t walk three feet in a pair of Manolos, would I care? Even in disgrace, Frey-boy is making more money than most mere novelists can dream of.
The truth is that the marketplace — in the U.S. in particular — is not fiction-friendly, despite occasional phenomena like Dan Brown’s early Christian conspiracy theories or the sagas of one H. Potter (who might still be languishing in manuscript if J.K. Rowling had tried for a Yankee publisher first). The bestsellers are nonfiction.
I have a friend whose nonfiction has made bestseller lists several times, but when he wrote a novel — a pretty good one — he had to go to an obscure U.K. publisher to get it into print. And gone are the days when fictionalized autobiographies like Kerouac’s or Henry Miller’s could make it to the top of anybody's list. Today the audience wants us to keep it verifiably r-e-a-l.
And this isn’t just true of the book industry. Film awards of recent years have gone to actors portraying dead real people like Ray Charles, Katherine Hepburn, Truman Capote and Johnny Cash. One actor friend, more than a bit annoyed by this trend, suggests that the Academy establish separate categories for impersonating and acting.
Then there is "reality" TV, wherein fans are more entertained by a bunch of Z-list celebrities cat-fighting and eating bugs than by anything resembling a story. Have we become like the audiences of ancient Rome, so jaded that we can only be amused by witnessing real human suffering?
Or are we so starved for truth by our mendacious authority figures that we are suspicious of anything that can’t be verified by the fact-checking trolls at some snoopy website?
Fiction was once our most effective voice for social and political truths. Abraham Lincoln accused Harriet Beecher Stowe of starting the Civil War with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And people like Charles Dickens and Sinclair Lewis alerted the world to wrongs and changed the fabric of society.
But in a market like ours, I suppose Stowe would need to claim she “just growed” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin herownself maybe before suffering from alopecia areata. Instead of Oliver Twist or Main Street, we’d have Charlie D’s painful memories of abuse in the bootblack factory, and “Red” Lewis’s personal confessions of debauched Gopher Prairie Nights.
But I can’t be self-righteous. I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading novels myself, except when I’m editing one, or on vacation. I have a stack of half-read or never-opened novels next to my reading chair that I never seem to get to after I’ve done my duty by daily newspapers, webnews, blogs, newsletters and those sneaky New Yorkers that stack up and seem to multiply when I’m not looking.
So I am a novelist not reading novels. Why?
I was surprised when I figured it out: I enjoy them too much. When I’m lost in a fictional world, I’m like a drunk on a binge. Dishes go unwashed, jobs unfinished, friends neglected. Novels take time. In our frantic 21st century, too-much-information-world, I feel the need to be always on alert, forever acquiring the knowledge I’ll need tomorrow.
But I might be wrong there. Maybe reading a novel could take me on a much-needed holiday from all this vigilance and anxiety. It might relax me and quiet the daily brain noise.
And it’s cheaper than massage.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, An Historical Novel Of The 1980s, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK in 2005 and is available from amazon.co.uk and most UK bookshops. Her first novel with Babash-Ryan, Food Of Love is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org