I’m rearranging my books. Rather than having every- thing muddled together I want biography and autobiography in one room and fiction in another. Sounds straightforward enough, but I’ve already come unstuck.

frances wilson

autobiography is based on facts and dates and verifiable data, memoir relies on memory alone, which is slippery, impressionistic and unreliable. So while you can fact-check an autobiography, you can’t challenge a memoir. ‘To tell a story effectively,’ Frey said, ‘you

Walks Like a Novel, Swims Like a Fish?

What should I do about fictional biography (like Virginia Woolf ’s Flush), biographical fiction (like Robert Graves’s I, Claudius), fictional autobiography (Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas), autobiographical fiction (Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), and that newfangled thing called autofiction, which the bookshops file under fiction but I read entirely as auto? I need a set of subgenres, and will label the shelves accordingly.

But what about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces? Autobiography or fiction? A Million Little Pieces, published in 2003, is the story of how Frey washed up in a rehabilitation centre suffering from alcoholism and drug-addiction. He had been an alcoholic since he was thirteen; he then discovered crystal meth and, aged twenty-three, reached rock-bottom. He describes crashing into a police car while high, resisting arrest, serving a three-month jail sentence and being a wanted man in three states.

manipulate information … if stories were told always exactly as they really happened most of them would be really boring.’ True, but this doesn’t help with the problem of how I should categorise the blasted book.

Both Frey’s agent and Doubleday, his publisher, dumped him, claiming to have been deceived, and Doubleday offered refunds to those readers who had felt defrauded into buying a book that they thought was a memoir but proved closer to fiction. To receive their refund, readers were asked to submit either page 163 from the hardback or the front cover of the paperback plus a sworn statement saying that they had purchased the book under a misguided assumption. What kind of world is this, where readers get their money back because they want the same story but told in a different genre? Imagine if our ancestors had felt a similar outrage about purchasing Jane Eyre: An Autobiography or Robinson Crusoe, which is also presented as a true story ‘written by himself ’?

Selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2005, A Million Little Pieces outsold any book that Oprah had ever plugged. It was the number one paperback non-fiction book on the New York Times bestseller list and a number one seller on Amazon, which is not bad for a writer whose sentences sound like they are being fired out by a kid with a pea-shooter.

Anyway, one year and many millions of dollars later, the website The Smoking Gun went on a search for Frey’s police mugshot but couldn’t find one. This started the alarm bells ringing. Had he even been arrested? Further investigation led to the discovery that rather than crashing into a police car, Frey had simply been stopped by the police for driving erratically and arrested on suspicion of drink-driving. He then spent five hours in police custody and was released on the payment of a cash bond, which he could easily afford because he came from an affluent family. So no crashing into a police car, no jail sentence. The meth addiction was instead recreational cocaine use. Following the inevitable outcry, Frey responded on his blog, ‘So let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt. I stand by my book and my life.’

Oprah, too, initially stood by the book. ‘The underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me,’ she said. It’s a a good point: the message of redemption (the only American story) remains the same whether the book is autobiography or fiction. Surely its value should not rest entirely on whether the experiences it describes are true. But two weeks later Oprah did a U-turn and Frey was hauled back onto her show to explain himself. ‘I have to say it is difficult for me to talk to you because I feel duped,’ she said, without any difficulty, in front of her usual twenty million viewers. ‘But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.’ Frey conceded that his book contained fabrications but, he argued, most memoirs contain a tangle of truth and fiction. This was the difference between memoir and autobiography, he explained: while

A Million Little Pieces was reprinted with ‘a note to the reader’ in which Frey apologised to anyone who had ‘been disappointed by my actions’. The problem, he explained, was that he was two people. ‘My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.’ What Frey didn’t say is that before Doubleday took on A Million Little Pieces, it had been rejected by seventeen publishers because it had been presented to them as a novel. It was only when he called the book a memoir that he got himself a publishing deal.

My edition of A Million Little Pieces is the hardback one, for which I had better create a new category, distinct from fictional autobiography, called fictional memoir. I’ll then look out for the paperback with Frey’s disclaimer, which I can put into fiction.

Next in the pile is Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria. This, no question, is a biography. But he ends with that final rolling sentence, where the great queen lies dying and we are taken into her mind as she glides ‘back and back, through the cloud of years’ to ‘the spring woods at Osborne’, to ‘Albert’s first stag at Balmoral’ and ‘her mother’s feathers sweeping down towards her’... I’m putting it with the middle-brow novels.

Then there’s Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy, the story of an Oscarwinning Anglo-Pakistani screenwriter who leaves his partner and two small boys for another woman. Kureishi is himself an Oscar-winning Anglo-Pakistani screenwriter who left his partner and two small boys for another woman, and according to the partner he left, everything in his ‘novel’ is true. ‘He’s says it’s a novel,’ she explained, ‘but that’s an absolute abdication of responsibility. You may as well call it a fish.’

I might as well make a whole new category called fishy tales, spread it over both rooms and muddle all my books up together in there.

august 2021 | Literary Review 1