Pat Morrison, whose radio show I love, writes on Huffington Post about the recently exposed fraudulent memoir Love and Consequences, "Only the memoir sets up itself, and us, for hopes and disappointment...Does our hunger for ''true stories'' feed this phony memoir machine?...What's the difference (whether a story is true or not)? And why does it matter to us? You tell me."
I can tell you why it matters to me, and why I think it should matter to everyone. Fiction is a wondrous art form. It allows us to marvel at how an individual's imagination can help illuminate the human condition. But non-fiction is -- or should be -- sacred. Because, when used honorably, it has the potential to inspire beyond that of anything else.
I happen to have been cured of an illness (acute myeloid leukemia) which, when diagnosed over twenty years ago, was considered incurable. The road to recovery was more difficult and bizarre, with heroes and villains disguised in each others' clothes, than anyone might easily believe. While most who know me now know me as an actor, I've devoted a substantial portion of my life since then to displaying myself, and my history, as an example to others of what is possible -- even when faced with constant discouragement. After all, the most pessimistic predictions twenty-three years ago consistently came from the physicians supposedly devoted to my recovery. While there's been some improvement, the diagnosis I received back then is still a grim one today.
That's why I wrote a book about my unexpected recovery. It's called Time on Fire. Everything in the book really happened. There is not one gram of purposeful invention on the pages. Was my memory photographic? No. Did I make choices about which events to include and which to cut in order to enhance the story's impact? Of course. Did I employ structuring techniques to heighten the drama? Certainly. But the facts as represented have never been disputed, and they cannot be denied -- and that fact is the story's greatest asset.
Would my existence today have as much to offer those facing seemingly impossible odds if I'd just made the story up? Or, to co-opt the excuses used by James Frey and Margaret Seltzer, if I'd only had, say, a bad cold that I'd embellished upon? No. My life, and the book I wrote about how I managed to continue living it, is important because it really happened. I like to use sports as a metaphor. Were tennis players physically incapable of doing what John McEnroe did before he came along and became worthy of emulation? Where their bodies incapable of diving like Boris Becker? Or were their minds simply unable to imagine that kind of play until they'd seen it done by someone else? That's why, for those desperate for an example on which to base their own imaginings of their own success, the truthfulness of my story matters more than a better story that was made up (though I happen to think my own book is pretty good.)
On a much less urgent note, I'm now awaiting the publication of my second book on May 1. It's called It's Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive, and it explores the bizarre, and difficult, and ridiculously funny aspects of trying to reinvest in the life I'd thought wouldn't be mine to live. It's about a man who knows he's lucky just to be alive, but who still takes a very long time to find contentment and gratitude in the life he's lucky just to be living. The book is, above all, a man's search for a lasting love that remains unrequited until he's in his forties, twenty years past his traumatic illness, when I met my beautiful wife. If anyone thinks the facts of my existence to this point have been miraculous, they should pick up a copy of the new book and read about how we overcame what were supposed to be million-to-one odds against ever becoming parents. Truth is stranger than fiction, it has been said. I say it's also more important.
Could a gifted writer compose a book about the story above without relying on facts? Of course they could. Some might even be able to write a better one. But no matter how moving those books were to read, they could never approach the same power to inspire as one that the reader knows, and trusts, is true. No matter how gorgeously rendered, fiction, on some level, can always be dismissed as invention. The truth is the truth, and there is nothing more powerful to a mind seeking inspiration than an already confirmed account. Damage is done when one is passed off as the other, because it dilutes the impact of the real thing.
Ironically, my new book is to be published by Riverhead Books, the same division of Penguin that has now recalled Love and Consequences. I suppose it's less than clever to be critical of my own publisher on the eve of my new book's publication -- though, since they have no plans to send me on tour like they were to do with their fake memoirist (sour grapes, sour grapes, sour grapes), I don't really have much to lose. But I think there needs to be greater accountability from the companies that issue these books. There is no shortage of readers who don't care whether a book is true or not. The Internet has been flooded with their posts since this latest deception came to light. "Is it a good read?" they ask. "If so, who cares if it's true?"
I care. I care deeply. And I think everyone should. Because the story of a gang member who escapes her expected fate to live a fruitful life of helping others deserves to be told -- but it deserves to be told in one of two clearly delineated ways: either as clearly marked fiction; or by (or about) someone who actually did it, so others in whatever deep hole they might be in can start to climb out by saying, "That could be me." And they'd know it could be them, because there would be a verifiable account of it being done by someone already. (The emphasis in that sentence being on the word "verifiable.") I'd like to respectfully suggest that publishers ought to continue to rely on their authors for cleverly recounting their stories, but rely on themselves more for verifying them. Because fictional accounts, while beyond worthy, simply don't possess the same power to inspire. And, once exposed, fake accounts -- passed off as truth -- only diminish hope in those who need it, and therefore diminish the possibility of creating new stories that are even more inspiring.