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In Defense of James Frey and Memoir

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As a writer and teacher of memoir I am bombarded by moderately-informed people spitting out the name James Frey whenever the topic of memoir comes up, eyebrows raised, fire on their tongues. It's true Frey's debacle made headlines, yet there are many misconceptions about what he did or did not do. I'm certainly not condoning his actions, but there are other memoirists since his tussle with Oprah who have committed far greater sins. (Margaret Selzer for one.) And, yesterday and today, many of the misunderstandings about what defines specific genres of books have sprung to life with the comments aimed at Scott McClellan and What Happened?

So, let's take a step back and figure out what memoir is.

A good place to start is to clarify what memoir is not: It is not journalism, history, biography, or even autobiography. Memoir is the close inspection of some slim aspect of one's lived experience in which the writer uses every writerly technique available to craft a compelling story that explores the human dilemma and in the process unearths some truth central to his life.

Memoir is not accumulation of fact at the expense of this truth. The memoirist is committed to emotional truth, and because memoir is an art form that end is achieved through artful means. Consequently, what I find most disturbing when discussing memoir with people is that very few understand this.

If our society and the publishing world are going to attach the word "memoir" to everyone from Barbara Walters and Julie Andrews to Scott McClellan and Barack Obama, they had better be prepared for the truth. People think memoir all true, as if the memoirist projected a flashlight through his ear and out played a movie onto the page. Pure fact. That's not a memoir.

There is further confusion in the marketplace. While I am not apologizing for James Frey, I feel driven to point out this imbalance: As recently as May 18 Janny Scott, writing in the New York Times, noted Barack Obama's use of composite characters in his memoir:

"Reporters have questioned Mr. Obama's use of fictional techniques like composite characters, but some editors and critics say that is common in memoirs."

Why does Barack Obama's use of fictional techniques merit such little outcry? Why do we continue to beat up on James Frey for utilizing fictional techniques? Why is no one in the streets working up a lather and berating Obama for his blurring of the genre lines? Instead, quite the opposite. Large portions of America herald Obama as a force of change. And a gifted writer.

The fact is Barack Obama and James Frey are both gifted writers.

Frey's new book Bright Shiny Morning -- a novel, not a memoir -- is another example of great moments of craft. They guy knows how to write. Why can't we just get off the Million Little Pieces bandwagon and praise Frey for being a gifted writer, someone who knows how to use the techniques of writing to his advantage, like Obama?

Part of the reason is that few people actually understand what memoir is. Let's remember: Memoirists conflate time. They combine characters. They make truths that speak to their hearts, often at the expense of the details of fact. That is the art of memoir, where the point of the genre is to make a truth about a life lived that resonates in the bones of the writer and sends out shock waves of recognition to readers.

Both Frey and Obama have done this in their memoirs, as have a long list of other fine writers.

So let's get off James Frey and get on with something else, like educating more people about what memoir really is.