Oh now I get it.
James Frey, whose life story sold millions even though it wasn’t exactly his life story, has explained his whole new genre to us, on the Larry King Show (you can lie to Oprah, apparently, so long as you cover your ass on King). Here’s how it went:
FREY: We initially shopped the book as a novel and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a non-fiction book. When Nan Talese purchased the book, I’m not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.
KING: Why did you shop it as a novel if it wasn’t?
FREY: I think of the book as working in sort of a tradition – a long tradition of what American writers have done in the past, people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.
KING: But they all said fiction.
FREY: Yes, they did. And at the time of their books being published, the genre of memoir didn’t exist. I mean, the genre of memoir is one that’s very new and the boundaries of it had not been established yet.
KING: But you will agree, if you went into a bookstore and it said memoirs, you would think non-fiction?
FREY: Yes. I mean, it’s a classification of non-fiction. Some people think it’s creative non-fiction. It’s generally recognized that the writer of a memoir is retailing a subjective story. That it’s one person’s event. I mean, I still stand by the essential truths of the book.
There are so many hilarious elements there, it’s hard to know where to start. How about the idea that memoir didn’t exist as a genre in the 20th century? He’s not just a liar, he’s an ignorant schmuck. How about the allegation that the publishers knew it was a novel but decided to market it as memoir? Or the idea that you can pitch a manuscript to publishers as either fiction or non-fiction (pick whichever you need to fill out your list)? Or the dazzling audacity of the man, to place himself in the same literary tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al (maybe he just means drunks)?
I could go on, but everyone else is. I’ll end with this gem:
FREY: My publishers have been incredibly supportive. You know, I think they feel the same way that I do, that this is a memoir.
KING: You keep saying that, but a memoir is accepted as fact. I mean, if I see memoir, I accept it as a person’s memory of incidents or things in their life. I wrote a memoir. I may not have been exactly right, but it was my memory of incidents.
FREY: I don’t think — I think you could probably find people who would dispute every memoir that was ever published. And a lot of them have been disputed. When Jerzy Kosinski’s “Painted Bird” came out and became a big success several years afterwards, people said, “You know what? Jerzy Kosinski never went through the Holocaust.” It’s happened with a number of recent memoirs. It tends to happen with a lot of the more high-profile memoirs.
KING: And Jerzy killed himself.