Jonah Lehrer vs James Frey

In her Aug. 13 blog “The Ethics of Being a Nonfiction Writer” author Diana Raab explores the confusing, shifting and disappearing boundaries between fact and fiction in the scandals of Jonah Lehrer and James Frey.  This blog is in dialog with hers.

I, too, am troubled by the discrediting of James Frey and more recently Jonah Lehrer, authors exposed as liars when it was uncovered that they misrepresented events in Frey’s case and quotes in Lehrer’s that never existed.  I’m not a fan of either Frey or Lehrer, but not for the reasons they were discredited.  I find the work of both men inauthentic in the deepest sense, so I have no desire to defend them.  But I am concerned by the discourse about them: lumping of all nonfiction, as different as journalism and memoir, in the same basket.

Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works was ostensibly writing journalism.  He wasn’t trained as a journalist, but as a recent hire for the New Yorker he was expected to understand journalistic standards of verification. I frankly don’t care if somebody makes up a quote or changes around dates in a memoir to improve the narrative.  I do care if I think I am reading a work of journalism, and Lehrer’s attributing a quote to Bob Dylan that Dylan never said, and then lying about it is beyond sloppy journalism. Yet I am equally troubled by a kind of lie that runs through all Jonah Lehrer’s books, yet is considered acceptable (except in academic circles): he presents as original to himself the insights and life’s work of other authors.  He does not have the respect for other people and their contributions to acknowledge them as sources. For me leaving out sources is as much as an offense as making them up.

As I wrote in Your Life as Story, memoirists should not be held to journalistic standards of verification, so for me the treatment of James Frey as a pariah because he exaggerated and invented in a memoir is troubling in a different way.  Frey made up events that never happened.  Oprah was taken in, which made her mad, and the public, her choir, was taken in with her, and so a sledgehammer came down on all memoir. Certainly, Frey is not the first memoirist to exagerrate and and self-dramatize.  If this is a way to create the “objective correlative” to an emotional truth, I can accept that.  The problem for me was that Frey, an alcoholic, was still lying to himself and giving it to us as if it were the emotional truth.  I could not read more than the first chapter without feeling it was a con job, but then I am a close reader of literary texts and have been doing it for forty years.  When the forged Hitler diaries were published, I could tell immediately by textual clues that they were fake, but that is because I have done close readings of thousands of authentic diaries.

I will leave the question of lying journalists to journalism experts; as for memoirists I believe what matters is what Anais Nin called “the donee,” the writer’s contract with the reader. Are you writing an autobiographical novel or a single slice memoir capturing a particular place and moment in history?  The expectations for each in terms of verifiable facts are different. (You will find a full list of the subgenres of memoir with examples of each in Your Life as Story and a partial list on this website.)

Once you understand the expectations of your genre and subgenre, and you have been honest with yourself about how factual you have been, and communicated that to your reader in a “note to the reader” or within the work, I think you will have addressed the ethical concerns of memoir. There are readers who will choose not to read a memoir that is not completely factual; there are other readers who want the authenticity of a story that is as true as you can make it, while serving the demands of dramatic interest.  An informed reader can make a choice and will not feel conned.

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