Fictioning a Life: Proust and Frey

I’ve not read James Frey’s Million Little Pieces but conversation around the controversy has raised some interesting questions about writing, intentions, expectations, and impact. As most will know, there have been some serious (and substantiated) allegations that Frey’s “memoir” (as it is officially billed) includes a number of fairly significant embellishments. What’s perhaps most intriguing is how many are coming to his defense: Oprah’s response seems to be, “Listen, the book worked–it changed people, it made an impact. What does it matter whether the so-called memoir was fiction?” (Indeed, quotes from Frey seem to suggest that before its publication he wasn’t sure whether to bill it as a novel or a memoir–a strange quandary I should think.) Now granted, with Derrida, I agree that meaning is not simply determined by authorial intent (though in a chapter in a forthcoming book I’ll qualify that a bit). Nevertheless, I do think that the “impact” that a book makes is relative to the expectations brought to it by a community of readers–even if those expectations are themselves a matter of convention. So, for instance, when a book is ‘labeled’ (and marketed) as a memoir, this establishes a certain context, especially for those familiar with the conventions–viz., that a memoir is a literary life, a well-crafted but not invented narrative; a kind of testimony not unlike Augustine’s Confessions (indeed Gary Wills is now at work translating Augustine’s classic under the title of The Testimony). With this context determined by the conventions and the ‘label,’ readers bring a certain set of expectations, particularly about what is “possible.” And in the case of a recovery-from-addiction narrative, it seems to me that the “impact” of the book is very much tied to the reading community’s expectation that here is a narrative rooted in history, not invented and crafted for effect. To put this otherwise: if Frey’s book were published as a novel, I can almost guarantee it would not have been as successful, and certainly would not have captured Oprah’s attention.

In this light, my reading of Proust (and about Proust) of late sets up an interesting contrast with Frey. In Search of Lost Time is almost a memoir with all the names (and even genders) changed. But Proust never pretended or tried to pass it off as memoir; instead, it was determined to be “fiction,” a novel–maybe even the novel to end the novel as we knew it. And precisely because of that, readers brought a very different set of expectations to the text. Learning that characters in the fiction have behind them amalgams of life-and-blood Parisians does not undo the magic of the fiction. But learning that Frey’s supposedly factual characters and events have less “reality” behind them than Proust’s invented world does undo the charm it possessed and deflates the hope it granted.