Memoir’s Arc

by Matthew Winkler

In January 2006, James Frey made his second appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss A Million Little Pieces (2003). A few months earlier, he had been warmly received. This time, Oprah began “…I feel really duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers,” and then proceeded to eviscerate him for misrepresenting fiction as fact. Among other things, Frey wrote about (allegedly) enduring a root canal procedure without anesthesia, surviving a deadly train accident (he was not involved in the actual tragedy), and being jailed for 87 days (in fact, it was five hours). A court order allowed defrauded readers to return their books for a refund, and new printings include a two-page disclaimer, in which Frey apologizes and explains, “I embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book… I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.”
The sound of Frey’s public flogging has echoed in two recent news reports. The New York Times published an article attacking the veracity of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and 60 Minutes aired a segment challenging Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (co-authored by David Oliver Relin). In 1960, Steinbeck drove around the country for eleven weeks with his dog, and Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962) became a best-selling staple of American travel writing. In 2010, Bill Steigerwald retraced Steinbeck’s journey, read his original first draft, and came “to realize that the iconic American road book was not only heavily fictionalized; it was something of a fraud.” For one thing, forty-five of his seventy-five days on the road were Travels With Elaine, his wife, who barely appears in the finished book. They slept in fancy hotels, not in his converted pick-up truck. Indeed, Steinbeck’s own son John said of the book, “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive].”

Greg Mortenson’s Shangri-La story of descending from Mount Everest, lost and alone, and being nursed back to health by the impoverished villagers of Korphe is the inspirational lynchpin of Three Cups of Tea (2006), which chronicles his repayment of their kindness by building schools in the region. According to Jon Krakauer, “it’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie.” The facts remain under dispute, but Mortenson admits that “there are discrepancies that… have to do with compression of events.”

Clearly, these writers took liberties while shaping their stories. Is outrage the appropriate response? Writing about A Million Little Pieces, Joel Steinconcluded, “It’s wrong and immoral to pass off a piece of fiction as a memoir… But the more I thought about it, I still loved the book. When I found out a lot of it had been made up, it didn’t really change how I felt about the text. But it certainly changed how I felt about the author.”

Steinbeck’s biographer, Jay Parini, takes the contrary view. “I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it’s important to use the techniques of a fiction writer. Why has [Travels With Charley] stayed in the American imagination, unlike, for example, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, which came out at the same time?”

Stein and Parini draw different ethical boundaries around a memoirist’s artistic license, but both judge the writing on its literary merit. Does it have complex characters, dramatic tension, and compelling themes? Does it ring true? These questions concern the text, independent of the author’s experience. All non-fiction writers manipulate the jumble of their available material into a recognizable narrative arc. Like Steinbeck and Frey, the more reckless architects simply fabricate larger sections, but all construct their stories such that audiences can pass through them and be transformed.

After disemboweling Frey, Oprah confronted his publisher, Nan Talese. The two women crossed swords over a publisher’s ethical responsibilities, a reader’s basic entitlements, and the definition of the term “memoir,” but they stood together on the cardinal issue: fact or fiction, both were spellbound by the story.

Nan: A novel is something different than a memoir. And a memoir is different from an autobiography. A memoir is an author’s remembrance of a certain period in his life. Now, the responsibility, as far as I am concerned, is does it strike me as valid? Does it strike me as authentic? I mean, I’m sent things all the time and I think they’re not real. I don’t think they’re authentic. I don’t think they’re good. I don’t believe them. In this instance, I absolutely believed what I read.

Oprah: So did I.


memoirsarc_winkler_photo_lg1-225x300Matthew Winkler recently returned home after a nine-month long, fifty-state odyssey with his son, Logan. They maintained a blog during their travels at Matt is completing a book about their epic journey while teaching English at South Kent School.

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