What do James Frey and Pontius Pilate have in common? “What is truth?” was Pilate’s famous question. Neither one is clear that truth exists. Frey’s opinion is not surprising given his opinions as related in a recent New York magazine article (which caused a lot of outrage among my writer friends for his factory):
Frey delivered his opinions on the memoir genre (“bunk,” “bull***t,” a marketing tool that didn’t exist until several decades ago); fact and fiction (there’s no difference); truth (it doesn’t exist, at least not in the journalistic sense); Europe (where he turns for validation); America (which is obsessed with honesty and raises people up only to tear them down); the best writers (Mailer, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Henry Miller, Cormac McCarthy); documentary (“a thesis on truth that hasn’t been proven yet”); Oprah (“I should have never f***ing apologized”); the kind of writer he wants to be (the most controversial and widely read of his time); making literary history (he’s in it to “change the game” and “move the paradigm”; he won’t write anything that doesn’t change the world)…
Given his ‘is it fiction or is it memoir’ history, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t believe there’s truth. It’s also remarkably convenient. He won’t write anything that doesn’t change the world? Well, I hope he’s studying Solzhenitsyn.
There is a difference between fact and fiction. I’ve run into it lately. I don’t write memoir, I don’t write what happened to me. My writing is informed by emotions I’ve experienced and something that seems to be increasingly rare: imagination. In addition, I’ve heard from several people who read Willful Ignorance that it was really close to their own experience. One was an orthopedic surgeon, one a dentist, one the girlfriend of a cardiologist. All three situations were very different, but each saw themselves in the book. When fiction connects emotion and sensory detail to story, that’s when you do touch on something that might speak to a number of people. When you’re a master, that’s when your work lasts; those are the works we keep returning to from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, even if they are distant from our time and setting.
In the past week, I’ve had two very different conversations with one big thing in common: an increasing awareness of a dearth of imagination. Television, electronics, video games? Maybe. Or maybe it’s always been a problem. Artists have long complained of their patrons’ lack of vision. We tend to think people think the same way we do and see the world in the same way (despite evidence to the contrary). But if that were true, why have stories? Stories – not a string of facts. We need strong stories, full of imagination and truth, to entertain and encourage and connect us.