In the late 1990s, a young writer fresh out of rehab began writing a novel about his escape from a life of addiction. Like his hard-drinking literary heroes Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, the young novelist wanted to set down the facts of his life with searing honesty, but like his heroes, he juiced the truth to make the story more interesting. Some years earlier, for instance, he had been locked up for a few hours on a drunk-driving charge. In his novel, he threw in a punching match with the arresting officer and a bag of crack cocaine and left his protagonist to rot in jail for three months. In another instance, a girl he had known as a kid had been killed in a tragic train accident, and in his novel, he wrote his protagonist into her story and added a scene in which the whole town blames him for her death.
But when he tried to sell this thinly disguised autobiographical novel, it was turned down by 17 major publishers. In fact, his novel might still be sitting in a drawer had not Nan Talese, a big-name editor at Doubleday, one of the houses that had originally rejected it, offered to publish it instead as a memoir called A Million Little Pieces. By 2006, after Oprah Winfrey put the young author James Frey on TV, his novel-turned-memoir had sold 3.5 million copies.
A decade after Oprah dragged Frey through the mud on national television, memoirist Mary Karr is still pissed at him. Karr, who has chronicled her own battles with addiction, says she smelled a rat in Frey’s tale all along, but what sticks in her craw is the brazenness of his deception. “He didn’t really believe he was incarcerated for months, when he never served a day,” Karr writes in her new craft book, The Art of Memoir. “He set out to fool people.”
That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Frey wrote a mediocre autobiographical novel and a savvy editor saw that, given how the modern publishing industry is built, his unsellable work of fiction had the all makings of a hit memoir.
As a literary form, memoir dates back at least to St. Augustine’s Confessions, but as Julie Rak reminds us in her book, Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market, it is only recently that writers who weren’t already well-known began turning nonfiction versions of their life stories into bestsellers. Which is not to say that writers weren’t retailing their life stories with great success long before the so-called “memoir boom” ignited in the early 1990s. As Frey himself notes in an interview with The Guardian shortly after the Oprah dust-up, many classic novels of the 20th century might today be published as memoir. “I mean, the idea that The Sun Also Rises is not about Hemingway’s life,” he says, “or On the Road is not about Kerouac’s life, or anything ever written by Bukowski or Celine or Henry Miller is not about those men’s lives, is a ridiculous idea.”
Frey then adds:
What’s interesting is that On the Road was going to be published as nonfiction, and they altered it [because] they were worried about legal ramifications. And because at the time fiction was much more popular than nonfiction. For me it was almost the opposite, y’know — nonfiction is much more popular now.
Whether or not this is literally true of On the Road, Frey is right that readers have long been drawn to autobiographical tales of authors’ youthful misadventures. What has changed is that we no longer require these writers to don the respectable veil of fiction — and in fact, as book buyers, we would rather they didn’t.
As writers of literary fiction increasingly find they have to traffic in high-concept premises or be satisfied with poorly paid critical respect, a writer with a personal, character-driven story to tell is more likely to cash in if he or she can claim the story is true. Thus, we get James Frey and an ever-growing shelf of “fauxmoirs” like Love and Consequences, a 2008 work of fiction about race and gang life in South Central, L.A., by Margaret Seltzer, a middle-class white woman who changed her name to Margaret B. Jones and went on radio speaking with an affect so readers would believe her novel was a memoir.
Critics of the modern memoir tend to credit its rise to a culture of narcissism and navel-gazing among the young, or less pejoratively, to a yearning for authenticity, a reality hunger born of a blurring of truth and fiction in public life. In reality, the growth in popularity of the form has as much, or more, to do with the restructuring of the publishing industry than it does any cultural shift. As Rak notes in Boom!, the advent of cheap paperbacks in the postwar years not only created new markets for popular detective, romance, and sci-fi novels, but also for quickie nonfiction books about a person in the news. These could be produced quickly and cheaply, with a sensibility more in keeping with the news business than that of the stodgier book business, and were sold not in bookstores, but alongside their “pulp fiction” brethren in drug stores and train station newsstands.
Thus, for a decade or two after World War II, American publishing operated along two parallel tracks. Older, more prestigious publishing houses produced high-quality hardback volumes of nonfiction about ex-presidents and other grandees alongside literary fiction written for an educated elite who shopped at independent bookstores. At the same time, a far less prestigious book industry sold pulp fiction and nonfiction to middle-class and working-class readers who bought their books where they bought their newspapers and magazines — in drug stores and train stations.
These two business models collided, however, when publishing firms began merging in the 1960s. Between 1960 and 2001, by Rak’s count, there were 1,250 publishing mergers, subsuming literally thousands of small, often family-run publishing firms into a handful of multinational conglomerates, which were in many cases owned by even larger media companies. In this mad shuffle, prestigious literary houses got swallowed up by the same companies that bought out firms producing cheaper books, blurring the institutional line between “literary” and “pulp.”
While the merger frenzy injected fresh capital into publishing, it brought with it a corporate-style focus on high profit margins, creating ever more pressure to produce bestsellers. At the same time, publishing houses began to publish the hardback and paperback editions of the books they produced, further diluting the distinction between “quality” and “cheap” books, which helped give birth to a new species of book, the “trade paperback” — the form, not so incidentally, in which most bestselling memoirs take off.
As publishing was evolving in the postwar years, so were bookstores and media companies. Fifty years ago, good bookstores were rare outside major cultural centers, but by the early 1980s bookstore chains had invaded malls across the country, draining business from the drug stores and newsstands that had sold pulp books in the past. Now, not only were publishers producing literature and pulp, but readers were finding them in the same store, sometimes shelved side by side. Meanwhile, as newspapers began their long descent into digital irrelevance, the book page was often one of the first casualties, and TV and radio became prime drivers of book sales. Since a talking head reviewing a book is deadly boring, hosts instead began inviting authors onto their shows to talk about their books — an exercise made exponentially more entertaining when a book’s author and protagonist are the same person.
This, then, was the state of play in 1989 when Tobias Wolff, author of several respectfully reviewed story collections and a prize-winning novella, published his first memoir This Boy’s Life, which became a national bestseller and a hit movie starring the young Leonardo DiCaprio. A few years later, Susanna Kaysen hit the bestseller lists with Girl, Interrupted and Elizabeth Wurtzel bared her navel on the cover of Prozac Nation, and by 1995, when Karr came out with her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, the gold rush was on.
You will find little of this history in The Art of Memoir, but it is there, albeit subtextually, in the defensive crouch Karr adopts toward critics of her chosen genre. Boiled down to its essence, Karr’s defense of memoir rests on her belief in an artful admixture of truth and storytelling moxie. Karr readily admits that no memoirist can be expected to perfectly recall dialogue spoken decades earlier, and that even if she could, the very act of choosing one detail over another distorts the objective truth of the events in question. “Memoir done right is an art, a made thing,” she writes. “It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page.”
Still, she has zero time for memoirists who don’t aim for the truest versions of their life stories they are capable of telling. Speaking of another writer who admits to embellishing details in nonfiction, Karr is blunt in her disdain: “It’s as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, ‘I put a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice it at all.’ To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.”
This is both funny and true, but while Karr appears to be addressing the largest knock on memoirs, her book neatly sidesteps the deeper, structural problems with the genre. Though she doesn’t use the term, The Art of Memoir, which grew out of MFA courses Karr teaches at Syracuse University, focuses on what one might loosely call creative nonfiction. This term means different things to different people, but if it has any practical meaning in a publishing sense, it denotes a work of nonfiction conceived and written exclusively by its author, not dreamed up or shaped by an agent or editor.
But while the creative nonfiction model may be the one taught in university classrooms, it isn’t how most commercial memoirs are actually produced. With rare exceptions, novels are submitted to agents and editors only after they are finished, while nonfiction books, including memoirs, are typically bought based on a proposal. A book proposal can take many forms, but generally it includes some sample chapters, an outline of the book, and often a discussion of who is likely to read it and why. In other words, while novelists arrive in the publishing marketplace with a finished product, memoirists show up with a business plan, which has itself typically been heavily shaped and edited by a literary agent.
In my reporting in the publishing world, I have sat with agents whose job it is to trawl the blogosphere and tap their personal networks with an eye out for someone whose zeitgeisty blog or proximity to the pop culture spotlight might net a book contract. In some cases, these people created the blog or instigated their brush with fame precisely in order to cash in on it. In other cases, the would-be memoirists have no notion of themselves as potential protagonists of a book, and are stunned to learn they might be. Either way, the agent helps the memoirist craft a proposal, offering advice on how to structure the narrative, how to position it in the current market, and, if need be, providing a ghostwriter to write the actual book.
This, the old-school pulp mentality that produces so many of those strange quickie books that appear and then disappear from bookstore shelves, is the real enemy of the creative nonfiction Karr so avidly defends in The Art of Memoir. Because whether its practitioners like to admit it or not, contemporary memoir, to a far greater degree than contemporary fiction, is an agents’ and editors’ medium. Readers, even those who couldn’t care less how publishing works, sense this, and are put off by it.
When the consolidation of the publishing industry lumped pulp publishers in with prestige literary houses, it gave literary artists like Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr access to a lucrative mass audience they wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it also forced them, and more particularly the writers who came after them, to play by the rules of the pulp world, which emphasizes extremes of experience, often involving emotional or physical trauma, coupled with a yearning for middle-class normality.
Think for a moment about the authors whose books set the memoir boom in motion. Wolff and Karr were academics. Frank McCourt taught high school. Susanna Kaysen was the daughter of a famous economist at MIT. Any educated American reader could identify with these people, even aspire to be them. In their books, they reveal horrific trauma they endured in their past, but what made their books so moving, and what moved so many units, was that they survived, thanks to a mix of smarts, pluck, and a deep yearning for a respectable middle-class life. In one way or another, all these books recast the American Dream in a fable-like form — except that these fables were true.
In the mainstream imagination, where literary and pulp sensibilities meet, the fact that the stories are true matters enormously. Wolff has written heartbreaking fiction about growing up poor with his half-crazy mother, including one of my all-time favorite stories, “Firelight,” collected in the 1992 Best American Short Stories, but it wasn’t until he used real names that Hollywood came calling. If his story is true, and Wolff really survived the childhood he describes in This Boy’s Life, then whatever life lessons he might have to impart are also real, and I as a reader can apply them to overcome whatever traumas I might have suffered.
This trick was easy enough to pull off for these early trailblazers, whose lives fit the template without too much embellishment. But once creative nonfiction left the rarefied sphere of literary publishing, where the author is king, it entered a rougher, pulp-minded world whose books look the same as their more literary cousins, are sold in the same stores, and follow much the same narrative playbook, but are partly or wholly created by publishing professionals who know a money-spinning formula when they see it.
In this world, the agent notes that the cooking blogger was single when she started and is now married and tosses out, just as a possibility, the title “Table for Two: How a Single Girl Cooked Her Way Into the Heart of the Man of Her Dreams.” Your recipes are great, he explains, but the book needs an arc, a journey the reader can travel. In this world, an editor asks a newly successful entrepreneur if by any chance he had a overbearing father who belittled his ideas. Was he dyslexic as a child? A teen drug user with a rebellious streak? Before long the entire genre is tarred with the pulp brush, and even the most earnest creative nonfictionist knows he needs at least one heroin overdose in his past because a merely unhappy childhood, no matter how artfully rendered, equals a life of quiet literary desperation.
And then, into this world, walks the next James Frey.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In his other life as a filmmaker, Arthur Bradford made a fantastic documentary about the making of an episode of South Park called 6 Days to Air. The title references how quickly Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and crew are able to produce a half an hour of blistering animation, and in one particularly insightful moment, Parker offers this bit of writing advice:
I sort of always call it the rule of replacing “ands” with either “buts” or “therefores.” And so it’s always like: This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. Whenever I can go back in the writing and change that to: This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens. Whenever you can replace your “ands” with “buts” and “therefores,” makes for better writing.
What he’s talking about is narrative economy, about figuring out the most efficient way to tell a story, but he’s also tapped into something deeper — namely, that the power of scenes is, in many ways, relational. Stories work best, in other words, when sequential action is causal or obstructive.
One can see why Bradford would make a documentary about these guys. The stories in his new collection Turtleface and Beyond are positively stuffed with “buts” and “therefores.” The stories even function almost like episodes, and, as Parker instructed, each story employs skillful economy. A young man named Georgie is our narrator, and this consistency greatly increases the impact of each story as the collection moves along: Georgie is more and more defined, so we don’t need to be reintroduced to him, leaving Bradford with the chance to move directly into his weird, funny adventures.
In the opener, “Turtleface,” Georgie watches his friend unwisely decide to run down a cliff face into a river. Amazingly the friend makes it into the water. Unfortunately, he smacks his face into a floating turtle. Georgie, tellingly, seems to care as much for the now-broken turtle as he does for his cavalier buddy, even bringing the little guy home until he’s mended. Later, in “Snakebite,” Georgie and a few friends stop to help a hitchhiker who’s been bitten by a cottonmouth. Georgie, of course, ends up being the one to suck the poison out (a doctor asks him later, “Why the hell did you do that?”). And still later, Georgie gets mixed up with a partner at a law firm who’s going through a mid-life crisis. Georgie, with nothing but the best intentions, becomes the lawyer’s middleman for drugs and prostitutes.
The point is: Georgie is a good guy who ends up in some compromising situations. But Georgie’s goodness is more than just a character trait –– it’s a narrative strategy. Through his hapless narrator, Bradford is able to push the stories into some absurd territory, because Georgie means well, and doesn’t always see where his choices will take him. In other words, Georgie grounds the stories for the reader, weighting them so they don’t float off into pure silliness.
Sometimes, Georgie should have seen the shit coming. When he gets “fired from my job for a stupid indiscretion,” (which, we readers assume, refers to the time he slept with a patient at a mental institution where he was an orderly, but could be referencing any number of other fuck-ups) he wants to “leave town.” The person with whom he finds a ride is a man named Paul O’Malley. Here is the ominous (but also very funny) preview of their trip together:
Paul was passing through town on his way to the West Coast and had announced that he would be gone in the morning. I saw him two weeks later though, right after I’d been fired from that job. He was wandering downtown, looking a little dazed and strung out.
“I haven’t slept in three days,” he told me.
“I thought you were going out west,” I said.
“But you said you were leaving two weeks ago.”
“I got hung up. Wait, two weeks? It hasn’t been that long.”
“Yes, it has.”
“Oh.” Paul scratched his head.
Most of us would probably take Paul’s sudden loss of two weeks as a sign to avoid spending hours alone and on the road with this dude, but Georgie, desperate and good-hearted, jumps right in. (Spoiler: the trip doesn’t go well).
Yet this is another part of Georgie’s charm: he’s willing to do stupid, irresponsible things — dangerous, illegal things — but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a decent person. Take, for instance, the funny and poignant story “The LSD and the Baby.” Yes, Georgie agrees to go out into the woods with a guy named Richard to “sample a batch of LSD he recently completed.” And, yes, he doesn’t object when he learns that a woman named Sabrina and her baby are tagging along. But when both Richard and Sabrina disappear into the woods (presumably to have acid-enhanced sex), good ole Georgie takes the baby’s life into his own hands, first to a hospital (the baby eats some possibly poisonous berries) and then to his job, and all while tripping balls. Georgie only gets a quiet yet dignified catharsis at the end of the story, but it’s a lovely moment.
I was reminded of Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut and Junot Díaz’s Yunior stories in Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. And then, of course, going back to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road and even further back to Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Sad Young Men (and Keith Gessen’s Sad Young Literary Men). Essentially, these are all –– from Bradford to Hemingway, the lot of them –– often just stories about young men doing stupid shit, or young men not doing enough good shit, or young men doing good shit in the wrong way. In many cases, we assume the narrator is a stand-in for the author (or, as in Gessen’s case, he takes all the pretext of guesswork out of it by naming his narrator Keith), and we often interpret each piece as some form of self-reflection. They read easy, almost like reportage, and their authenticity is built into the voice, the rhythm and flow of the prose. Sometimes, though, the shallowness isn’t a disguise for anything more meaningful than the story itself, which places great weight on the likeability, and not to mention the humanity, of the protagonist. Sal Paradise, I can live without. And to me Dean Moriarity seems like a real asshole. Yunior, though, I adore. And Georgie, well, Georgie’s a good dude in my book. As I read, I wanted to follow along with him, so even when a story didn’t exactly work as a whole, I didn’t mind — Georgie had my back.
It’s been 14 years since Bradford’s last story collection Dogwalker. In the meantime, he hasn’t been what anyone would call prolific, but he’s been living quite a life. He worked in New York for a while, he recently wrote, and he “directed a summer camp, made several films, had two children, and currently works at a juvenile detention center in Portland, Ore.” And it’s true: the stories in Turtleface and Beyond do read like the result of someone with a multitude of absurd experiences, real, visceral familiarity with these people, this world depicted within its pages. Good for him.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Even before it became officially so in the United States, April has long been the poet’s month. “April” (or “Aprill”) is the third word of one of the first great poems in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, and the first word in The Waste Land, which does its best to feel like the last great English poem. April — “spungy,” “proud-pied,” and “well-apparel’d” April — is also the most-mentioned month in Shakespeare, along with its springtime neighbor May, and it has given a poetic subject to Dickinson, Larkin, Plath, Glück, and countless others. Why? Do we like its promise of rebirth, its green and messy fecundity? Its hopefulness is easy to celebrate — and easy to cruelly undercut, if you’re T.S. Eliot rooting his lilies in the wasteland of death.
Eliot wasn’t the only one a little tired of the ease of April’s imagery. In 1936 Tennessee Williams received a note from a poetic acquaintance, a high school student named Mary Louise Lange who had recently won “third honorable mention” in a local literary contest. “Yes, I think April is a fine month to write poetry,” she mused. “All the little spear-points of green pricking up, all the little beginnings of new poetic thoughts, all the shafts of thoughts that will grow to future loveliness.” A few days later, Williams, oppressed by the springtime St. Louis heat, despairing of his own youthful literary prospects, and perhaps distracted by all those “spear-points” and “shafts,” confessed to his diary that he was bored and lonely enough to consider calling on her: “Maybe I’ll visit that little girl poet but her latest letter sounded a little trite and affectatious — ‘little spear points of green’ — It might be impossible.”
In our man-made calendars we often celebrate Easter and baseball’s Opening Day this month, but the April date most prominent in our lives now is April 15, the American tax day since 1955. Lincoln, who died on that day, had Whitman to mourn him, but Tax Day found few literary chroniclers until David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which turns the traditional, eternal rhythm of the seasons into the flat, mechanical repetition of bureaucratic boredom. In the IRS’s Peoria Regional Examination Center where Wallace’s characters toil, the year has no natural center, just a deadline imposed by federal fiat and a daily in-box of Sisyphean tasks, a calendar that in its very featureless tedium provides at least the opportunity to test the human capacity for endurance and even quiet heroism.
Here is a selection of recommended April reading, heavy on birth, death, and rebirth, and a little boredom:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
When you feel the tender shoots and buds of April quickening again, set out in the company of Chaucer’s nine and 20 very worldly devouts, in what has always been the most bawdily approachable of English literature’s founding classics.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857)
It’s no coincidence that the steamboat in Melville’s great, late novel begins its journey down the Mississippi on April Fool’s Day: The Confidence-Man is the darkest vision of foolishness and imposture — and one of the funniest extended jokes — in American literature.
“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1865) and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)
Whitman’s elegy, composed soon after Lincoln’s murder and the end of the Civil War, heaps bouquets onto his coffin, and a livelier, more joyful vision of death you’re not likely to find. You certainly won’t in The Waste Land, written after a war equally bloody and seemingly barren of everything but allusions (to Whitman’s funeral lilacs among many others).
On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac (1951)
The legend of On the Road’s frenzied composition is partly true: Kerouac worked on the novel for years, but he really did type a complete, 125,000-word draft on a 120-foot roll of paper in three frenzied weeks in April 1951, a version finally published in 2007.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King (1963) and At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch (2006)
April is both the month that King, jailed in Alabama in 1963, scribbled in the margins of newspapers an open letter to the white moderates of Birmingham who counseled patience toward segregation, and the month of his murder in Memphis five years later, a scene whose seven solemn pages close the final volume of Taylor Branch’s 3,000-page trilogy, America in the King Years.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Outfitted with trailer, truck, ranger shirt, tin badge, and 500 gallons of water, Abbey began his first workday, April 1, watching the sun rise over the canyonlands of Arches National Monument, the first moment recorded in this cantankerous appreciation of the wild inhumanity of nature.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
In the “cold late spring of 1967,” Didion took her notebook and her eye for entropy to meet some of the young people gathering in San Francisco, where she diagnosed the end of the Summer of Love before it had even begun.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
April in Erdrich’s North Dakota is cold enough for the sudden blizzard that opens Love Medicine and buries June Kashpaw, who had stepped out into the snow in search of a man who could be different from all the rest.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)
Beginning with a Good Friday reunion with his ex-wife on the anniversary of their son’s death, Ford’s indelible ex-sportswriter Frank Bascombe reckons with balancing the small, heart-lifting pleasures of everydayness with the possibilities of disappointment and tragedy that gape underneath them.
The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987)
Smiley’s early novella is still her masterpiece, a story of a family laid out by flu and a young marriage struggling to survive the end of its springtime that’s as close to an American version of “The Dead” as anyone has written.
My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid (1999)
“How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed.” Midway through life, Kincaid started planting in her yard in most “ungardenlike” ways, and her garden book is willful and lovely, made of notes in which she cultivates her hatreds as passionately as her affections.
The Likeness by Tana French (2008)
Ireland’s French crafted an intrigue with equal elements of the Troubles and The Secret History in her second novel, in which Detective Cassie Maddox is seduced by the mid-April murder of a student who had been playing with an identity disturbingly close to her own.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2011)
Don’t expect a novel when you open up The Pale King, culled from manuscripts Wallace left behind at his suicide. Read it as a series of experiments in growing human stories out of the dry soil of bureaucratic tedium, and marvel when real life, out of this wasteland, suddenly breaks through.
Image Credit: Flickr/Roger Sadler