I was born on a dreary summer’s day on the posh side of South London in the bleak nineties. My arrival into this world collided with the much-anticipated final between the Gunners and the Spurs, and my father was none-to appreciative of that fact. My birth was what is formally known as a “traumatic birth”, in that if it weren’t for a daring, burly midwife, I might not be here today. Yes, I almost died, however it does allow for a cracking story. To start, I was too big for my mum, so big in fact that I got uncomfortably stuck on the way out. This is common in childbirth, but when the child – namely, me – starts turning an alarming shade of blue, the panic stations are on.
It seemed that the only way to get me out and screaming was for the local midwife to sit on my mother’s bulging stomach and push me out that way. Which is exactly what happened. I squirted right out and almost fell off the table if it weren’t for the trusty umbilical chord to catch me at the last minute. After a heart-wrenching second of silence, I burst into a choir of screams, was cleaned, weighed, and at 10 pounds and 1 ounce, was the biggest baby girl born in the hospital that year…
There you have a comical true story that has been told to me countless times and I can say with some confidence that the entire story is partially true. For a start, I certainly was not born the posh side of South London, much the opposite in fact, but doesn’t the word “posh” conjure up images of a typical, stylized London for you? Also, my dad wasn’t as concerned with the FA Cup Final more than he was concerned that his wife was going to burst. But doesn’t the sheer implication that he was annoyed, make the story more humorous? The part about the midwife sitting on my mother’s stomach is one hundred percent true, but the part about me almost falling off the table is a slight exaggeration that only adds another layer of hilarity to the already awkward story.
Writers do this: they embellish they’re own stories for the sake of wanting the reader to continue reading. Our aim is to make the reader laugh, cry, and get emotionally engaged with the print on the page, but to what degree does embellishment become outright lying, and to what degree does it even matter? I didn’t lie in the above story, but I certainly did exaggerate for the sake of good story telling and reader engagement.
As writer’s we see the world differently: we notice people’s facial expressions, the subtle nuances of a particular gesture, and the atmosphere or scent of a particular scene in daily life. In other words, we spend far too much time stuck in our own heads. In the history of good writing, there have been lines crossed and the degree of embellishment has been too great.
Someone who received a gentle smack on the bottom for “exaggerating” his life writing was the notorious James Frey. Released in 2003, his memoir A Million Little Pieces was a world-wide hit, selling over 33.5 million copies. Prolific American writer Bret Easton Ellis called Frey’s contentious memoir, “A heartbreaking memoir…inspirational and essential.” One can only imagine that his face was awfully red when Frey admitted that the majority of his 513 page book, was in fact fictional. When the controversy was officially out and about, a forlorn James Frey had to admit – with his tail in between his drug-addled legs – that the “demons” that thrived his alcoholism and drug addiction had also caused him to lie in his memoir.
Needless to say, the shit certainly hit the fan after that. Millions of readers felt a personal betrayal after this revelation, as they expected what they were reading was the absolute truth and more so if they related with Frey’s story. Susan K. Perry, a social psychologist writer says that there are important steps when writing a memoir and one is to speculate an event when you are unsure as to why something happened in the past. This way, “Such thinking can help you make sense of things.” Frey didn’t “speculate” he completely fabricated entire sections of his experience in rehab. After admitting his lies to Oprah herself a few years later, Frey then returned on the show this year to reinforce his feelings about memoirs: “I don’t have a whole lot of respect for the genre. I think most writers of memoirs do what I did.”
The book was rejected 17 times as a novel until Nan Talese, the editor-in-chief of A Million Little Pieces encouraged Frey to publish it as a memoir. As a literary genre A Million Little Pieces was exactly what publishing house Doubleday was looking for: memoirs have tended to be allowed a certain level of poetic freedom to play with the truth for the sake of a good story, but they also needed the demand of the factual, says writer Evgenia Peretz of Vanity Fair when she caught up with Frey in 2008. Frey said that he had the opportunity to sit down with cult writer Norman Mailer, who said that memoir as a genre is by itself dishonest, “That’s why a writer writes his memoir, to tell a lie and create an ideal self. Everything I’ve written is a memoir, an inflated version of the ideal Platonic self.”
So then, was what Frey did really so bad? Was it worth all the hoo-ha he received? Not only did Frey “play with the truth” somewhat, he outright lied to millions of readers, but did anyone REALLY get hurt? Seth Mnookin from slate.com says that, “Beyond being slightly infuriating, what’s the real-world impact of Frey’s fakery?” He says that although millions of reader’s – including Oprah – might feel “foolish” and “ripped off”, it is “not cause for any serious outcry.” We have to remember that Frey wasn’t the first person to have lied in a piece of life-writing, in 1998 a reporter for Forbes magazine Stephen Glass was caught after having completely fabricated stories in his articles. Not only had Glass embellished facts, he’d also simply made them up. Glass admitted to his fakery, and said when he was writing non-fiction, he would find that the stories weren’t very good, he thought that by creating shocking details, “people would think better of me and I would think better of me.” This in turn got him –unsurprisingly – sacked.
More recently we’ve had issues regarding Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea, where writer Jon Krakauer challenged the validity of particular stories within the book. Mortenson claimed that in 1993 after failing to climb the K2 Summit, he stumbled upon the small village of Korphe in northeast Pakistan in poor shape. After the villagers nursed him back to good health, he swore to return to build a school for them, and has since established multiple schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Reports have now surfaced that he actually visited the village for the first time a full year after his K2 attempt, and that the funds from his charity Central Asia have been used for personal expenses. The report conducted by 60 minutes resurfaced a lingering concern in the publishing industry over the truthfulness of non-fiction memoirs which are often lightly fact-checked. This is a tricky one, because although it might be okay that Mortenson stretched the truth for the sake of a good story, it is certainly not okay that the millions he has made from Three Cups of Tea might have been used for personal greed and no good – according to the allegations anyway.
It seems even American humourist David Sedaris is unable to dodge accusing allegations for his life writing. In 2007 writer Alex Heard from The New Republic felt it was his duty as a moral citizen to investigate the validity of Sedaris’s writing, by writing an 8 page article that knit-picks the inaccuracies in such memoirs as Naked (1997) and When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008).
According to Heard, certain stories were found to be unbelievable in the book Naked, and so he called Sedaris to confirm that he had exaggerated anecdotes “to tell a funnier yarn.” Heard thinks that the act of making up situations that didn’t happen exceeds “the boundaries of comic exaggeration”, and that it’s not okay to pretend things happen when they didn’t. He says, “I do think Sedaris exaggerates too much for a writer using the nonfiction label.” Oh, please. Sedaris’s writing is not one to meticulously go through and question the validity of. Some of his stories are clearly exaggerated, but he is forgiven because he is a humour writer who tells a great story. Essentially, Sedaris’s little white lies don’t hurt anyone, except for maybe Alex Heard.
Go Carolina is a particular story that Heard had an issue with. The story features a 10 year old Sedaris being sent to a speech therapy class because he has a pronounced lisp. He writes of his fellow lispers: “They were all boys like me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains.” When I first read this I laughed out loud, but I didn’t for a minute actually believe that the other kids were flamboyantly gay. This doesn’t constitute as fiction because he has embellished a life experience for the sake of humour, the story is still completely true.
Heard notes that the non-fiction market is more valuable than fiction, however; “What bugs me is that they milked the term for all its value, while laughing off any of the ethical requirements it entails.” I literally rolled my eyes at that statement. Writer J. Peder Zane wrote in an article in the Raliegh News and Observer that, “Exaggeration and embellishment are what allow humour to suggest larger truths.” Another ally of Sedaris was The Washington Post’s Peter Carlson who suggested that Heard should investigate authors such as James Thurber and Mark Twain if he was going to release a piece that was as “truly ridiculous” as the Sedaris investigation.
Sedaris has even admitted himself that he does exaggerate as told in an interview with Hadley Freeman for The Guardian in 2010, “Do I exaggerate? Boy, do I, and I’d do it more if I could get away with it.” He also goes on to add that “the people who say: ‘That’s not true’ when someone tells a story at dinner are the people who didn’t get any laughs when they told their story.” It’s difficult to understand where Alex Heard was coming from when he wrote his article, any writer will tell you that when you read a piece of writing it is vital that you are sensitive to the text.
For example, The Smoking Section is a dark and poignant essay about his ordeal of quitting smoking where he mentions how he started smoking his favourite brand of cigarettes: “Just after she started chemotherapy, my mom sent me three cartons of Kool Milds. ‘They were on sale,’ she croaked. Dying or not, she should have known that I smoked Filter Kings, but then I looked at them and thought, ‘Well they ARE free.” As a writer he is able to talk about such dark issues as his mother’s cancer, while still managing to make the reader laugh. Is this particular story exaggerated? Of course it is. Does it matter? I wouldn’t think so. More importantly, does any get hurt? No!
Joan Didion once said that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It is important to share stories and explore greater truths in what might be considered tweaks of embellishment. It is my opinion that you should take everything with a pinch of salt, but an issue such as lying in life writing is not all black and white. For example, we know that Sedaris certainly exaggerates in his writing, but does that mean that we then file his books under fiction? Probably not. His works shouldn’t be scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb, nor should everything he writes be taken literally.
Someone like James Frey or Stephen Glass however have crossed the line; not only did they publish their work as non-fiction, but also the issues that they wrote about were not to be taken lightly. You saw in my opening piece that in order to tell a rich story, some parts might be slightly exaggerated, otherwise the story is boring. You also saw that no one was hurt or offended in my piece, my parents for example know that it’s a factual and comical event.
Think about your own life, aren’t there any anecdotes you can recall? As a story teller, wouldn’t these situations then be exaggerated? It can happen sometimes without you even realizing it.