If non-fiction isn't true, then what is it?


Author James Frey discusses his book "A Million Little Pieces" on "Larry King Live."

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
A controversy that seems to have everything - booze, pills and Oprah Winfrey - has turned into a teaching tool at the University of Florida.
Lecturing in his creative nonfiction class this week, David Leavitt devoted a good chunk of time to discussing an author who's been lambasted recently for fudging facts in a popular memoir.
James Frey, author of the best-selling book, "A Million Little Pieces," was exposed by an investigative Web site last week for exaggerating or downright fabricating events in his tale of drugs and depravity.
Leavitt, a professor of English and author of a new biography, told students that Frey broke a "contract" with readers by framing his book as a memoir - not a novel.
"In a memoir, I think, the contract implies a certain degree of truth," said Leavitt, whose biography of British mathematician Alan Turing hit the shelves in December. "I think you have to be as true to your memory and your experience as you possibly can."
Frey now concedes that some events were trumped-up in his 436-page book, but insists the memoir's "subjective truth" is unchanged. For instance, Frey didn't spend three months in jail or assault a police officer, according to an investigation by the muckraking Web site, thesmokinggun.com. He also appears to have played no role in the death of some of his classmates - a claim he makes in "A Million Little Pieces."
"I think it's very funny that someone would exaggerate to make himself look worse," Leavitt said.
It may be funny, but it's not surprising, according to Jill Ciment, a UF English professor and author of her own memoir. The more the memoir genre is flooded with racy drug-induced tales, the more likely it will be for authors to engage in "one-upmanship," Ciment said.
Frey's memoir, which was picked by Winfrey for her book club, is an example of a growing number of books that border on the self-help genre, Ciment said. In Winfrey's ongoing defense of "A Million Little Pieces," she has praised it as an inspirational story that others can turn to for guidance. That's a mistake, Ciment said.
"I think people turned to this memoir thinking it was a kind of condensed 12-step program," she said. "There's a huge problem with reading for redemption. It asks literature to be something it's not."
Whatever readers are looking for, they're increasingly turning to biography and memoir to find it. In 2004, publishing companies raked in $419 million from memoirs and biographies, according to Simba Information, a Connecticut-based market analysis agency.
Tom Rider, co-owner of Goerings Bookstore, has seen customers clamoring for memoir and biography in recent years. Frey's memoir has been an extraordinary seller at Goerings, Rider said, but he sees that coming to an end in light of the controversy and the fact that the book has already been out for two years.
"I think it does damage sales," Rider said. "There's this idea that the curious will come in, but I don't think so."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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