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03: July 3, 2008

And Nothing But the TruthcSorta (Part 1)

Itfs hard out here for a memoirist. In emails from readers, I run across sentences that start off promisingly enough--gGreat stuffh or gI liked your bookh--before crashing onto the rocky shoals of gcif itfs true.h

One can hardly blame readers for their reluctance to invest in anyonefs personal stories anymore. The discount bins are full of the stirring autobiographies of non-Indian-gangstah Indian gangstahs, forty-year-old teenage prostitutes, and philandering philatelists. Okay, I threw in that last one just because it was fun to type it. But still.

Then we have that triumvirate of truthiness, James Frey, David Sedaris, and Augusten Burroughs. Before I give these three a piece of my mind that theyfre certain never to notice, let me assure you that Ifve brought my usual standards of meticulousness to bear in composing this post, as the following table illustrates:

Fabricating Memoirist

Stuff written by him that Ifve actually read

James Frey

About three pages of A Million Little Pieces, which I canft honestly say I gread,h but rather just skimmed with exponentially increasing haste, in a Borders.

David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day, the whole book!

August Burroughs

His pen name.


Letfs break that down.

James Frey

To my mind, hefs the least culpable of the three, as far as messing things up for us lesser-known memoirists goes. To be sure, he's done the least harm. Well, he did cause that one train wreck that killed a girl. But in fact, he didnft, which is how he ended up getting listed here.

I was in DC for a few nights on day-job business early in 2006 when the two news stories getting obsessively covered were
the frying of Frey by The Smoking Gun and the latest in a series of female schoolteachers who got caught preying upon their naive, innocent male students. Though the former story was the more relevant one to me, being as it concerned the travails of a Brother Memoirist, I couldnft help getting more caught up in the latter one, since the teacher in question was uncommonly hot. (The always dependable Bill Maher thought so, too. gJust look at her!h he gushed. "Wait--show that mug shot again!")

I called Gary, my all-around point man in the US. Among the many other Josh-Muggins-supporting tasks that he generously takes upon himself, such as designing cover art for my books and mailing out copies to reviewers, Gary reads non-Josh-Muggins books so that I wonft have to. gItfs all written in this weird, gonzo style,h Gary said of Freyfs bestseller. Then he added, gItfs just weird. And gonzo.h Then he added, gThat teacher is really hot!h

The following day I was at Borders skimming as much of A Million Little Pieces as I could bear to skim. My internal monologue:

cThis is really hard to followc To be fair, I ought to try a different chapterc Hmm, this one is even denserc Itfs gonzo and, well, weirdc Oprah really read this whole book? Shefs tougher than I thoughtc How many more pages should I try before giving this up as a bad job?... I wonder if anyone has found and posted naked pictures of that teacher on the web yetc


In the end, I had to forgive Frey because:

(a) He claims that he wrote the book as fiction and was pressured into reclassifying it as a memoir by Doubleday, and I find that claim credible. Anyway, itfs a lot easier for me to hate a major publishing house than a besieged Brother Memoirist who got yelled at by Oprah.

(b) Although his book was bought by millions of people, I suspect it was only actually read by a couple dozen. Thus, the whole betrayal-of-trust ballyhoo is way overblown.

The Sedaris case is more complicated, but hefll have to wait in Green Room hell with Augusten Burroughs until I take another two- or three-week commercial break. Later, dudes.