The Blogosphere has been up in arms regarding James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces. After the Smoking Gun report that questioned the authenticity of Frey's story, bloggers have been quick to denounce Frey's fraud (examples here, here, and here). Even media mogul and talk show host Oprah Winfrey has become heavily entangled in the Frey imbroglio.
This whole controversy has brought into the public eye a question I have been asking for some time: what is non-fiction and can such a thing truly exist? I have often said that all autobiography is inherently fictitious and all fiction is inherenty autobiographical. Certain authors have been acutely aware of this fact (see Audre Lorde's self-proclaimed "biomythography," Zami) and exploited it in a self-aware fashion. Others may silently acknowledge it without making a big to-do about it. Others might be blissfully unaware. Still others might publish "fictionalized" non-fiction ("based on a true story").
If one takes this above statement regarding the nature of autobiography and fiction literally, then I suppose Frey is off the hook. Taking a perfectly postmodern literary stance, it doesn't matter if the memoir is real or not. I, however, am not willing to take this stance. In order to get to the bottom of things, I suppose I ought to explain precisely what I mean when I make the aforementioned claim.
"All autobiography is inherently fictitious.". This is not to say that there can be no truth in autobiography. An autobiography can often be a very honest and intimate personal narrative. It is the last word there, however, that makes the key difference: "narrative." Once real events are translated into a narrative account, it is no longer real. Any recording of a real event is always (at least) one step removed from physical and temporal reality. Add in the fact that the author is apt to fudge a few details here and there - embellishing to add excitement or drama and censoring to remove certain unsavory or embarassing details - and the autobiography becomes even more removed. An autobiography is a person recording their life in the manner they would wish to be remembered. Even the negative aspects one might choose to include in his or her autobiography are still chosen. To argue that an autobiography is reality is false. The best we can argue is that an autobiography is a close literary representation of reality. Perhaps a closer one than literary fiction provides, but an approximate representaiton nevertheless.