creative non-fiction

Introduction

The level of creativity that is permitted within the writing of a memoir is a subject that has resulted in many debates within literary communities. At what point is the writer’s artistic license resulting in the intentional deception of the reader and what is the possible harm of this deception? Charlotte Abbott from Publisher’s Weekly explains that:

a book that is someone’s memory of their experience is not held up to the same standard of scrutiny as a book that accuses the president of wiretapping citizens without warrants… When publishers vet a manuscript, they’re looking at it in terms of libel. Is there anything in this book that will open us to the possibility of a lawsuit? (Neary, 2006)

In other words the perceived level of harm that results from a memoir is minimal outside of the potential for libelous content. However through the examination of three titles, A Million Little Pieces; Without You There is No Us; and The Girl With No Name, that were labeled as a “memoir” by the publishing company it is evident that the possibility for damage is not exclusive to libel. Publishers need to be aware of the potential for harm to occur when books are inappropriately labeled as a memoir and necessary precautions to prevent this harm must be taken.

 

James Frey

James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces is one of the most famous cases of a memoir later being revealed to be heavily fictionalized. Frey was lauded by Oprah for his moving account about his battle with addiction and the book became a massive best seller. However it was later found out that Frey had invented many of the plot points and “Random House paid more than two million dollars in lawyers’ fees, donations to charity, and customer refunds” (Dahmen, 2010). The publisher resolved to include a note at the front of all future printings of A Million Little Pieces explaining that some of the events may not be entirely accurate to minimize the negative attention the book was receiving. It is unclear as to what level Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese, was aware of the situation as her statement “appears to contradict Mr. Frey, who has said that it was his publisher’s decision to foist A Million Little Pieces onto the public as a memoir rather than a novel, as he had originally written it” (Kolhatkar, 2006). Despite all the backlash the book received Frey and the publisher were able to leave the situation without facing any real repercussions (Frey even went on to have many subsequent books published) however there was real damage that occurred because of the inappropriate labeling of A Million Little Pieces as a memoir. Frey argues in his book that the rehabilitation center’s programming that he went through was ineffective, that twelve step systems are wrong, and that addiction is a decision because of an individual’s weakness. Given the fact that much of A Million Little Pieces is fictionalized but promoted as a factual account results in the potential for a tremendous amount of  harm for those dealing with addiction. Many people turned to Frey’s “experience” with addiction as a new solution but his proposed method of just saying no had no actual validity. People that were seeking help to deal with addiction were wrongly led to believe that Frey’s experience as described in the memoir was one that could be trusted and potentially replicated. This potential for harm in is real and profound and Doubleday Books (a division of Random House) was a participant in this harm by either neglecting to adequately scrutinize the manuscript or intentionally mislabeling A Million Little Pieces as a memoir so that it would be more marketable.

 

Suki Kim

Another example of a book that was wrongly published as a memoir is Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us. Kim’s book recounts her experiences of living in Pyongyang for six months where she posed as a teacher in order to investigate the reality of life in North Korea. Kim is the “only journalist to live undercover in North Korea, [and she] had risked imprisonment to tell a story of international importance by the only means possible” (Kim, 2016). She explains that her motivation behind going undercover was because she felt “deeply concerned about the future of Korea, [and wanted] to tell the stark truth about the DPRK, in the hopes that the lives of average North Koreans, including my beloved students, will one day improve” (Tsouderos, 2014). Kim’s journalistic expose on life in North Korea was not censored by the propaganda and control of the DPRK government but rather sought to show the grim reality of life within the North Korean borders. A text this powerful could easily become a call to action and the catalyst for real change. However Kim’s book was not published as a journalistic expose but rather as a memoir. The decision to label Without You, There is No Us as a memoir was not one that Kim agreed with saying “I think calling it a memoir trivializes my reporting… I wasn’t simply trying to convey how I saw the world; I was reporting how it was seen and lived by others” (Kim, 2016), and she fought the publisher on this decision. In her article for the New Republic (2016) Kim explains the fallout of this publishing decision. With You, There is No Us was a successful book in terms of sales but it was met with a tremendous amount of criticism (particularly from the journalistic community), Kim explains the criticism as:

In their eyes, it seemed, I was a memoirist treading on journalistic turf, a Korean schoolteacher who sold out her students for a quick buck. For the most part, the attacks ignored the substance of what I had written—my investigative findings—and focused instead on my methods… People accused me of going to North Korea “for the sole purpose of using the experience to make money by producing a book.”

The fact that Kim’s book was being marketed as a memoir resulted in people ignoring the content that Kim had hoped would show the full extent of the living conditions in North Korea and function as a call to action. The nature of how Kim acquired the information was deeply scrutinized because it is not the roll of a memoirist to go undercover and unlike journalists, memoirists are likely not trained or aware of ethical concerns in regards to protecting informants. Had Without You, There is No Us been marketed as a piece of long form journalism it is very likely that Kim would not have been subjected to the same criticism because her book “was being dismissed for the very element that typically wins acclaim for narrative accounts of investigative journalism… Among journalists, undercover work is generally viewed as a badge of honor, not a mark of shame” (Kim, 2016). It is obvious that Kim’s reputation as a journalist was harmed by labeling the book as a memoir; but the real harm that resulted from this publishing decision was how the critical content that Kim exposed got lost amidst the criticism and her time undercover did not result in bettering the lives of those in North Korea.

 

Marina Chapman

In contrast with the previous two memoirs is Marina Chapman’s The Girl With No Name. Chapman’s book is about her traumatic childhood and how she spent a large portion of time when she was very young living with monkeys. Prior to the book being published the editor, Nancy Flight, took steps to try and verifying Chapman’s story and to avoid intentionally misleading the reader. This was an extraordinary story and Flight wanted to ensure that Greystone Books was not publishing a book as a memoir when it was not actually deserving of that label. Flight released a statement explaining that the book had “been reviewed by experts and that there is no reason to disbelieve it, though she also admits that there may be some distortions considering the many years that have passed” (Zelenko 2013). Another step that Greystone Books took before publishing the manuscript was requesting that the ghost writer, Lynne Barrett-Lee, include an afterward where she explained why she believed Chapman’s story was true. Barrett-Lee explains that it was meeting Chapman that resulting in her trusting the story, saying that “the one thing that would clinch it was that face-to-face meeting [that had me] trust in the truth of Marina’s incredible story” (Barrett-Lee, 2013, p. 328). The purpose of this afterward was to display that Greystone had reasonable cause to believe Chapman’s story, that research had been done to verify the claims, and that Flight was not alone in believing that Chapman had lived with monkeys as a young girl. This afterword grounded the rest of The Girl With No Name in the work that the publisher had done and provide context on how the reader could approach the memoir. There are still many people that are skeptical of Chapman’s story but the publisher has taken the necessary precautions to ensure that they are not intentionally misleading the reader or causing any unnecessary harm.

 

Conclusion

The potential for harm associated with memoirs is not limited to just the inclusion of libelous content and publishers need to be aware of this harm. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces being promoted as a memoir when it was actually a heavily fictionalized account of overcoming drug addiction resulted in potentially dangerous or unsuccessful strategies of how to deal with addiction becoming popularized. Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us was a journalistic expose that sought to raise awareness of the living conditions in North Korea, however the decision to market the book as a memoir undercut the journalistic value of the text and resulted in a great deal of criticism and no positive action to help those in the DPRK. Publishers should instead choose to emulate Greystone’s process when publishing Marina Chapman’s The Girl With No Name. Greystone took necessary precautions, vetted the manuscript for more than just libelous content, and provided an afterward from the ghost writer to provide further context. If more publishers followed Greystone’s example when publishing memoirs it would dramatically reduce the potential for harm.

 

Works Cited

Barrett-Lee, L. (2013). A note by Lynne Barrett-Lee. In M. Chapman, The Girl With No Name: The True Story of a Girl Who Lived with Monkeys(pp. 327–332). Greystone Books Ltd.

Dahmen, N. S. (2010). Construction of the Truth and Destruction of a Million Little Pieces: Framing in the editorial response to the James Frey case. Journalism Studies11(1), 115–130.

Kim, S. (2016, June 27). The Reluctant Memoirist: An investigative journalist returns from an undercover mission in North Korea—only to face her critics. New Republic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/133893/reluctant-memoirist

Kolhatkar, S. (2006, January 1). The Awful Untruth: Nan Talese Says James Frey Never Called Book Fiction. The New York Observer. Retrieved from http://observer.com/2006/01/the-awful-untruth-3/

Neary, L. (2006, January 13). Frey’s “Pieces” and Truth in Publishing. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5155897

Tsouderos, T. (2014, November 20). Review: “Without You, There Is No Us” by Suki Kim. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-without-you-there-is-no-us-suki-kim-20141120-story.html

Zelenko, M. (2013, August 1). The Incredible Story of Marina Chapman, the Woman Who Was (Maybe) Raised By Monkeys. Bullett Magazine. Retrieved from http://bullettmedia.com/article/the-incredible-story-of-marina-chapman/

Works Referenced

Carr, D. (2006, January 30). How Oprahness Trumped Truthiness. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/30/business/media/how-oprahness-trumped-truthiness.html

Gladestone, R. (2014, November 29). Tales Told Out of School in Pyongyang Cause Stir. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/30/world/tales-told-out-of-school-in-pyongyang-cause-stir.html

Hattenstone, S. (2013, April 13). Was Marina Chapman really brought up by monkeys? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/apr/13/marina-chapman-monkeys

Kirkus Review (2014, August 1). Without Us, There Is No Us (Review). Kirkus Review. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/suki-kim/without-you-there-is-no-us/

Publishers Weekly (2013, January 1). The Girl with No Name: The Incredible Story of a Child Raised By Monkeys (Review). Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-60598-474-2

Reed, J. (2015, October 8). What the James Frey A Million Little Pieces incident reveals about “real” publishers. Retrieved from https://johntreed.com/blogs/john-t-reed-s-self-publishing-blog/69582723-what-the-james-frey-a-million-little-pieces-incident-reveals-about-real-publishers

Zeiser, J. W. W. (2014). Secrets and Lies. Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved from https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/secrets-lies/#!