Thursday, February 02, 2006

The novoir (and...)

...i'm just beat. The "campus" is surreal. The acoustics are horrible. Rearranging tables, chairs and tablecloths has become guess-what-the-room-looks-like-today? I like my chaos internal, manageable, under scrutiny and analysis and tapped for whatever can be siphoned off, not more chaos in the midst of increasingly thick and nonsensical traffic, the building angst as denial lifts and the hotel isn't so much fun (and neither is commuting for those who still are), and too much shit hasn't changed, hasn't gotten better, hasn't gotten cleaned up or fixed or, it seems, noticed. Yes, drag every damn congressperson, chief of staff, lobbyist, CFO, anybody through not just the Ninth Ward but also Gentilly, down Broad Street, through Uptown where traffic lights still blink or dangle, holes grow by the day, traffic is freeform on one way streets and when cleaning crews do come, the detouring adds time to already long days. As I tell my students, Sorry, my PTSD is showing.

But to take my mind of weighty matters like levees, tornadoes, Senate committees and a remarkably stingy federal "response," there's James Frey.

I’ve talked to my creative writing students (5 of the 6) about James Frey and his novoir. They fish for details or mention Oprah, especially how "good Oprah looks mad." I kept saying that no one asks why something submitted as a novel was published as a memoir, how it could be one then the other without a word changed. Then Nan Talese started talking and it all became clear.

Ms. Talese’s statement [that the manuscript was always nonfiction to her] 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. Just a few days ago, during an unrepentant appearance on Larry King Live, Mr. Frey said: “We initially shopped the book as a novel, and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a nonfiction book. When Nan Talese purchased the book, I’m not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.”

Publishers and agents say memoir is “hot” and that memoir “sells.” No one wants to “chance” a first novel or anything called “fiction.” The market for fiction, who they’ll sell it to, is too vague for them to visualize so it is rejected.

Frey says that more than a dozen publishers rejected it. But that was when he was calling "Little Pieces" a novel. When his agent suggested he call it a memoir, it sold.

If he wrote it as a novel, it’s a novel. If he wrote it as memoir, it’s a memoir full of egregious errors of “memory,” as Nan Talese put it.

Nan Talese, editorial director from Random House's Doubleday division, which published the book,…told Winfrey…"I absolutely believed what I read."

"I think this whole experience is very sad. It's very sad for you, it's very sad for us," she said, but "people do not remember the same way. And I thought, as a publisher, this is James' memory of the hell he went through and I believed it."

Nan Talese is sad and even her husband knows it (check out page two of Sheelah Kolhatkar's “The Awful Untruth”). I tell my students that the heart of fiction, poetry, any good writing is verisimilitude, creating a fictional world that is believable enough to suspend the knowledge that you are reading words on a page and instead are, too, crouched behind a shed.

Believability is not the sign of truth but of good writing. But even though she so “believed” the book, she would’ve rejected it as a novel:

If Mr. Frey came to Ms. Talese today with the same manuscript, she said she’d publish it the same way, most likely with a disclaimer in the front. (In any case, she said that the book would never have worked as a novel, in part because the author himself is the only real character in it.)

When asked whether she would do anything differently in terms of publishing nonfiction and memoirs in the future, Ms. Talese said: “Absolutely not.”

James Frey is set up face to face with a glowing-eyed Oprah backed by booing and groaning audience while Nan Talese gets to say she personally has learned and would change nothing.

I feel sorry for him. But I also wish he'd been a mensch when his agent and/or publisher suggested they dabble in not-quite-truthiness.


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