L’Affaire James Frey

A few people have asked me what I think about the current literary scandals, particularly the memoir-oriented James Frey case. Actually, a few of those who asked did so admitting they could already guess my take on it. They know I’ve never had much patience for what I consider nontruth in nonfiction. And by the way, I still consider memoir a sub-genre of nonfiction, with all nonfiction’s attendant characteristics, rewards, and responsibilities.

Maybe that explains, in part, why I really haven’t wanted to take on l’Affaire Frey myself. And maybe today’s Publishers Lunch summarizes even more clearly why I haven’t focused on the subject here: “It would be an understatement to say there is an abundance of stories on James Frey, his Larry King appearance last night, and Oprah’s dramatic last-minute blessing of the ’emotional truth’ of however it is that he told his tale. We presume that if you’re interested, there’s little new we can tell you, just as our subjective assumption is that you’ve probably already formed a firm opinion on the matter.”

Yes. Which isn’t to say that I won’t comment later, once I’ve had more time to think about all this. Maybe I’ll decide I have something original/potentially new and interesting and enlightening to contribute. I’m also looking forward to Mary Karr’s editorial on the subject, which, according to today’s PW Daily, is in the works.

But for the moment, I’m confident that you’re following the news yourself. In the unlikely event that you aren’t, here are just a few recommended readings:

A transcript of last night’s Larry King Live Interview with James Frey;

An editorial published in the Los Angeles Times;

And though it’s dated (from 2003), this article, “Memoirs: The Novel Approach to Facts”, published in The Age, is also highly relevant.


Here are two articles/commentaries from today’s New York Times with which wholly agree. You’ll need to register to read the full pieces; registration is free.

1) Randy Kennedy’s “My True Story, More or Less, and Maybe Not at All,” which appears on the cover page of the “Week in Review” section.

2) Mary Karr’s op-ed, “His So-Called Life”.

A Winter Weekend’s Reading

If you’re looking for some writing-oriented reading this weekend you can find plenty to keep you occupied (and thinking) in online offerings from the January-February 2006 Poets & Writers magazine. I found so much of direct interest to me in this issue I’m still marveling over it.

My interest was piqued first when I saw that the magazine had published a complimentary letter penned by a friend of mine. That was a good sign! (No, that’s not one of the online offerings I’m pointing you to. But I have to say it made me smile as I read on.)

I can’t say I’ve read all of David Foster Wallace’s work, but his story, “The Depressed Person,” remains a favorite. So I was more than just intrigued to find Joe Woodward’s piece, “In Search of David Foster Wallace,” in the magazine.

Then, because I’m a pretty active book reviewer (I should probably be writing a review right this minute instead of blogging–the book in question is reprovingly within my peripheral vision) and try to help others learn about book reviewing I was also interested in Timothy Schaffert’s Q&A with David Ulin, who now edits the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

As if that weren’t enough, Daniel Nester’s article on Stephen Elliott’s new anthology addresses one of my favorite topics: “politically inspired fiction.”

And finally, there’s Kevin Larimer’s report on the outcome of the most recent Winnow Press First Fiction competition. Or maybe lack of outcome is a better term, since no prize was awarded. I certainly can’t say I’m an uninvolved party here, both because I know very well which little bird alerted Mr. Larimer to this piece of news and because yes, I am one of the 300 people whose manuscripts the press found, in the words of publisher Corinne Lee, “so disappointing.” I suppose I’ll just remain grateful to (and perhaps in a very human way will prefer the judgments of) the editors of the five journals and two contests that published and “prized” the stories included in this manuscript collection (a shortened one, due to the contest’s page limits) in the past. And I’ll be grateful, too, to Winnow Press for returning my contest fee.

On the Writerly Benefits of Sibling Rivalry

In a review of Catherine Wald’s The Resilient Writer some months back I noted how grateful I am to my parents for a major contribution to my writing career. By creating me as a Taurus, they endowed me with certain personality traits essential to any writer’s success (not to mention sanity). Taureans, you see, are by definition (at least according to the definition on one of my refrigerator magnets) “DETERMINED” and “PERSISTENT.” Sometimes people go so far as to call them “STUBBORN” (bull-headed?).

But you need those qualities to deal with certain aspects of the writer’s life. Rejection, in particular. You need to be able to find a rejection letter in your mailbox (or when you log in to e-mail) and go on with the rest of your day. You need to have some inherent drive to send a story to 40+ journals before it finds a home. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for writers born under all the other astrological signs.

Yesterday I realized I owe my parents even more. Though I somehow sense it wasn’t uppermost in their minds at the time, they also really helped me prepare for a life as a writer when they gave me a sibling thirtysomething years ago.

I’ve just read two pieces dealing with writers and sibling rivalry. The first, by Steve Almond, appears in the December 5 Publishers Weekly. In “The Case Against Sibling Rivalry,” Almond recounts, among other things, his own shameful experience as a “jealous little turd” at a writers’ conference. His conclusion “isn’t that all writers should love and praise the work of other writers. It’s that we’re all members of the same family.”

Now I’m a big Steve Almond fan–not least because Mr. Almond very graciously and with considerable concern helped me out when he emceed a reading at which I practically fainted a few years ago (that’s another story). And I agree with his conclusion. But isn’t it true that rivalry even within the same family is, at least sometimes, unavoidable?

That’s a point made in A. Papatya Bucak’s “With a Little Help from My Enemies,” which begins with a chronicle of the motivating power of jealousy in her own life. “The younger sister to a genius brother, I quickly learned that the successes of those you love are a much greater spur than the successes of those you hate. He was an editor for our high-school literary magazine; I was editor-in-chief. His Science Olympiad team won the state championship; mine won the nationals. He went to Cornell; I went to Princeton.”

For Bucak (and for her essay) this personal history serves as a prelude to her writing life. Now her “siblings” include everyone from her college-mates to a young woman she once babysat for. And they all seem to be “out-succeeding” her.

How she turns this to her advantage I’ll leave to you to discover.

But here’s what I’m thinking. Pity the poor writer who is an only child (now I have nothing against only children–my dad and one of my best friends are only children). But I think only children have a tougher time as writers. They have to learn some lessons later on (maybe even at an MFA program?) that those of us graced with siblings learn much, much earlier in life. Here’s one: there’s competition in this world; sometimes, someone else is simply more “successful” than you are. Here’s another: life and feelings are messy. You might very well have a great deal of affection (or even love) for someone who inspires some pretty nasty sentiments (jealousy, rage, etc.) at the same time.

For his part, Almond says: “I don’t know that I’ll ever rid myself of envy. What I am trying to do is manage these feelings, so they don’t infect the pleasure I might take in the work of others.” What a perfect way of summing up the happy developments in my relationship with my sister now that we’re both safely into adulthood. Somehow, I suspect that feat resonates in the way I relate to my writer friends, too, the ones that do, in fact, often seem to comprise another “family” for me.

So once again I have to say it: Thanks, Mom and Dad! I appreciate your help!

A Basic Definition of Creative Nonfiction

Another nugget from the MediaBistro Toolbox, this time a basic explanation of creative nonfiction courtesy of Lee Gutkind.

My favorite part of his statement is this:

“And there are two types of stories. One type is one’s own story. The other type is telling the stories of others.”

Got that? Sometimes it seems to me that some writers believe “creative nonfiction” is synonymous with (and limited to) “memoir.” It isn’t! Back in the day some of us learned about “creative nonfiction” as “literary journalism.” Sure, there are plenty of wonderful memoirs/first-person essays out there, and I certainly enjoy reading them. But please, let’s not forget that there’s more to creative nonfiction than memoir.

Look to hear more about nonfiction (specifically, “narrative nonfiction”) from me in a few days. I’m volunteering at the 2005 Nieman Narrative Conference in Boston. I spent four hours last night preparing folders, and there’s another folder-preparation session in store for me before I get to the actual event on Friday. But it’s all going to be worth it–what a line-up they’ve got….

War Poetry

No, I’m not talking about the British World War One poets–this time. That’s a subject I’ve been known to focus on.

Today, however, I suggest you check out Dana Goodyear’s Talk of the Town piece in the current New Yorker. Goodyear profiles Brian Turner, 38, a former Army sergeant whose book of poems, Here, Bullet, was recently released by Alice James Books. The book, about a year Turner spent deployed in Iraq, won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award. It’s Turner’s debut collection.

Scott McLemee’s "Quarterly Report"

You may not yet know about Scott McLemee’s “Intellectual Affairs” column, which runs twice each week over at the Inside Higher Ed site. On Thursdays McLemee covers new books; on Tuesdays he offers, as he recently phrased it: “the usual smorgasbord: thumbnail accounts of scholarship, glosses on current events, interviews with academics and writers, personal essays, reading notes, and the occasional targeted spitball.”

Last week the column addressed “general-interest cultural quarterlies.” Practicing writers who target these journals will be especially interested in what McLemee has to say about The Virginia Quarterly Review, Sewanee Review, The Minnesota Review, Boston Review, and others.