First Person

Truth and Fiction in John Wayne's America
James Frey and Me

The entire conundrum gets a fashion show, I think, in the words of the novelist/essayist Jonathan Ames, a man who is obsessed, personally and fictionally, with cross-dressing and enemas. "It's the most amazing thing," he told me once. "When I write nonfiction, people will often say, 'You never did that.' And when I write fiction, they'll say, 'I bet you did that, didn't you?'" I chewed over Jonathan's quandary for years until it occurred to me, very recently, what the issue was: people like to decide what's true. They don't like to be told. To my mind, Jonathan's musings on his sexual obsessions are just as credible in his essays as they are in his fiction, but then again, I'm not a guy who insists on the importance of documentary truth unless I'm under contract. A fellow who is as genuinely peculiar as Jonathan must be easier to accept when the truth of his experience is not insisted on by a word like "nonfiction." Kind of like how many people think Geena Davis would make a great president but Hillary Clinton would not.

Into this cultural vortex walk James Frey and the same company that published my novel. I actually have a fair amount of contempt for Frey, but that's just me, a man who spends way too much time trying to get things right to be anything but upset by a writer so unapologetic about his sloppiness. I suspect that what happened, based on what I've read in the past few days, was that Frey wrote a novel, but once discussions with Doubleday began about the possibility of a memoir—$$$—he just forgot. After all, what's the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, a night in jail or three months in jail? He had no way of knowing the book would be so huge and bear such scrutiny.

That doesn't help me much with my contempt, but it makes his own pandering seem less a felony and more like what it actually is: a smug dismissal of one of the most important distinctions in the publishing industry. My own reaction is compounded of envy, I'm sure, too—not for his inclusion in the Oprah Book Club, although I'm sure I'll get to that, but for my recognition of how much simpler my life as a nonfiction writer would be if I could turn my misdemeanors into felonies and come home to girlfriends who have committed suicide when my memoir needs a dramatic lift.

Frey's 1992 Granville, Ohio, mugshot
Frey's 1992 Granville, Ohio, mugshot

And if you think this is just a lowbrow issue, think again. I can no longer console myself that this loss of fiction is confined to the same crew who believe that Elvis faked his death or that Osama and Saddam were in daily e-mail contact. I'll quote from Richard Lacayo in Time as he spoke, lovingly, about Ian McEwan's novel Saturday:

Moreover, judging from his descriptions of Perowne's marital bliss—"What a stroke of luck, that the woman he loves is also his wife"—McEwan's eight-year marriage must be quite something. "When he thinks of sex," the book tells us, "he thinks of her."

Certainly Lacayo knows that McEwan made this story up—McEwan is, after all, a renowned fiction writer—and yet he takes it as an article of faith that there must be a nonfictional basis.

I'm not even going to get mad about it anymore. And I'm certainly not going to write a letter to Time, not going to remind them that this is exactly the kind of illogic that claims WMDs must exist in Iraq because someone said they exist in Iraq. One of my freshman composition students announced recently, "Just because you can't prove something doesn't mean it's not true." I told him that not being able to prove something was, in fact, the very definition of its not being true.

But I think my head is stuck in another century. In this century, we're all going to have to get used to the idea that everything is true and nothing is false. Or maybe I got that backward. Good thing it doesn't matter.

Dan Barden grew up in OC and teaches creative writing at Butler University in Indianapolis, where his wife, Elizabeth, owns Big Hat Books, that city's only independent, general-interest bookstore. He is the author ofJohn Wayne: A Novel and a forthcoming almost-completely made-up book set in Laguna Beach.

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