First Person

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


James Frey's A Million Little Pieces has been on TheNew York Times' nonfiction best-seller list for something like four months, propelled in part by its election to literary sainthood, the Oprah Book Club. Frey's dramatic account of his life as an alcoholic, drug addict and criminal is now famous for a different reason: an exposť by thesmokinggun.com that concluded "the 36-year-old author . . . wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states.'"

After denials and even a threat to sue the Smoking Gun, Frey admitted he made up significant parts of his "autobiography." Both his publisher, Doubleday, and Oprah Winfrey have defended him. Oprah went so far as to call CNN's Larry King during his interview with Frey last week. Sure he represented as true events that were entirely made up, Oprah said. "But the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book."

In 1997, Doubleday published my book, which we called John Wayne: A Novel. John Wayne, the actor, was one of the characters, and so was every member of my immediate family, and the Orange County where the story takes place is one almost every native would recognize. The novel was, for the most part, true, in other words. I made up some details about Wayne, just like I made up some details about my family, but I think I could have published the stuff about my family as memoir and the stuff about Wayne as, well, docudrama, I guess: I don't know, for example, what the young Duke and Marlene Dietrich said during their affair, but I know some things that Wayne said about her later in life, things that suggest what it might have been like.

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

But those two words—"a novel"—were there for a reason. I wanted readers to know that this was an act of imagination, even though my mother, Lillian Barden, was called "Lillian Barden" in the book and in life. Although I was certainly playing with notions of memoir and fiction—just as the title suggested—I was disturbed to be asked maybe 50 times during my book tour, "What kind of book is it?" I would say, "Well, it's a novel." And people would always say the same thing, somewhat smugly, I thought: "I know that, but is it fiction or nonfiction?"

For the most part, my explanation—that novels are always, by definition, fiction—just went over everyone's head. And I had to admit that most people in this country, and not all of them ignorant, don't even know what a novel is. More than that, they disputed the very possibility of a novel. Maybe they just didn't believe in the possibility of imagination: if you wrote this, they seemed to think, it must have happened exactly that way.

I have since tested this hypothesis with my college students. I find that even the best of them think novels are "true" in a way that the very word "fiction" tells them they aren't.

Having barely survived the spectacle of a presidential election in which the decorated war hero was represented as an equivocating coward and the draft-dodging failed businessman with an appetite for uniforms was called a war hero, I have to ask myself if maybe I'm the one who doesn't understand. Karl Rove, who is still one of the most powerful men in America, doesn't trouble himself with the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and maybe I shouldn't either.

Maybe the terms of the conversation have changed. I really mean it: maybe truth is fiction and fiction is truth. If this were really true, it would certainly be a millennial shift. In a society where many people under 30 get their news from Jon Stewart, this makes a kind of profound sense. I'm not saying that's wrong, just inevitable.

Power has always been in the hands of the people who can tell the best stories. When I'm honest with myself, I do think that fiction is often truer than nonfiction—was it Camus who said that art is a lie that gets at the truth?—and I would trust a fictional account of a battle more than a journalist's report.

What's new is that everyone knows this. We're no longer a country of dupes. Rather, we are a country of collaborators. The "willing suspension of disbelief" has become much more than a description of a literary/psychological process; it's become a political and social credo.

My own odd distinction is to be a writer who knows more about John Wayne than anyone but a handful of people, and so I have cut my teeth on this distinction. No one who believed in the Duke as a political figure during the '60s and '70s actually thought that he had ever fought in a war. What they believed was that the values he projected were more pertinent to the truth of their lives than the facts that this or that genuine war hero might have to share.

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.

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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