Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Million Little Pieces

When my favorite pair of shoes began disintegrating literally while I was out yesterday, I slipped into a store to replace them. While trying on for size I asked for a shoe horn at the checkout I was given a solemn lecture not to walk away with it because they had lost several of these lovely things during the last few weeks. It baffled me that someone would deliberately steal one of these things, but it told me something about how we understand honesty and truthfulness in our culture.

Shoe horns are a long way away from best selling books, but in the last couple of weeks James Frey has become the post-Christmas cause celebre with his book, A Million Little Pieces. This supposed memoir had the good fortune of being picked up by that wealthy Nashville-raised denizen of taste in literature and just about everything else, Ms. Oprah Winfrey. If you have not been following this little soap opera, then you have not missed very much, but it is a fascinating illustration of the inroad rampant subjectivity has made into the popular consciousness.

James Frey is an individual who has written this memoir of his days as a drug addict. It is apparently a fast-moving page-turner that the likes of Larry King have described as "a good read." The trouble is that it seems to be fiction masquerading as autobiography, as much the product of Frey's over-ripe imagination as it is the tale of his life to date. He is now prepared to admit to fabricating proportions of the story he tells -- and the fascinating thing is that so few people care. On this Sunday in January it sits perched at the top of the New York Times best seller list, and is the number one seller on

Now we should all realize that you are going read autobiography differently than something written about that same subject's life by a more disinterested observer. Let's face it, it is hard to be objective about yourself, and even the most honest among us is not very likely to write that disparagingly of ourselves!

I have read a lot of memoir in my time, and have found myself enriched by those which prod and seek to dig beneath the surface, whether I am talking of Augustine, Frederick Buechner, C. S. Lewis, or C. G. Jung. Now in addition to the masterpieces that stand out, there is plenty of autobiography that is eminently self-serving: Jack Spong's Here I Stand is a book which leaps immediately to mind. However, there is a difference between a writer's determined slant on their own life and outright and deliberate fabrication. Bishop Spong's take on things might often be novel, but he does not stoop to this.

Professor Mary Karr of Syracuse University, a specialist in the memoir as a literary form, and a memoirist, writes in todays NY Times, "In nonfiction, though, there's a different contract with the reader: you don't make things up." Yet this seems to be exactly what James Frey has done, yet Oprah among others has done little more than shrug and say, "So what?" In our world objectivity is out and subjectivity is in. I the reader am the one who needs to be wooed and impressed, even if that means intentially playing fast and loose with the facts.

We now find ourselves in a culture that has no desire to be hamstrung by the restraints imposed by objective truth, so the modern memoirist is more prone to employ the devices of the novelist. This approach is even creeping into the writing of history. Several years ago a serious biographer of Ronald Reagan had the timerity to introduce himself into the narrative of his book as a kind of theatrical prop, thereby supposedly freeing himself up to make the work more insightful. The result, alas, was just the reverse.

Randy Kennedy, one of the op-ed writers in the NY Times asks, "So how to explain what seems to be the increasing willingness of readers to accept truckloads of falsehood in memoirs, inventions much bigger than the reconstructed conversations or narrative elision that have long been the wink-wink conceits of personal history?"

I suspect there are a lot of potential answers to that question. One is that James Frey has done is to make a ripping good yarn of his life, mingling fact, fiction, and fantasy in telling a tale of a brokenness that is being redeemed. People want to be entertained, and to hear such stories because it gives them hope, even if they are not entirely true (although Oprah's website actually says of the book that it is "raw and honest"). (

Yet behind this is something that is far more worrisome, which is that increasing numbers of people are no longer as able to tell fact from fiction, and when the chips are down, it doesn't really worry them. Our contemporary culture gives much more credence to being entertained than to what is true. What is the difference, folks will rightly ask, between a writer who fictionalizes parts of his life to spice up the tale, and a television producer who in telling the story of, say, Prince William, or Laura Bush, plays with the truth in order to make their program more televisual?

Both television and the internet, coupled with the subjectivization of our culture, have added to our inability to discern the difference between truth and fiction. Add to this the leariness that there is in the postmodern mind when faced with truth, because it immediately asks "Whose truth?" and, perhaps, "Is this person using their notion of truth to impose their trip on me?"

This is certianly how the rising generations perceive the way in which those of us in the church present to them the facts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the past the veracity of facts mattered, now their importance seems to have become peripheral. Yet when a culture no longer seems to care whether the stories being told have any resemblance to reality but could very well be one giant fib, then there is every reason to be anxious.

I love reading stories that good writers, cinematographers, raconteurs, etc., have made up. I know when Garrison Keillor is spinning some yarn about Lake Wobegon, it is just that, and I enjoy it as such. I am being entertained and there are traces of honest representation of the foibles of the sort of people who live in Minnesota, but this is very different from James Frey passing off fiction as the facts of his life.

While James Frey will probably be a five-minute wonder, our sense of objectivity is now so compromised that episodes of this kind are sure to arise again. The Christian faith is true for a number of reasons, but one fundamental one is that it is rooted and grounded in God's great acts in history, the climax being the resurrection. The objectivity of facts should be important to us, as well as the manner in which we communicate them to our contemporaries in a world that seems willing to accept any cock and bull story because its notion of truth is so fragmented.

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