Henry David Thoreau was not thinking about a potential book promotion appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show when he sat down to write Walden or Life in the Woods. Realists will reply: Well, of course not! That was 150 years ago, and Oprah is now! But philosophers and literary critics will get the point. We have to assume Thoreau intended to construct an artifice, an artifice that would to some degree distort reality. He never intended to write an objective report on his time at the pond. In that sense-the subjective sense-he chose to build a book rooted in reality but orchestrated with a set of literary lies or untruths. Thoreau knew all about bad karma. So, why was he at peace, scribbling away in his cabin at Walden Pond and later at Ralph Waldo Emerson's house back in Concord? Wasn't he worried that a million little lies about what he did out there in the woods would sooner or later come back to haunt him?
Frey's A Million Little Pieces
We can't be sure, but apparently James Frey wasn't worried, either, when he sat down to write his book A Million Little Pieces. He thought it was a memoir, and he thought he knew what he was doing. He had already published other books and had every hope of snagging another contract with a good publishing house. In that sense, at least, he was doing far better than Thoreau who had a devil of a time getting any publisher to take him seriously. So, off Frey went to the literary races, narrating away and inventing whatever seemed necessary to suture his story together or to add sufficient spice. It did not matter to Frey that he was writing what he labeled as a memoir. Invention was part of the game, and he played it well.
It did not matter, that is, until, farther down the line, Frey's agent, Kassie Evashevski, found that publishers just weren't making any offers for the newly minted memoir. The author and agent put heads together, and one of them conceived a new strategy: Sell it as fiction. Did they pause to question themselves about the ethics of such a strategic move? We don't know. Frey is something of an action figure kind of guy-a lot of bluster and toughness. He and his agent just did it, no explanation given.
But, still, after another round of submissions to publishers, no success came their way, or at least not an offer that met their financial expectations. Then, Doubleday surprised them with an offer of substantial money for what had earlier been pitched to them as nonfiction: the memoir. Woops! Guess that means it's a memoir after all! Aw shucks. Handshakes all around, deal signed. Editor and author get down to polishing the manuscript, which first hit the bookstore shelves in 2003, and was published under the Knopf imprint in 2005.1
In due time, as everyone with a television set, Internet connection, or access to a newspaper knows by now, that "aw shucks" attitude backfired. Piece by piece, Web sites, newspaper journalists, literary critics, and readers found things in Frey's "memoir" to make them suspicious. Those who knew him personally questioned some of his tales. Those who knew the substance abuse rehabilitation center where he claimed to have spent time questioned the details of his narration about his time there. Those who knew about his personal relationships stepped forward to say "it really wasn't like that, not at all." Eventually, a small tidal wave of doubt gathered around his book which was, by then, selling handsomely.
Its success seemed to have been well-deserved. Reviews were mostly positive, and Oprah Winfrey had selected the book for her book club-a marketing rocket fuel bonanza if ever there were one. We all know the fallout. Oprah at first defended Frey's right to shape his memoir/story any way he wanted to, as long as it was sincere and still a good read. But, when it became clear to Winfrey that the book, and its author, might not actually pass that sincerity and authenticity test, she reversed course, called Frey back on her TV show, dressed him down in front of millions of people, and figuratively tossed him and his book out the window. Reason: He lied.
We like to think telling the truth is the right thing to do. But if it were always the right thing, would we have Walden to read today? This is not an idle question. Walden, according to historian Barksdale Maynard, is the most widely published and widely read book in all of American literary history. And yet, looked at from some angles, it's a pack of lies.
Thoreau narrates a year's cycle of experiences in the woods at Walden Pond. We encounter each season once. But the actual biographical record (in Thoreau's journals) shows that the author began his Walden experience in March of 1854 and by July 4th of that year had finished building his cabin and had moved in. The early chapters of Walden make much of the virtues of Thoreau's isolation and separation from society. Thoreau wants to live away from the conflicts and distractions of village life because, like Wordsworth, whom he had read, he believed that life was too much devoted to getting and spending. Thoreau's mantra at the pond becomes, "Simplify!" He takes great pains to show us how he manages to build a satisfactory dwelling in minimalist style and with a bare bones budget. The details enumerated come right down to the count of nails driven into boards and to the pennies paid for them. The opening chapter, "Economy," is a bravura performance of fact-driven narration intertwined with a rambling philosophical inquiry into what "wealth" might really mean were we ever to give up bourgeois consumerism. The author's earnestness is self-evident. We trust him. The facts don't lie.
Actually, they do. Thoreau did not live at the pond for a year. He lived there off and on for much of two years, leaving his cabin for the last time on September 6th, 1847. Between his arrival and his departure, was he there all the time, and was he always alone? No, and no. There were many visits to the village of Concord (a couple of miles away), sometimes for supplies, sometimes for a home cooked meal at the Emersons'. There was also a brief junket of a few weeks to the Maine woods in 1846, smack in the middle of his "residence" at the pond. And although the experiment in philosophical living Thoreau conducted at Walden did have much to do with quiet, solitary meditation, he frequently had visitors at the pond and even devotes a chapter in Walden to the comings and goings of other people.
The literary construction of Walden is a conceit. It conflates two-plus years into one. It suggests a more or less seamless residence at the pond when in fact, if looked at closely, the narrative is discontinuous, with huge omissions of time. No explanation offered. "Economy" gives the impression that the author lived off the land, harvesting from his garden. But it was never, actually, a full-fledged vegetable garden sufficient to supply all a man would need to stay healthy. Beans, yes, but not an entire diet. Did Thoreau fish at Walden Pond? The book is unclear about this, but nearly everyone else who visited there did. The narrative includes a chapter ("Higher Laws") extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, but it does not document in any reliable way whether, while out at the pond, Thoreau occasionally enjoyed a fish fry. Moreover, Thoreau was Emerson's protégé and had financial support from the elder writer-minister-philosopher (who owned the land on which Thoreau built his cabin). "Economy" would lead us to believe that Thoreau pulled off his experiment in the woods on a meager budget, but he conveniently forgot to tell us about Emerson's substantial real estate investment that made it all possible in the first place.
So, is Walden a lie?
What we need to do here is careful philosophy. Let's define our terms. What is Walden, as literature: Memoir? Autobiography? Extended essay? Are there fictional elements? If Thoreau intended to document his daily life for two years at the pond, then the book fails, miserably. It's full of holes and blind alleys. However, if he intended to borrow from his experience at Walden certain episodes and to edit them by reshaping them, by excising the irrelevant dross, so as to have sufficient and appropriate grist for his philosophical mill, then the book succeeds, brilliantly.
Already, we see this is a matter of both authorial intention and the writer's skill at selecting materials to serve his intention appropriately. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton speculates about why we travel. He also muses about how we write about any particular place we visit. It's always a matter of selection and deliberate rearrangement of the data our conscious mind thinks it has taken in. A direct regurgitation of anything and everything we happened to experience would be just that: regurgitation. Memoirist Richard Hoffman (Half the House) puts it another way when he lectures about the "how-to" side of memoir writing. Hoffman says it's all about representation of digested, internalized experience. Not just presentation of objective facts, but re-presentation of selected materials, all orchestrated to achieve a larger purpose.
I have never heard either of these critics say so, but I believe they would both agree: Thoreau was not a liar. He re-presented his experience at Walden Pond in a series of carefully engineered essays-some with narrative elements, even elements of fiction (characterization, establishment of setting, a sense of the movement of time). Thoreau was not a documentarian, though he sprinkles his narrative liberally with the most exotic of finely hewn details, often from the disciplines of botany, zoology, philology or comparative religion. (After all, he was a Harvard-educated man.) He was, instead, a philosophical yarn spinner. Thoreau saw that philosophical ideas presented by themselves, in the abstract, tend to be rather skeletal and chilly. Hang a good story on them, dress them up in the costumes of scene and event, or attach them to a political rant about, say, slavery, or one about the incursion of new technology (the railroad) into the paradisiacal garden (Walden's woods), and now you have the makings of a book someone might just want to read and wrestle with.
It's a shame that we don't have a record, in the correspondence between Thoreau and his several potential publishers, telling us anything about what Thoreau "intended" to accomplish in his quirky little book about "a year in a cabin at the pond." We do know that when the manuscript was first shown to publishers, it was initially misunderstood and disliked. No one knew exactly what literary species it belonged to. Eventually, Ticknor and Fields took a chance on it because they sensed some kind of fresh voice in the narrative.or because they trusted the recommendations of Emerson and Hawthorne. These endorsements are on the record. But Thoreau's journals do not make clear just how conscious he was, or wasn't, about his use of literary tropes or about his stretching of the literal truth in the writing of Walden. His publishers knew him personally, however. So did nearly everyone in Concord and many in Boston. There was nothing to hide. When it became clear that the structure of the book did not mesh perfectly with the chronology of Thoreau's time at the cabin, no one cried foul. Readers then and now can see that "a year at the pond," and "economy," and "solitude" are all tropes meant to provoke us into some philosophical thinking.
And so, those who admire and love Walden accept it as something other than a documented "life in the woods." It is closer to a prose poem than to documentary autobiography. Did Thoreau stretch or alter the truth? Is there any way to know? Was anyone else out there watching him? Could his publishers have vetted the ms. or had it fact checked? Or would all of this have been beside the point? Yes, it would. Because by the definition of the genre (what we might call autobiographical philosophical extended essay), authorial intentions have little or nothing to do with objective accuracy, even though the book is loaded with countless factual details. Indeed, not only was Thoreau not a liar, he was a teller of higher truths. His factual accuracy and his stretching of the truth both serve his larger purpose, a purpose which cannot be judged by fidelity to mere facts alone.
What might Thoreau have known of literary genres? Thoreau attended Harvard and read literature, philosophy and sciences there. He never compiled a life reading list which would tell us for sure which books he knew. But, scattered throughout his entire oeuvre are countless references to his reading. It was diverse and extensive. After looking at Thoreau's own books and essays and by nosing around in the journals, we can safely say that he read the stories of many other lives, both ancient and more modern. We can also safely say that he was not a literary critic and did not invest time in trying to read everything of value that was "new." So, here, in our 21st century discussion, "genre" is more our word than his.
But what of James Frey; Oprah Winfrey; the Doubleday editor, Sean McDonald; the agent, Kassie Evashevski; the book reviewers; the book buyers for the stores; and the consumers-all of whom got themselves into a snit and a tangle because A Million Little Pieces turned out to be seasoned with a hundred not so little lies? Frey's personal story remains murky; he's a shape shifter, hard to pin down. But there's no arguing with this: No one was minding the philosophical or literary shop while Frey was writing or while Evashevski was agenting-that is, minding the shop where careful definitions of genre and authorial purpose are hammered out, inspected, scrutinized. Instead of nailing down clearly what Frey was trying to accomplish-within a certain genre, taking or not taking the liberties that come with the historically rooted definition of that genre in literary tradition-the publishing process went awry here. It made its decisions more as responses to market forces than to literary tradition.
Evidence: When the "memoir" initially proved hard to sell, author and agent tried selling the same manuscript as "fiction," ignoring the ethical obligation to tell the publishers about the switch.
Case: When it was sold to Doubleday as "memoir," both the author and agent failed to tell the publisher about the degree to which actual facts had been altered and about the amount of fabrication in the book. Frey claimed he had been in jail for months; it was a matter of hours. He claimed the substance abuse rehabilitation center where he was a resident used certain therapeutic techniques, over a period of time, and this turned out to be an exaggeration. He claimed the overall chronology of his story was accurate, but acquaintances and professionals who interacted with him showed that it was not.
There was so much fabrication and re-invention of "fact" in A Million Little Pieces that Frey's agent later claimed she was duped and simply didn't know her client was lying. Well, maybe.
The publisher in turn did not do its job of fact checking, of vetting the manuscript and of doing due diligence so as to check up on the reliability of its author. From a certain angle, this conspicuous lack of investigation by the publisher is astonishing since the story came to them from someone whose brain evidently had been affected by drugs and alcohol and harsh interventionist treatments and by unresolved stress for years. Indeed, the bulk of the book is about the troubles Frey had seen, and a pack of troubles they were. If ever there was an author who was a candidate for checking up on, it was the recovering alcoholic.
Anyone with the slightest first-hand knowledge of the disease knows that among its sad behavioral side effects is the tendency to lie, to fabricate. This may not be a moral failing; there may be an organic basis for this problem with truth-telling among the heavily alcoholic. (I believe there is.) Frey's editor and his literary agent apparently found him or his story so compelling that they simply forgot or were too na've to step back from the seductiveness of the tale and its teller to ask: What gives? Is this really true, or are we in fiction land?
And so, Oprah felt she was duped, and she was. In the wake of Frey's very public dressing down by the diva of book clubs, consumers behaved with predictable spasms of amusement, outrage and morbid curiosity. On the whole, sales went up, not down. Evidently, a good story, either in the book itself or attached to the making of the book, trumps any concern about the ethics of the publishing business. But let's forgive the na've consumers.
Who are the gate keepers who run the publishing game? It is not consumers who are tasked with the responsibility to make sure that a novel is a novel and a memoir is a memoir. It is editors and marketers who must keep track of two genres meeting in one manuscript; they are the professionals responsible for announcing to the world that there is a hybridization of genres in the book. And such hybridization should certainly never be kept secret between author and agent, on the one hand, and editor, on the other.
Few consumers would have known that Frey's book, as a memoir, was supposed to be subjected (according to editing conventions) to the test of documentary memoir truth-telling. One can argue, however, that consumers have a right to know this, and when publishers pull a book out of the marketplace because its contents have been shown to be untrue or libelous, these publishers are admitting, indirectly, that they believe readers deserve truthful writing.
Booksellers may have been the most confused of all because they did not know where to shelve the outed book (with memoirs, with fiction, or both?), and they had to decide whether even to continue selling it. Some did, some didn't. Since demand went up, temporarily, the temptation to set aside principles and just listen to the jingle of coins dropping into the cash register must have been hard to resist. And yet booksellers are complicit in the ethics of book publishing, too. If they push a deceptive memoir at consumers, regardless of how good the memoir's story line may be, consumers become accustomed to thinking that deceptiveness is acceptable. It's a slippery slope. Ultimately, Doubleday pulled the book from the marketplace.
A course in ethics would indeed be highly recommended for author, agent, editor, publisher, and bookseller. The publishing business cannot presume to require consumers to join such a study group, but it could make attendance required for everyone else in the publishing process with the power to make editorial decisions. A refresher course in literary history and criticism, to bring them up to speed about the nuances of the memoir genre and the subtleties of the personal essay, would not be a bad idea either. The trouble is, Doubleday and other houses working the highly profitable field of memoir publishing might have to cancel a few marketing or sales meetings to make room in the schedule for these rehabilitative, remedial exercises. No one in publishing really wants to admit that remedial education in editorial ethics might be necessary, but it is. Doubleday is run by Nan Talese, winner of the 2006 Maxwell Perkins Award for distinguished service in publishing. Talese deserves the award, after an extraordinary career. But it was on her watch that Doubleday courted and supported Frey. One can only wonder about the ethics and business logic of publishers where multi-million dollar advances and huge marketing campaigns are common but where allocating a few thousand dollars for fact checking or due diligence is deemed beyond budgetary reach.
What do we mean by the word "truth"? There are, at a minimum, two kinds of truth-the demonstrable truth of the scientist (replicable in experiments) and the "truth as we know it" that is less rigorous. In literature, while "truth" may be a variable commodity, measured not by an absolute standard but by its nuances, and distributed piecemeal to serve a story teller's purposes, we all start from the assumption that unless an author or publisher signals to us that something is "fiction," then we expect a high degree of fidelity to facts.
Yes, there is satire, but that is self-evidently "fiction" no matter what degree of verisimilitude it achieves. Yes, there is the phenomenon of the literary hoax. Some hoaxes, ultimately, are considered funny because they fooled us and we did not mind being fooled; others are annoying because we did not want to be fooled. We have had, since the late 1960s, a brand of journalism (unfortunately called, in the beginning, the "new journalism" but later on characterized more broadly as "creative nonfiction") that deliberately mixes objective reportage with the writer's subjective perspective on the story being reported. But even here, where the notion of "truth" gets cloudy, most of these new journalism writers find a way to signal the reader to watch out: Truth may torqued and twisted before this tale is through. Norman Mailer gave us that signal in the title of his book that illustrates the conventions of the mixed genre of journalism and fiction: The Novel as History, History as the Novel.
We have now, among some historians and biographers, a variety of writing called "the new historicism" in which the author indulges in some invention of dialogue or characterization so as to get at underlying motive, and to flesh out a narrative that otherwise would have major holes in it. Stephen Greenblatt's award-winning book on Shakespeare, Will in the World, is a prime example.
However, when a memoirist author tells a publisher and when a memoir tells its reader "this really happened, and I'm trying to convey the truth about my life in this memoir," then we expect a high degree of fidelity to actual facts, and we are uncomfortable with exaggeration, with the insertion of fabricated events or characters. Truth-telling, in such a memoir, is inseparable from trust. We read memoirs because the examined life of the author may shed some light on our own experience. We assume that the author may think more deeply and say more clearly than we can what the essential truths of his life may be. If he's lying, for no purpose other than self-aggrandizement (making a dull tale sharper, more engaging; making a flat character more round, more memorable; making a mediocre book more marketable), then the trust between author and reader is violated. If truth is part of the glue that holds a healthy society together, then there is no way such literary violation of truth can be good for us.
In Philosophy and Ethics 101, we focus on developing the patience and discipline of burrowing down to the truth, of peeling away the multiple layers of illusions, and then, when we get down there, of learning how to accept whatever limitations and disappointments the truth might entail, or to embrace whatever wonderful enlightenment might be waiting for us.
If James Frey had wanted to write a relatively objective memoir, then he would have found in this Philosophy 101 exercise that the lying and fabricating he was tempted to do was a temptation from the literary devil. If, on the other hand, he had wanted to write an autobiographical novel, he would have seen how much more latitude the genre would have allowed him, legitimately. Tradition would have been on his side, and Oprah might still have loved the book, and all could have been well. Frey would still have his agent (the agent dropped him); he would still have a publisher for future books already under contract. (Riverhead books, the imprint at Penguin, dropped him too for having violated the "author's warranties" section of his contract where he promised to tell the truth in his book).
Frey would most certainly have seen that you can't have it both ways. One cannot use massive fabrication of false details in something that purports to be a memoir and then get away with a series of disingenuous interviews in which the memoir's unabashed fabrications were repeatedly presented to a na've public as the literal truth of the author's life.
We have here two types of memoir-narratives that either do or do not purport to tell us some kind of truth. In Walden we are implicitly asked to accept the literary conceit of "a year at the pond," when actually it was two years, with many interruptions (according to the journals). Walden does not explain this, nor should it. Whereas a memoir (such as Frey's) purports to tell us something much closer to literal, autobiographical truth. Frey compounded this problem by conspiring with his agent to deceive publishers about the genre to which his book belonged; he then further deceived everyone in various interviews and publicity statements. Frey's lies were not literary conceits; they were obfuscations. His lies served no higher purpose. Thoreau's did.
Frey could have taken a lesson from Thoreau: That basing a philosophical book-even a book that is about deeply held personal beliefs, or about loss and pain and grief and anger (to take Frey's own material as example)-on the facts of your own life is just fine, and so is rearranging, excising, and otherwise massaging those facts to make your philosophical points. But it's not okay, whether you're Thoreau or Frey, to claim objectivity and full truthfulness within the memoir genre when you know full well that you are repeatedly lying through your teeth.
1James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was acquired originally-as nonfiction-by Riverhead Books, an imprint at Penguin. That publisher pulled out of the deal after thesmokinggun.com Web site posted evidence that the book contained many false statements. Frey's agent re-sold the book to Doubleday, a division of Random House, where it appeared first in a trade cloth edition, in 2003. When it morphed into a trade paperback, in 2005, A Million Little Pieces was shifted over to the Knopf imprint, also at Random House. The controversial history of the book made it a "must have" for libraries, and there is also nowadays, therefore, a (hardcover) library edition, from Tandem Library Books, published in 2006.
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