A Million Little Pieces A Million Little Pieces discussion

Importance of the memoir

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message 1: by Jonathan (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:52AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jonathan Since James Frey's addiction "memoir" was outed as a highly fictionalized account of his life readers have pretty much joined two highly polarized camps. One camp believing that memoirs should be highly factual have lambasted Frey for being a greedy liar. The other camp has been much more apathetic in its ideology adopting the attitude of "why should we care, it was an interesting book."

Memoirs have historically been viewed as a true account gussied up with a narrative and some colorful dialogue to create the "novelization" of a period in someones life. So really what is the importance of the label of "memoir?" Does it have a special connotation that implies something to the reader and if so does the absence of the implication change the meaning and impact of the book? Is truth important in memoirs?

message 2: by Grace (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Grace I am currently reading this book. which so far i like. I think it was big deal because people who had read it before knowing the "truth" thought that the accounts being told actually happened...so it was disappointing to them...but the book was still a good read...
In my opinion I really don't think it matters as long as I (the reader) know , memoir is BASED on a true story . For some people these are things that effect what they pick up to read next...

message 3: by Molly (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:52AM) (new)

Molly I think that a writer of memoir has a contract with the reader. We as readers should be able to accept the narrative as fact (the author's fact). One might argue that a writer must dramatize events, but I truly believe that if one is a good writer, this is not necessary.

message 4: by Nicole (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:52AM) (new)

Nicole I agree--the word memoir should mean something. It should mean "this happened to me." Obviously, writers won't be able quote dialogue verbatim, but the dialogue should be in essence true. Life events should not be fabricated, Mr. Frey. Memoir should be honest--otherwise call it fiction that bears a striking resemblance to your life.

message 5: by Courtney (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Courtney But, really, that which is given the label of "truth" or "true" is so subjective. Is the evening news "true?" Do you accept the media's "truths" as "fact?" Most everything we read or encounter is filtered through the writer's lens. Their take on a factual event may seem completely different from the perspective of someone else involved.

message 6: by Jonathan (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:52AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jonathan Thats kind of the point of the question. Knowing that writers are not tape recorders of their lives, what is the impact/importance/implication of attaching the word "memoir" to their work? Does it change what we the readers take away from it?

As far as subjective "truth" goes, there is a huge difference between being somewhere and not being somewhere. Regardless of the perspective from which the "truth" is delivered, there is a huge difference between actually doing something and not. What if Neil Armstrong hadn't walked on the moon? What if he really did just fabricate it on a sound stage in Hollywood? You can't really say that from his perspective he walked on the moon because he didn't.

For instance a number of years ago I read "White Oleander." It is a first person account of a girl's experiences being tossed around between broken foster homes, while her mother is locked away in prison. It was a very emotional book, and though I am neither female nor a foster child with a mother locked in prison, I took something away from it. However it is billed as a novel and part of me always knows, that even though these may be experiences of real people, the characters I am reading about are clearly fictional. If it had been billed as a memoir would my emotional connection with it be changed in some way?

Another for instance. What about "Memoirs of a Geisha?" I haven't read it yet, but my understanding is that its a novel, but its a novel that explores the world of the Geisha. What it meant to be one, what it was like, their trials and tribulations. All of these aspects of geisha life actually happened. They may not have actually happened to the character in the book but they happened to someone at sometime. And as a result many people have learned a great deal about geishas by reading this fictional account.

So with all that said, how does the word "memoir" change how you read, and what you feel about a book? Do writers have a contract with the reader to represent "truth" even though they are only basing the story on their lives?

I personally believe that great things can be drawn from understanding another person's perspective. But what happens when you find out that their perspective is mottled with lies? Would "Memoirs of a Geisha" have the same impact? And to keep on track with this thread, does "A Million Little Pieces?"

message 7: by Jen (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:52AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen I agree that a writer publishing his/her work under the label of "memoir" does have an understanding with the reader that the events described therein are not fabricated or distorted beyond an unreasonable degree. That last point is where things get sticky. One person's concept of an unreasonable distortion is obviously going to be different from another's. In the case of A Million Little Pieces, James Frey as a person/character was written to feel like the kind of person who would in fact wildly distort things, and I feel this part of his personality is central to understanding his addiction, actions, and feelings. When I read the book- which was before he was ever on Oprah- parts of it seemed obviously distorted to me, notable examples being the very beginning when he wakes up in bloody clothes on a plane with a hole in his jaw. What airline would seriously accommodate that passenger? Or the dentist scene- it seems highly unlikely that any dentist would agree to performing serious oral work with no anesthesia whatsoever. I think it is important to note that when James Frey initially shopped his book around to publishers he did not call it a memoir. "Memoir" was a label suggested by the publisher who felt- and apparently rightfully so- that it would sell more books. So the label 'memoir' obviously does mean something to readers and changes their experience of a book. While "memoir" and "autobiography" mean the same thing in the dictionary, I think memoir connotates something presented in a more novelized way- but importantly, still in essence true. Did A Million Little Pieces cross that line in a definite way? I'm not totally convinced it did, but also not familar enough with the true facts of his life to make any real comparison.

message 8: by Rebecca (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:52AM) (new)

Rebecca I think Jonathan made a great point:

"Regardless of the perspective from which the "truth" is delivered, there is a huge difference between actually doing something and not."

Most readers understand that a memoir is the author's memory of events in his or her life, and that memory is a highly subjective experience. That being said, "A Million Little Pieces" was presented as what James Frey remembered having happened to him but it is my understanding that he knew full well he was lying as he wrote it.

"Fabrication" is not the same as remembering something incorrectly. Fabrication implies intent to falsely construct something.

I almost bought "A Million Little Pieces" once, and now I am glad I didn't. It's not a memoir in my book. I think it was an exploitive attempt to profit off of a real problem that many people REALLY ARE facing.

message 9: by Kate (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:53AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kate Rebecca, you are absolutely right. Memoirs should be about real experiences that might be altered in the mind of the writer. Fabrication is something else entirely. That said, if you read "A Million Little Pieces" knowing that it is fabrication, it is not a bad story.

message 10: by Neha (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Neha I agree, but I have to say that regardless of the controversy, the book was extremely inspiring and moving. Don't you think?

message 11: by Jonathan (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:54AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jonathan I guess for me "A Million Little Pieces" was exciting and stylish, and affected me the way books with downtrodden characters who fight great adversity affect me. I feel like they have taken me into some dark little place where they live and I am going to journey with them onto better times. All the while they are going to point out why this is a tale about adversity.

With "A Million Little Pieces" I feel like there was was this collective public inhale as everyone read the book. Everyone was so amazed that this person lived to tell the tale that people started to reach out to less fortunate people and want to help others. People were posting on Frey's site looking for answers and help and people were responding.

And then the sucker punch came. This wasn't "A Million Little Pieces" story of a well to do kid gone horribly horribly wrong, this was "A Million Little Pieces" inflated story of a drunken fratboy. So people reaching out were reaching out to this person, who ultimately had no idea what their life was really like.

So for me, to answer your question Neha, I would have to say that yes, at first it was a moving story. But now that I know that Frey really didn't live that life, I find his story to inspiring like the stories of Chuck Palahniuk. Interesting but ultimately devoid of substance.

message 12: by Stephanie (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Stephanie I agree with Jonathan on the point above. When I read "A Million Little Pieces" I felt bonded to the courage of the man--not the character. When I discovered that courage was an aberration, my admiration felt empty and cheapened.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy reading it, I did. In fact, I still think it was one of the best stories I've read in ages. I simply don't respect the story any longer.

As for memoirs, I'm jumping on the bandwagon. I expect things under that banner to be devoid of intentional fiction. I find that in memoirs I have a different craving to fulfill. I want to know someone. Get inside their head and learn about the Why of them based on their experiences in the "real" world.

message 13: by Jeremy (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:54AM) (new)

Jeremy To some degree, it seems that writers of literary nonfiction who invent (details, not structure) miss both the point and opportunity. So often, when reflecting on narrative, those moments where we're missing details, facts, etc. are the places where meaning resides. For example, if I'm writing about summer picnic ten years ago and I recall what grandma was wearing and what she cooked and what kind of tupperware she used, yet I can't recall whether grandpa were there, rather than say he was because he probably would have been, it's interesting to ask WHY I remember all that about grandma but don't remember whether grandpa was even there. What does the WAY I remember the scene mean? What does it say about me, what I value, believe about the world, etc., that I remember the scene this particular way. So, automatically to plug that narrative hole with grandpa's presence would be to rob me of potential reflection/meaning. At least that's what I've found to be the case. And, in the name of disclosure, I should say that I'm in the extreme camp that says that every writer of literary nonfiction has a contract with the reader not to invent narrative (including dialogue--I get nervous when I read lines upon lines of dialogue in a memoir) and to somehow signal to the reader when invention, for some reason, is taking place (e.g. "this is the kind of thing he would have said").

message 14: by Bobby (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:54AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bobby I read "A Million Little Pieces" back in 2003, before the whole controversy. It was recommended to me by somebody who was struggling with alcohol dependence and she found it very inspirational. So I respect anyone who is willing to share his/her personal life in a manner that may help others. However, IMHO it is generally expected/understood that memoirs will not falsify significant details (though minor liberties may be taken). I think Mr Frey crossed the threshold and the truth in his particular story DOES matter because a lot of people do live the life that he portrayed. And these people were some of his biggest fans and the ones he gave the most hope to and ultimately disappointed.

message 15: by Judith (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:55AM) (new)

Judith As the writer and real-life survivor of a memoire, The Other Woman at the Well, I have to say that I am in BOTH camps. I was pretty skeptical of not only Mr. Frey's grammar (hey, he's not ee cummings, let's face it) and abuse of every imaginable grammatical and standard use of English error), but having a licensed dentist pull teeth without NOVACAINE? It made me mad as a survivor of not only what can only be described as a one-year return trip to Hell and the underbelly side of the world, but some dental work as well. I empathized with Oprah and am quite irked that because of Frey, addicts everywhere have had their reputations sullied. smile.

My truth, unvarnished, is hair-raising enough to not need nor want to add varnish. Please visit my website at www.addictionsovercome.com or www.judithannhillard.com to read sample chapters and some other short pieces (short stories, poetry, kid stories) to see for yourself how the Truthful Accounting of Addiction Overcome compares to something, well, else.

I apologize for what may sound like self-promotion, but I've rated several classics and I read all the time and I love reading how brilliant so many of you are (as well as insightful). Maybe I'm harder on James than he is on himself because I've been to too many funerals of wonderful people who died trapped in the jaws of addiction. Maybe it is because I taught English too many years. Maybe it is because I lived to tell the truth and resent the notion that ANYONE would CHOOSE to go to Hazelton or Betty Ford or Teen Challenge or Valley Hope if her life did not depend upon it.


message 16: by mercy (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:55AM) (new)

mercy i was livid when i found out about the entire scandal surrounding james frey's book for multiple reasons---one, because i feel that especially in more recent years, authors have begun to carve out a newer niche of 'narrative fiction' (i'm thinking lynda barry and dave eggers, specifically) where the stories they are telling are more-truth-than-fiction, but they are STILL honest about not being able to be completely sure of the details, because everyone's perception of an event is different---despite this new trend, frey decided to just lie--straight up lie, because he knew it would be more compelling. instead of telling his story as it actually happened (which could have been interesting in its own right, i'm sure), he had to implicate the concepts of recovery, life experience and memoir so that he seemed more interesting and extreme---THEN had the audacity of accepting the position of this poster child for this extreme-recovery stance, and when smoking gun started uncovering the bullshit of it all keep lying further until it was no longer possible.

i think that much better writers spend much more time caring about their readers and devoting energy to understanding the concept of embellishment for storytelling or the micro-focus of only one person's perspective of any given situation to let people like frey get away with the 'it's just a story' excuse. he lied. he knew he was lying. he capitalized off of lying. it's as simple as that. i think he really hurt the credibility of good writers. and plus, i think he's a moron to boot.

i like what you said, jeremy, about when you arbitrarily place things into memoir that don't exist, you rob the "actual meaning" of what really happened and what it really means. a good writer tells you what happened as they remember, and why they DON'T remember the rest, you know?

message 17: by Jen (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:55AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen Here's an article from Slate discussing this topic- but in regards to a NYT article and interestingly, to David Sedaris.


The author seems to draw a line b/w orally telling stories and putting them in print.

message 18: by Jonathan (last edited Aug 25, 2016 10:55AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jonathan So this is a pretty good point from the Slate article:

"The Sedaris inquiry instructs readers not to become too invested in a personal history that seems too funny, too sad, or too true."

But I feel like it vilifies the reader for being unobservant, and implies that authors have free range to dupe readers into believing anything they wish as long as the reader is “in on it.” When the readers aren’t in on it, then it’s the readers’ fault.

As it relates to this thread, it makes Frey into a modern day Icarus, who flew to close to the blazing hot sun of Oprah. She took his little story and made it gospel by over publicizing his “Life.” As a result his only “crime,” by this line of thought, is that he got caught.

I have a problem with that. In the case of David Sedaris, he appears to me to be a satirist and a humorist who draws heavily from his own life. He seems to embellish the absurdities in his own life to showcase the absurdities in our own. Whereas Frey embellished his life not to create commentary, but to arrogantly denounce established addiction help groups and boost the “poor me” tear-jerker factor of his book.

While readers have a responsibility to be informed and engaged with what they are reading, authors also have a responsibility not to misrepresent themselves.

message 19: by James (new)

James Leadabrand Recently I finished reading "Papillion" and later found out that much of this book was also very likely fiction. Henri was much more convincing then James. Four root canals without something for pain? Give me a break! I didn't even read those ten pages. As a Chaplain in a treatment center I did find it insightful as far as what goes on in the mind of the addict. I find it interesting that he could so easily dismiss The Twelve Step program given the fact that it has helped so many. Most of the addicts I see that have had that attitude did not stay sober and many are dead. I woder why James did not open a treatment center using the Tao as the way to get sober?

message 20: by Dominique (last edited Jun 23, 2011 05:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dominique I may be in the minority here, but my definition of a memoir is: when someone takes an event from their life and puts a more global meaning to it, and then writes a bit of a story around it so other people will want to read it. So, technically, it's not a history of the person, and we shouldn't expect it to be. This is a person looking back on something that happened previously, and reflecting on it. If there's no story at all, and just someone writing down events that have no personal connection to anyone outside themselves, are you really going to want to read it? The whole point is to appeal to a lot of people by using a very personal experience as a starting point. How better to do that than a story? Truth is relative. Just as memoirs are relative. There are multiple truths, multiple types of memoirs. It's like historical fiction, a little. Bits of fact, with a story to keep it interesting.

If Frey put out this as being completely true and it wasn't, that's obviously not right. But if after correcting that and saying it was based on true events, people are still expecting that everything he wrote SHOULD have actually happened or else he had no business writing about it, that is not on him. That's on all those other people. Also, how many people would be willing to put any facts of their lives into a published work? Not a lot.

All that being said, I actually dislike memoirs. They seem to be really popular though. Why do you think that is?

Jennifer I read this book when it was assumed it was truth....I agree that he "should" of been more truthful but regardless I could not put the book down and loved it and still enjoy James Fry as a writer....and the book is still being talked about...maybe it would not have been so upsetting if Oprah wasnt fooled and pissed off that she was....

Linda Watson Whateve the truth really is in this book it is a page turner.

message 23: by Soad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Soad who cares if it got u reading non-stop it doesnt matter as long as the book helped u grow thats what matters

message 24: by anarki (new)

anarki Soad wrote: "who cares if it got u reading non-stop it doesnt matter as long as the book helped u grow thats what matters"


message 25: by RETRODOLL (last edited Aug 04, 2011 12:17PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

RETRODOLL I also think there are two camps as you said. But imho it consists of those who read this book before the sh*t storm and those who read it after. I'm in the latter category and I loved the book. I liked it so much I've decided to read other books by Frey. I can tell you, had I read this book thinking it was accurate I would've been PISSED off...for a moment! There was no fracas by the time I read the book and plus I knew what I was reading wasn't totally accurate. I've heard some people say, 'Oh it doesn't matter!' Well call me old school but if you're not writing nonfiction, you're writing fiction. Period. LOL. To me a memoir is an accurate account to the best of your knowledge. If it's not a true story than it's 'based on a true story' or it's not true at all. Far as I know this book was pushed a memoir. To me a memoir wasn't designed to be a pack of lies with some truths sprinkled on it for good measure. The sad part is that the MESSAGE is what got lost in all of this mess. Frey told a fascinating & raw tale about addiction. People got so focused on what was true and what wasn't true, etc. that the storyline kinda got lost. But I don't blame that on the readers, how is it their fault? The blame lies at the feet of the writer and the publishers. Once you watch his 2 part interview with Oprah, you get a better understanding of Frey's p.o.v. Still readers have a right to know whether what we're reading is a memoir or not and that's a separate issue from the message, which shouldn't change either way.

Stephanie This is one of the definitions of Memoir: An account of the author's personal experience. I read this book in a memoir class when I was in college, right about the time Frey's world got turned upside down by Oprah. What I learned in that class, is that Memoir is not held to the same standards at Autobiography or Biography. It is a more loose interpretation of the author's personal experience. While Frey may not have had 4 root canals without meds, it may have "felt" like he did. His book was an account of how that time in his life felt to him. In my opinion, Oprah should be ashamed of her self. I watched the interview, and the people she had on there were not even specialists in the field of memoir. They were journalists, biographers, etc. Obviously, it is their job to be as close to 100% truthful as possible. I feel that Frey was well within the bounds of memoir when he wrote A Million Little Pieces. I believe that we need to think of memoirs as those made for tv movies that say at the beginning, "Based on Actual Events". We don't get our feathers ruffled when those turn out to be less than accurate. Personally, I feel bad for James Frey. He got a tongue lashing from Oprah on national television because she was stupid enough to believe the book 100%. Truthfully, the whole thing disgusted me.

Joanne As I read the book, I was skeptical of some of it, favorably impressed by some of it. I know there is a great deal of lying and bragging in most memoirs. What I can't pardon James Frey for is the next book he wrote, some drivel about somebody named Leonard.

Stephanie I haven't read My Friend Leonard, but it was on my reading list. Is it terrible?

Joanne I thought it was awful, phoney and contrived. Some people like it though.

Barbara Stephanie wrote: "I haven't read My Friend Leonard, but it was on my reading list. Is it terrible?"

I really liked My Friend Leonard. It was about his one friend from the first book...A Million Little Pieces.

I believe if you're going to write a book as a memoir it should be real. However, I liked A Million Little Pieces anyway. Sometimes I wondered about the facts while listening to it on audio but found it to be good dispite the hipe.

message 31: by Dick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dick I read all of James Frey's books, even those that were written under his pseudonym (Pitticus Lore). I am a recovering addict an although some of A Million Pieces hit me as fantastic - the dental surgery!!! However, it didn't bother me when I found out that he added to his experiences and in my opinion made a better book.

I am currently reading another "addict" book called South of Bixby Bridge and the young man in this story goes down similar fantastic paths and comes up with the same results. If an addict who is not in treatment of some kind reads any of these books, he/she may recognize that the bottom in his life has been reached and may put a hand out for help. This person won't care that it's a memoir or fiction if it helps him/her get to treatment.

Addiction is such a special topic (in my humble opinion) and if anything helps the addicted, it's good.

message 32: by Maggie (last edited Jan 10, 2012 05:33PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Maggie the unreliable narrator is a finely-honed part of good literature. the unreliable writer is a "buyer beware" issue that needs a warning label on the cover. does james frey really have a friend named leonard? i doubt it. i read a million little pieces after the controversy because i liked the title (good description, imo) and because addiction is a serious issue and i think writings on that subject are helpful. personally i judged the book worth the time of reading so frey gets a pass there. but i also read it with a critical eye of realizing the controversy and i concluded that the man's a cheat, in life and in writing. reader beware ... and keep on reading. are the results in yet about my friend leonard: fact or fiction? before i read it, i want to know what i should be looking for -- a (good) story or a real life description of a friendship. as a reader, i believe that genre determination matters.

Jennifer Joanne wrote: "I thought it was awful, phoney and contrived. Some people like it though."

I read my friend leanord and found it as much of a page turner as million little pieces....I read books that I like that I am interested in, no matter who the author is OR what it is labled as...

Elaine I loved this book. I read it long before everyone began condemning Frey for making stuff up in his memoir.
The point for me was that much could be discovered from this one man's addiction and rehab. To me, it didn't matter if some of it was made up.
I read a lot of memoirs. Many writers add at the beginning of the book that there will be untrue events or people within. Anyone writing a memoir would do him-or-herself a favor by noting that not all events occurred as described. Take what you can from a book. Believe it or not.

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