Recently, former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, addressed the W&L Journalism Ethics Institute for its 48th anniversary. This prompted a debate around the water cooler and on blogs and made its way to discussions on news programs. For, if you remember, Blair resigned from the New York Times in 2003 following an investigation that found he had plagiarized and fabricated a lot of the stories he had written for the paper. Some of his reporting was on the Iraq war and the Beltway sniper attacks. It was understandable that people were surprised that Blair would be addressing the Journalism Ethics Institute because we trust reporters to tell us the truth. We don’t expect them to fabricate or edit stories to make them more entertaining, as Blair did.
What about memoir authors who fabricate stories? James Frey and the debacle involving A Million Little Pieces comes to mind. Frey received a lot of attention from his book when it was published–Oprah praised him, A Million Little Pieces was in a million little bookstores, everyone talked highly of this new talented writer. But upon investigation, Frey’s story was proven to be inaccurate in parts, and some readers who had once been fans of the memoir wanted their money back.
Some authors don’t really care about the difference between fiction and nonfiction. A story might just be a story. But is it unfair to truthful memoir writers when an author, such as James Frey, fabricates tales to sell books? Does it prove that Frey is a talented writer that we believed his tales? Or is it infuriating to have loved a book as a memoir and find parts of it to be complete fiction?
How much tweaking should be allowed in memoirs to make them entertaining these days, and do you care about the difference between fiction and nonfiction storytelling?