"This Memoir is a Subjective Truth": Marketing the Real and the Desire for Literary ‘Authenticity’
In James Frey’s apology to the reading public following on from The Smoking Gun’s (TSG) revelation that his ‘memoir’, A Million Little Pieces, was largely made up, the author states that, ‘… I didn’t initially think of what I was writing as non-fiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography…’ This apparently woolly thinking did little to help the author’s cause, since although Frey was unable to commit to form, his readers were convinced of the authenticity of Frey’s account of his life as an ‘Alcoholic a Drug Addict and a Criminal’.
Marketing functions much like libel. As James Frey’s lawyer pointed out in his cautionary letter to TSG, ‘A defendant in a libel case is accountable and liable, “for what is insinuated as well as what is stated explicitly” (Kapellas v Kofman, 1969). In other words, once the information is in the public domain it doesn’t matter if it is true or false because it is still ‘known’. The controversy means that the book is still in the public eye and therefore it is still in the bestseller lists.
The Frey debacle inevitably puts into question the publishing world’s manipulation of ‘the real’ for marketing purposes. What it doesn’t do is address the issue of why media consumers are so intent on believing what they read. In her follow up interview with Frey, Oprah began, ‘I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.’ But why should the authenticity of a personal history matter so much to readers?
This paper will argue that the role of the confessional narrative is twofold. As well as having a psychotherapeutic function, in which, as Blake Morrison suggests in Too True, the reader may feel ‘vindicated’, and will thus feel violated should the confessional – as in Frey’s case – prove false, but it is also a matter of faith. In a secular society, in which so much of life appears disengaged, the confessional is a place in which high emotion matters and issues are apparently resolved.
The Book Sales Yearbook 2004 (published by Nielson Bookscan/The Bookseller) shows that autobiographies have gone from representing 2.5% of consumer spend through the GRM in 1998 to 4.3% in 2003. That sales of autobiographies will continue to rise is not in question; but what it means to write an autobiography is.
This paper will seek to address some of the ethical and aesthetic concerns that emerge from the rise of the confessional in the context of an increasingly competitive literary market place.
Keywords: Publishing trends, Marketing in publishing, Oprah Winfrey, Ethics, Authenticity, Confessional, Narrative non-fiction, Literary trends, Cultural criticism
Course Director, School of Humanities
My main areas of research at the moment are life-writing and narrative non-fiction and I am currently studying for a PhD at Goldsmiths University in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.
This research links in with my work as Course Director for the MA in Publishing Studies, given the market trend towards biography and 'the confessional'.