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A Few Words On Truth and Fiction


Two revelations rocked the publishing world this week. James Frey's best-selling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," contains several events that apparently never happened. And writer J.T. LeRoy was discovered to be the invented persona of another writer called Laura Albert. For commentator Ron Franscell, the revelations say something deeper about the line between truth and fiction.


A long time ago, an old sailor explained to me the difference between a fairy tale and a war story. A fairy tale, he said, starts `Once upon a time.' A war story starts, `Now this is no bull.'

This week's unmasking of nonfiction author James Frey and the inventors of J.T. LeRoy as fibbers of fabulous proportions has unleashed a wave of existential doubt among anyone who cares about books. It further smudges the boundary between fact and fiction.

Does anybody really care if a purportedly nonfiction book is, well, fiction? After all, hasn't it been 43 years since Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" was the first non-fiction novel? Does it matter if the author's personal history is imaginary? Isn't a good story just a good story? And hasn't the Internet made us all fans of factless fiction fancy-dancing as truth?

Novelists are professional liars. They're paid to make stuff up. They're illusion-makers. But they tell us up front they're about to lie to us and we play along. Didn't J.T. LeRoy and James Frey simply take the illusion to its ultimate end? Didn't they merely fortify their illusion by telling us, `It's true and I swear it'?

In its own defense, Frey's publisher, Doubleday, said this week that a memoir is, by definition, extremely personal. So regardless of questions about the book's authenticity, it remains deeply inspiring and redemptive.

American literature, considered an oxymoron in the rest of the world, has gone downhill since the book-publishing industry surrounded our nation's storytelling standards to Hollywood where illusion, even in true stories, is exactly the point. Today, the great American novel would be judged more by its film-worthiness and its demographic appeal than its literary quality.

In the name of creating `Californicated' literature, New York book editors have blurred the line until even they don't know what's true. Does anyone care that a true story need no longer be true? I care.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said fiction was the willing suspension of disbelief. But what if it's not willing? What if you believed every word? If you thought you were reading a true story, then you were simply conned. It's the literary equivalent of reality TV. They tell you what you're seeing is real, but it's not real at all. It's simulated reality edited into convenient 30-minute bites, and we accept the big lie that it's absolutely true.

In America today, we live with too much fiction posing as fact. Blogs, books, politics, TV, video gaming, movies and, some would say, even the news, thrive on it. But it's not art to swear you're telling the truth and then fib. That's just common lying. The artful trick is to tell me you're lying and make me believe every word is true.

LYDEN: Ron Franscell is a managing editor of the Beaumont Enterprise in Beaumont, Texas. His newest book, "Fall," a true-crime/memoir, is due out later this year.

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LYDEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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