Open Mic Blog

Celebrity Novels/Memoirs

Posted on July 26, 2012 at 5:30 PM



I recently took a poll on Facebook and ask some of my friends what  controversial or writerly issues they'd like to discuss next on my blog. Many great ideas were shared, and I will get to them all over the next few months.



I thought I'd kick off our discussions with the topic of celebrity novelists and fake memoirs. Snooki's novel A Shore Thing comes to mind as does Frey's A Million Little Pieces, but there are many others out there that haven't been in the headlines as much.



I've provided a few sample questions below to help get us started:

* Have you ever bought a book written by a celebrity or a writer who has fictionalized their memoirs?

*Were any ghostwriters used to write or co-write these books?

*Were the books entertaining/informative/life changing/compelling/fun/worth your money?

*If you have not read any of these kinds of books, tell us why not. 

*Many public figures get book deals because they make money a lot of money for the publishers. If a talented writer has no platform, do they, too, deserve to be published?

*Do these kinds of celebrity/faked memoirs generate enough money for the publishing companies so that some debut writers waiting in the wings can now get published?

*People have always been fascinated with celebrities, so do you think this trend will continue? Will there always be a reading audience for them?

*What motivates a memoirist to lie and embellish their work? Money? Fame? Greed?

*How do these kinds of books impact your life? Do you feel cheated in any way? Betrayed? Uplifted? Informed? Bored? Transported?

*What does the popularity of these kinds of books tell us about ourselves, our society?

*Doesn't everyone deserve to be published? Why or why not?

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Reply Carter Seaton
10:35 AM on July 27, 2012 
While I haven't (knowingly) read any fake celebrity memoirs, as a writer, it makes me nervous about using anything from my own life in my writing. Memories fade, stories get embellished in the telling, and then can become mixed up with reality. Did I really do that, or did I remember it wrong? That's not the same, of course, as an outright lie, but it does provide caution to all writers, I think. I realize this isn't exactly the point of the blog questions, but worth thinking about, I think.
Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
12:15 PM on July 27, 2012 
Interesting point, Carter. Truth is in the eye of the beholder, right?

Did anyone read James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces and watch his appearances on Oprah a few years back?
Reply cat
1:42 PM on July 27, 2012 
The questions that Frey's memoir/novel brought up were discussed to the death at my program, Goucher's prestigious MFA in Creative nonfiction. It was not resolved permanently. Oh, it seems to be, then it raises more questions just when everyone thinks the dust has settled. As for me, when I went in, I knew where I fell in this discussion. I have memories that I recall, and write about in memoir, from when I was four. How is it that I'm comfortable with that memory at so young an age? Because it was talked about--over and over and over and over and over--all my life, via my family and its stories. So I write with authority on a memory when I was four. But obviously, I remember best those stories that were oft repeated, although there is the errant memory that has no particular "importance" attached to it. The four-year-old memory? When my great grandmother died, at home. I was in the room. Of course that was talked about a lot through the years. And when I started recording this memory and many others via my memoir, I'd check with my family: did it happen that way? sometimes I use photos or letters or myriad other ways to remember as accurately as I can. However, I trust primary memories. The thing is, no one is born with a movie camera with sound recording in their eyeballs. So? It does not make a memory unauthentic or unfactual. Brain studies have shown that memories are stored in a narrative order, and narrative can be affected by the attention you had on it at the time, what the emotions were, all sorts of things. If we begin from that fact, rather than say no memory is infallible, we can say that we remember what we do because it is part of our life story, the one we created and believe in (good and bad memories, or those affected by beliefs at the time they were formed and now maybe we don't believe in). Here's a twist: say there are two siblings, one 2 years older, and there was a party. Thirty years later, one says, well it was Christmas time. The older one says, no, it was grandma's birthday party. Do you give in to the older sibling's memory just because he/she is older? Not necessarily. Maybe you'll say: oh yeah, you're right. But maybe you'll say, no, I remember the tree that caught fire, etc. You decide, but you decide because in your heart you know you are right (and even have photos to prove it, or not), but not just because someone was there who's older, who may be misremembering. You write as honestly as you can. The authority is there and the reader will know it. I do whatever I can to research a memory, but in the end, if there's no way to authenticate, I strip down my emotions, my knowledge, my rationale, my spirit to ascertain whether or not what I'm writing is remembered and told to the best of my ability. I don't plod one memory after the next on the page; I tell a story, that narrative our brains create. I trust I have done my best. And I have. As to reading others stories that you find out later is altered deliberately, I don't read them. There's enough good material in the world to not have to worry about that. I heard Frey's book was well written and is still selling. He's left with a legacy of no one believing his nonfiction, however. But there's always fiction, that wonderful form. And it's also how Frey presented his work to his agent, but it was she, Nan Talease, who said, No, let's make this a memoir. After that, it was all downhill, and not uncommon, quite frankly. There are enough wonderful stories in everyone's life that if you have learned your craft well, you don't need to embellish.
2:21 PM on July 27, 2012 
Everyone deserves to be published (at their own expense) but everyone does not "write reading". : ) In this era we have many opportunites to read.

Some of my favorite WV memoirs are by "lay" writers. Two titles: Little Girl Dressed in Blue; The Mouse Hunter.
2:55 PM on July 27, 2012 
As a writer I know how much work goes into fiction. I find it hard to believe that somebody who isn't a dedicated writer can pen a book while carrying on another career. It isn't the same as knitting a sweater in one's dressing room. (Carrie Fisher seems to be an exception to that observation but she is also a script doctor so knows what she is doing.) Most celeb writers are packaging a product to keep their names out there. Apparently it works. Could I possibly get a part in a movie? A walk-on would do.
Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
7:37 AM on July 28, 2012 
I have no problem with celebrities writing novels. It's obvious that there's a market for them, but I do get angry when I see that the hard-working ghostwriter isn't even mentioned during interviews/talkshows. Maybe that's just how it is. Sure, the ghostwriter may be financially rewarded for doing most of the work, but the glory the celeb receives is seldom shared.
Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
7:56 AM on July 28, 2012 
Cat, I'm fascinated that memories are stored in narrative order, and I, too, trust primary memories. I always tended, though, to believe that we remember the most painful and joyous moments from our pasts in random order. Can you tell us more? And, of course, after reading your post, I really want to read your memoir! Back to Frey, even though there wasn't consensus among your colleagues at the MFA program at Goucher, did they tend to side with Frey's decision to "embellish" or not? And you're right, his book is still a steady seller thanks to all the controversy and his appearances on Oprah. I'm wondering if he hadn't followed the advice of his editor, would he have made it into print at all?
Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
8:32 AM on July 28, 2012 
For those who might need a refresher course, here's a link to Oprah's interview with James Frey:
1:01 PM on July 29, 2012 
laura7 says...
For those who might need a refresher course, here's a link to Oprah's interview with James Frey:
1:03 PM on July 29, 2012 
West Virginia has a place in literary history with the work of J. T. LeRoy...a made-up abused WV child passed of as the real deal.

Does anyone recall the flap it made?
Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
5:56 PM on July 29, 2012 
I don't remember anything about that controversy, Phyllis. Can you tell us more?
Reply Cat
8:12 AM on July 31, 2012 
Laura, in answer to your questions: The memories might be in random order, but if you'll tease them apart, and really look at the memory you're recalling, there is a "story" that goes along with the images, the whole shebang. That is actually what you have to tease out. For example, when I was five, my grandfather took me with him to the bootleggers. It was quite the experience. When I recall it, it replays like a movie scene (which is the way I write). I keep it as I recall it, saw it. But I did talk to my family about this over the years--that is, I asked, "Did he take me? do you remember I saw a cock fight? do you remember that I talked about seeing dust devils? did Big Earl's house look like this? It was all confirmed, though none of the others were with me (they'd seen it/heard it described by my father/grandfather). So, for me, however, it's not just the movie scene--it's the innocence of a five-year-old put in direct danger by her beloved poppaw. I don't have to indict him or anyone else, but the story is apparent in the way I describe simply what I saw. My thoughts are included, because I thought about the images I saw/remembered and what they meant to me, what my feelings were. The whole story emerges from a simple memory. You must truly dig for the truth of it, why you remember it. It need not be dramatic--a happy birthday party is just as valid--or a walk you once took in the woods--the job of the memoirist is to tease out what was felt, what the event meant. It is those felt moments that matter. And no memory is devoid of something felt, something sensed. It is human experience and regardless of what it is about, human memory and sense is universal.

Goucher on the whole agreed, and still does, that what Frey did is wrong. None of my classmates, those who are on the memoir end of the spectrum of CNF genres, have any intention of embellishing, out-right lying or anything else like what Frey did. In point of fact, it's not necessary, as per my comments I just made. I was witness to the famous Vivian Gornick debacle--that happened while I was there and in class--and it's a class A example of where Goucher stands on the issue. (Vivian made up a scene in her famous memoir Fierce Attachments). Frey's would have been published, by the way. He'd already published other novels. Why Nan Talease--a powerful and long-standing professional in the field of editors at big houses--chose to do that, I don't know. Frey, of course, wanted what's going to make his book a bestseller. If you had a powerful editor tell you to label it a memoir--maybe you'd hesitate, maybe not. I'm not exonerating either. I'm saying this is more than likely what went on.
1:48 PM on August 5, 2012 
laura7 says...
I don't remember anything about that controversy, Phyllis. Can you tell us more?

It was complicated. A woman pretended to be a young boy from WV and wrote ficion but called it a memoir. She hit the "author lottery", so to speak.

She dressed in costume and gave interviews to NPR, the New York Times, etc., always as an abused boy.
In costume, she was in Vanity Fair, etc. She even started a band.

When she was in Pittsburg a friend got me autographed copies of her WV novels.

Later we e-mailed each other, etc.

One of her books was made into a feature film just as she was revealed as a hoaks.

Google the name if you want the whole sorry story.

Too bad she just didn't write the books as fiction and use her own name.
Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
2:11 PM on August 5, 2012 
Fascinating, and bizarre. Thanks, Phyllis.