"Novel" used to mean "something new," which was to say, something beyond any of the accustomed categories of prose. We may still not agree on a definition of a novel (and that's for the best, I'm certain), but we do know roughly what it includes: imagined or synthesized prose which lays no certain claim to events that most people would call "reality." Even "realism," another scarcely definable figment, implies events that might have happened, could have happened, or even resemble things that did happen, but which did not necessarily happen. Fiction, in other words.
And so we say some books are about things that happened — nonfiction — and some are about things that didn't necessarily happen or, if they did happen, happened not quite the way they are described — fiction. And then, beyond either, some things are, the author promises, the way he remembers them happening, as best he can recall, give or take, don't make him swear to it, and nobody's perfect, and actually maybe it wasn't quite like this, but it might as well have been, and look, honestly, some times the way I feel like it should have happened is just as interesting or somehow profoundly and philosophically "true" as the way I suppose somebody else would say it "did" happen and — anyhow, what am I? a video camera, for Christ's sake? of course not — the point is, what I'm trying to say is, whenever I recall an image of my father holding a large... memoir.
But the categories didn't use to be so clear. The earliest English novels purported to be true memoirs, or letters discovered by an editor. You weren't told on the cover, "Don't get too sucked into this. It isn't true, you know." No, you were told, "This happened. Let me tell you about it." You were invited to wonder.
I don't expect to say anything here about the case of James Frey that you haven't already read or heard somewhere else, but I will mention this: I had no interest in reading A Million Little Pieces back when it was still the heart-wrenching memoir of an addict. I had no interest in it at all until I heard Frey had made some of it up, and I was intensely interested in reading it after he was pilloried as a faux-memoirist, that capital crime. Because if he had made something up that had convinced so many thousands of passionate readers, he must be one hell of a great writer. Precisely as good a writer as Orson Welles was a good actor and director, on precisely analogous evidence.
Frey — and the entire popular genre of it's-a-memoir-until-you-start-to-ask-tough-questions — are the descendants of Tristram Shandy, in a way, because these are the books that say, "Here is a story. It really happened," and you can't quite tell if they're kidding or not. And when you can't quite tell, remarkable things can happen.
To be thrown back into wonder and into wondering. How rare is that (outside of news and gossip)? To be presented with that synthesis of prose and to marvel, like a groundling, like an explorer, like a monarch presented with an animal with a duck's bill and fur! What is this thing? Can I trust it? Do I believe or don't I? Can such things be?
Here is James Frey himself about a recently published book: "A funny, sad, absurd, moving, and very, very smart book. I don't know if it's fiction or nonfiction or both or neither, and ultimately it's irrelevant."
Can such things be? And if so, are such things safe? There is a risk, after all, in playing with these categories. Frey certainly learned that lesson, and perhaps I have too. In the necessary world of self-promotion and social-website maneuvering (see my essay from Monday), it is the easiest thing in the world to post category-bending scraps meant to tease and intrigue people into learning more about a book beyond category. And then I get a message from an old friend, one I haven't spoken with in 30 years, whom I am so glad to hear from (God bless social sites), only to receive a heart-felt and lovely note from him consoling me in my time of difficulty with my father's prison sentence, forgers, wicked publishers, and various other statements just short of realism. Oh, Matt! Thank you! And I'm so sorry!