Sex, Lies and Memoirs: Callahan on `Cheating Culture'
By Edward Nawotka
Feb. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Only a hermit could have missed the
uproar over James Frey, who lied about his troubled past in his
bestselling memoir, ``A Million Little Pieces.''
First reported by Web site thesmokinggun.com last month, the
news prompted a rebuke from U.S. talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and
helped unmask other fakers.
Author JT Leroy, for example, seduced literary insiders by
telling them he was a bisexual West Virginian in his 20s who was
dying of AIDS. ``He,'' the New York Times reported, is actually
one Laura Albert, a 40-year-old mother from San Francisco.
Then there's memoirist ``Nasdijj,'' who said he was a Navajo
suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. LA Weekly and the News &
Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, have confirmed that he's Tim
Barrus, a white writer of gay erotica.
To try to understand what's going on, I turned to David
Callahan, author of ``The Cheating Culture'' (Harcourt, 366
pages, $14), a book that explores the recent rise of plagiarism,
accounting fraud and other forms of dishonesty. Callahan will
publish a new book, ``The Moral Center,'' in September. I talked
to him yesterday by phone from his home in New York.
Culture of Narcissism
Nawotka: With so many fraudsters selling books these days,
what's happening to publishing? You shared an agent with
``Nasdijj.'' Is fraud becoming more prevalent?
Callahan: It's hard to know if there's more of it -- or if
there is just a spate of these coming to light. Cheating and
deception by their very nature want to go undetected. I'm
reluctant to say that literary fraud is on the increase.
Incentives are on the increase. In the world of writing, we live
in a winner-take-all economy. James Frey is making millions while
the typical writer is barely paying the rent.
Nawotka: Why don't they just publish novels?
Callahan: We live in a self-revelatory age, a culture of
narcissism, and want to share in other people's inner lives.
Novels don't cater to that in same way that memoirs do. Everybody
wants to break out and be one of the stars. One of the ways to do
that is to tell a larger-than-life story.
Nawotka: So is there a fraud genre in literature?
Callahan: There is a long tradition in the memoir business
of exaggerating the truth. There's also a hoax genre as well.
Remember ``Hitler's Diaries''? That was a hoax.
Crossing the Line
Nawotka: Does that mean we need to make some allowances for
the memoir genre? Surely Casanova made a few things up.
Callahan: Unless we do, there will not be interesting
memoirs. No one has total recall, especially when it comes to
writing about personal events. The only way to keep readers
involved is to take some licenses in terms of fleshing out
conversations and scenes. But is it OK to go on for five pages?
No. There's a consensus that James Frey crossed the line.
Nawotka: Do you think Frey believes that what he did was
Callahan: Yes, but the question has to be, ``would he do it
again?'' The choices are write a dull memoir and sink without a
trace or make up stuff, sell 3 million copies and have to
apologize and be humiliated. I think he'd pick option B. A lot of
people would. The gains from cheating outweigh the downsides.
Nawotka: How so? Some critics have called for him to donate
his $3 million to $4 million in royalties to charity.
Callahan: Then he can turn around and sell another book
about his lying problem. You know James Frey will be back with
some redemption story, just as Martha Stewart came back with
hers. We live in the kind of society that loves to tear people
down and to build them back up again.
Nawotka: Is this why some readers forgive Frey?
Callahan: Readers want to be entertained. They read to be
moved. Some may feel betrayed because they were manipulated.
Nawotka: Some are even bringing legal action against him.
Callahan: That's silly.
Nawotka: What role do the media play in this? Has reality
television changed our perception of reality?
Callahan: The media are constantly raising the bar on how
sensational something has to be to get people's attention. It's
not surprising nonfiction authors try to feed that appetite. This
is about our addiction to the sensational.
Nawotka: Are you surprised by the amount of attention this
Callahan: Nobody died, was hurt or lost money -- except,
perhaps, for the cover price of the book. Nothing bad happened to
anybody, yet this has gotten more coverage than the genocide in
Sudan. It just shows you how much the media love a good scandal.