Did Frank McCourt Invent James Frey?

Angela’s Ashes was a masterpiece, but Frank McCourt’s success launched a wave of half-baked, half-faked memoirs from the likes of James Frey.

Janette Beckman / Getty Images

Read McCourt's last piece for The Daily Beast, about the movie Doubt, and tributes from John Patrick Shanley, Daniel Meaker, and a former student.

Wherever Frank McCourt is now, and whatever sins he has to answer for, one will surely be that he bears much of the blame for the endless waves of memoirs that have been engulfing us since Angela’s Ashes appeared in 1996.

Just as all American literature came from Huckleberry Finn, as Hemingway once said, the cascade of memoirs that have flowed from the printing presses over the past decade came from McCourt's book, but they were inspired not so much by McCourt’s achievement but by his success. The typology that came naturally to a Catholic-educated writer like McCourt—based on the New Testament typology of conception, birth, test by ordeal, death, and resurrection—was poorly repeated perhaps hundreds of times in books about alcoholism, drug addiction, parental/spousal abuse, parent’s Alzheimer’s, daughter’s schizophrenia, and so forth, with the resurrection stage being the memoirist’s reconstituted life itself.

The only criterion for judging whether a memoir is true is—as in the case of a novel, or an actor’s performance—whether it is humanly plausible. There is flesh, and there is polyurethane.

Some of these accounts were based on fact, some on a mix of fact and fiction, some only tenuously connected to the truth. They were written out of a desire to be heard or healed, to become famous, or merely to keep busy. Some sprang from talent, some from a defiant lack of same, some out of an inadequate impulse to write fiction that needed the steroid, or at least the semblance, of reality.

But not more than handful of them are as beautiful and as honest as McCourt’s classic work.

Honesty first. Much outcry has been directed at memoirists who make up events out of whole cloth, mixing what are generally regarded as the prerogatives of fiction with the rigors of recollection. The outrage resembles the indignation of discovering that a store-bought item does not reflect the description on its label. This was supposed to have raisins!

The idea is that literary genres, like consumer products, promise specific qualities. A work of fiction has to contain healthy amounts of fictional incidents, and such real-life events as there are must show that they have been transformed by the imagination, a la War and Peace. A work of nonfiction, on the other hand, has to consist of verifiable, non-transformed facts

So when James Frey was discovered to have fabricated the events of his life that gave his memoir such picaresque piquancy, the foundation of the entire nonfiction world was shaken, not just the book industry, but every corner of print and broadcast journalism. Even innocent romantic dates became susceptible to fact-checking. You might say that as Frey’s stock (briefly) dropped, Google’s rose.

Life is built on trust, and Frey’s breach of it was alarming, all the more so because it now seems part of a larger trend, from fake “reality” TV to Internet manipulations of the truth, to “liars’ loans,” Bernie Madoff and beyond.

But memoir is a tricky business, falling squarely between fiction and nonfiction.

No one, after all, can verify a memoirist’s recollection of what he was thinking or feeling at a certain time. Events seem more clear-cut—they either happened or they didn’t. Even there, though, the presentation of an event has everything to do with its telling. Something real can be made to seem unreal if it is cast in phony language. And an embellished event can be closer to the truth than factual precision, if its evocation is infused with intuitive wisdom.

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The only criterion for judging whether a memoir is true is—as in the case of a novel, or an actor’s performance—whether it is humanly plausible. There is flesh, and there is polyurethane.

As a case in point, anyone who compared the first lines of Frey’s memoir—which tries desperately to repeat McCourt’s memoir—to McCourt’s would know that the former book was about as real as a mechanical dildo:

McCourt: “My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret dead and gone.”

Frey: “I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me.”

In McCourt’s book, the words serve the vision. They reflect the interest the writer has in his experience. Frey’s vision, whatever it is, runs panting after his words, which reflect the interest the writer has in his audience. McCourt is writing about his life—he uses the first-person pronoun twice, and only because he can’t use anything else. Frey is writing about himself—he uses “I” six times in the just about the same space. What’s most striking is that McCourt’s story of his past is written in the past tense. Frey’s is written—like Jay McInerney’s novel, Bright Lights, Big City—in the present. A memoir written in the present tense is like a fish on a skateboard. You know something isn’t right.

McCourt may be the culprit behind the relentless flood of self-absorption—you might call the memoir industry Mylife.com, which preceded and made possible MySpace, iPod, and YouTube. But his book is also its antidote. The beauty of Angela’s Ashes is that it is not beautiful. It is emotionally effective because it is bare of literary touches. True or not, embellished or not, it is all heart, no art. No visible art, anyway.

From what we know about McCourt, he spoke his pain away, first to his students as a public schoolteacher in New York for 30 years, and then as a memoirist. Great books are written by authors who have no choice but to write them, unlike so many memoirs, which might have been novels, or blogs, or maybe could have been suddenly abandoned if American Idol had beckoned. McCourt wrote with Scheherazadian urgency.

Indeed, he puts you in mind, not so much of the great memoirists of the past, but of another author from the same part of the world—J.K. Rowling. You might even say that young Frank was the first young Harry, and that what both McCourt and Rowling have most strongly in common is the creation of a completely self-contained world out of real-life fragments of pain and displacement. Once upon a time, a boy (or girl) set out on his journey through life…

A true memoir is really not a memoir at all. It is a particularity without end.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.