What do Binjamin Wilkomirsky and James Frey have in common?
De eerste klap is een daalder waard/ First strike counts double.
But you may fall on your face.
Both men lied. The question is, who did they lie to first?
To their editors, to the people who bought their stories, to the readers who bought their memoirs, or to themselves?
Binjamin Wilkomirsky claimed to be a child Holocaust survivor, who lived through the brutal treatment of his people's oppressors. James Frey claimed to have undergone root canal treatment without Novocain, to have spent nearly three months in jail, instead of a few hours and to altering the facts of his girlfriend's suicide.
Do these men see lying as a craft, something you do well in order to con people, or is lying part of their delusional make-up, the sorry state of mind they're in. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.
The first time I learned about Wilkomirski being a fraud, was in Granta. Not long after, there was a program on NPR about his deceit. A few months later I attended a Poets & Writers' event where Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss and Victoria Wilson, her editor discussed the difference between the fictional account of the author's relationship with her father, Thicker than Water and the memoir she wrote about the same many years later.
I asked the editor what she would do if Wilkomirski came to her with a next manuscript. "I would let him write it as non-fiction, but sell it as fiction," was her reply.
Some publishers may have learned from the experience with Wilkomirski. The author of Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, was discovered to be a fraud in 1999. Had his story been told as that of a neglected child, it might or might not have been picked up by a publisher. What would have mattered most, was the writer's merit, the literary quality of the book. Wilkomirski used the Holocaust as a metaphor for his own utter despair. That I believe. Which doesn't mean I condone such appropriation.
James Frey wrote the story of drug addict, a junky. When he offered the manuscript as a fictional account, it wasn't accepted. Possibly because there's no literary merit to his writing. Apparently he didn't change anything in the manuscript when he presented it as a memoir. Conclusion: People (publishers) buy sob stories. Sob stories with a heroic touch, and a jubilant ending are gobbled up, while beautiful writing lies by the way side. Pitiful.
If only anybody had really read Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times "Cry and You Cry Alone? Not if You Write About It" of April 21, 2003. Or better yet, learned from the Wilkomirski case.
Blake Eskin responded to Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood with his investigative A life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski.
Let's see who will come up with an answer to A Million Little Pieces. No doubt it's going to be another scattering title.