Friday, January 20, 2006

Should A Million Little Pieces Be Moved to Fiction?

Should A Million Little Pieces by James Frey , which has been exposed as a very fictionalized account of the author's youth, be moved from nonfiction to fiction in library collections? My first inclination is to say "yes," but when I stop to think, I realize that there is more to be considered than truth and falsehood when dealing with nonfiction. (This is not really a new topic but a continuing issue which is probably not debated as much as it should be.)

The situation reminds me of the debate over The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter . When first published in 1976, the book was presented as autobiography, though no one knew who Forrest Carter was. Some questions were raised right away, but the real debate began in 1991, when the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time identified the real author as Asa Earl Carter, a segregationist and former speech writer for George Wallace, and Carter was accused of being a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, these revelations really had nothing to do with the story. Carter's widow insisted that his grandparents were Cherokee and that he had not gone beyond the lines of literary license. (Masterplots II: Juvenile and Young Adult Biography Series)

Looking at the SWAN Catalog of the Metropolitan Library System , I see four responses by librarians to this debate. A few libraries did move the book to their fiction collections. Some others sought a middle ground and moved the book into the Dewey 810s, where it could be called "literature." The publishing of a paperback edition let some libraries just put it onto their uncategorized paperback racks. Many libraries simply left it with biographies.

Another book that drew some scrutiny was Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan . The author claims that she took a three month walkabout with a group of Aborigines that reject modern civilization and hide in the Outback. Many critics say the story is pure fiction. (Australian Literary Studies, 2004, Vol. 21 Issue 4, p150-164) Morgan's American publisher decided to sell the book as fiction (despite the author's claims) and all our local libraries agreed with the publisher.

Bonnie brought up the much-loved books by the veterinarian James Herriot. The author used a pseudonym. He changed the names of his partners and clients, as well as the pet names. He sometimes merged incidents with several animals into one fictionalized story. (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Revised Third Edition) I have not found any library that has moved these books to fiction.

One of the strangest cases is that of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris . The author wrote as though he had been with Reagan through all of his years, even at high school football games, witnessing and taking part in the story. There is a warning statement of sorts in the front of the book and any smart reader sees the impossibility of the device. (Magill Literary Annual 2000) No library has put the book in fiction.

Why are the books treated differently? One thing I notice is that the authors that insist that their stories are true when they are not may get their books moved. The authors who warn their readers that they have taken some liberties get to keep their books in nonfiction. (You may have examples to bust this theory.) When fiction usually circulates better than nonfiction, it may not be much of a punishment to have a book moved.

What should librarians do? I think we have to accept the books as they are marketed. We may cause more problems if we start testing each book for truth. Just think about all the right wing and left wing political books that have been published in recent years, or think about all the books that mythologize American history. We are bound by our missions to provide all viewpoints without comment. Moving these would be making our own statements about them.

We should also make sure we have critical works exposing falsehoods readily available. We should help our readers find materials that will help them make their own judgments. Total and fair access to information and opinions is our mission.

A Million Little Pieces gets to stay where it is.

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