The Fake Phenomenon

Based on a True Story — Ripped from the Headlines — True Crime — A Startling Memoir… Reality, or any implication that a story is REAL is a huge selling point. We want, on a visceral level, to believe what we read.

Fake memoirs are strange phenomenon.  Oprah Winfrey championed James Frey’s “memoir,” entitled “A Million Little Pieces,” until she realized it was a fraud. She’d been publicly conned — even humiliated — but it was her need to believe that his book was an inspiring memoir that drove the fraud as much as Frey’s ambition.

For me, the key point in the story of that particular fraud was when Frey talked about having tried to market the book as what it was — fiction. It was only after the manuscript was rejected, that he made changes and began the effort to sell it as a true story. What’s the “takeaway”? The standard for fiction is higher than for a memoir.

I remembered the “A Million Little Pieces” story when I read about the completely fraudulent Holocaust memoir “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years.” (See link to NPR story below) The story is obviously fiction — raised by wolves? People really bought that?

Every time I push the envelop on credibility, I keep Mark Twain’s famous quote about fiction in mind, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” What happened to the bullshit detectors at the publishing house? I guess they were out-of-order, lulled into a state of blissful sales projections by the lure of a fantastic tale. Had it been offered to publishers as fiction, it might have remained unpublished.

There have been many fraudulent memoirs and many, many works of fiction with elements drawn from memories. There are also memoirs that are not entirely factual as they emphasize the impressions and perspective of the memoirist. I think that’s a fundamental thing about memoirs — they are how the memoirist remembers the events as opposed to a strictly factual recounting with a perfect timeline.

Does that make such memoirs fake? Nope. But the Misha book, like James Frey’s bestseller, were deliberate fictions sold as the truth. They fall into the fake column. My question is this. Why do we get seduced by the fiction in the phrase — A Real Story?


  1. Why do so many adhere to the church of reality tv? On a similar note, I am reminded of those who believe the characters they see on soap operas and such are real people.

    We forget the characters we see and accept the “truth” laid before us.

    • Candy Korman

      My consumption of “reality” TV is limited to cooking competition shows. I can’t stand the false realities of most so called shows. Some are actually scripted but most of the narrative is created on the cutting room floor, editing people into monstrous creatures all-id-all-the-time.

      People confusing their soap characters with reality is another can of worms. I think it makes people expect drama, drama, drama all the time in life. And, let’s face it, most of it don’t live dramatic lives. LOL!

  2. People are inherently drawn to supposed “real” stories for the tell-all aspect. Most of us are too afraid to air our dirty laundry in public, so to speak, and the voyeur within gets drawn to someone else’s ability to do so. I love memoir and confessional writing, but to do what Frey did goes way too far. It’s like Stephen Colbert’s concept of Truthiness 😉 That being said, many memoir adjust for shape the truth in order to arrive at a more streamlined and cohesive narrative.

    • Candy Korman

      For me the big difference between a memoir and an autobiography is that memoirs adjust the truth to reflect the person’s ideas and to create a narrative. I remember arguing with my dad over his memoir as he painted everyone in the softest possible light, as if memory turned them all into good and charming people. Even with that soft focus, one of his cousins was disturbed by the inclusion of her mother’s romances. To most readers — maybe all but that cousin — that particular aunt came off as fun, funny and embracing life (and love). Too bad really… My stress came from knowing that my grandfather and wasn’t so nice to my dad. The reality I experienced and observed was much harsher. Still, dad didn’t create fiction and pass it off as memoir. THAT is the crime in the fake phenomenon.