Without praising Lillian Hellman (how could you?), columnist Anne Applebaum notes the salient difference in Hellman’s literary fabrications and James Frey’s-and what it says about our values.
In the novel “Pentimento,” Hellman may have lied everything “including ‘and’and ‘the,'” in the famous formulation of novelist Mary McCarthy, but she created characters who were better than their real-life models:
“What is most striking about a rereading of ‘Pentimento’ (which I don’t necessarily recommend) is the quaint, outdated heroism of it. Hellman reinvents herself and her nonexistent friend as brave and principled, willing to fight for the right cause even in the face of great danger. In that sense, Hellman’s work belongs to a long line of fantasists, stretching back to Baron von Munchausen and beyond — liars who reinvented themselves as better, braver or more blue-blooded than they really were.”
Quite tellingly, Frey in “A Million Little Pieces,” did a very different kind of reinvention. Applebaum writes:
“Frey, by contrast, belongs to a tradition that emerged more recently and that has been best described by the British writer and psychologist Anthony Daniels as the ‘literary assumption of victimhood.’ These fabricators reinvent themselves not as heroes but as victims, a status they sometimes attain by changing their ethnicity. Among them are Bruno Grosjean, aka Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose touching, prize-winning, “autobiographical” tale of a childhood spent in the Majdanek concentration camp turned out to be the fantasy of the adopted son of a wealthy Swiss couple. Another was Helen Darville, aka Helen Demidenko, whose touching, prize-winning ‘autobiographical’ tale of a Ukrainian girl whose father was a former SS officer turned out to be the fantasy of a middle-class British girl living in the suburbs of Brisbane, Australia.
“And the trend continues: In the past few days, yet another prize-winning author, who calls himself ‘Nasdijj’ and claims to be the son of a violent cowboy and an alcoholic Native American woman (and who, as a child was ‘hungry, raped, beaten, whipped and forced at every opportunity to work in the fields,’ he told an interviewer) — has also been ‘outed’ as a white writer of erotica named Timothy Barrus. As Daniels wrote in the New Criterion several years ago, ‘where fantasists would once have invented privileged aristocratic backgrounds for themselves, they now invent childhoods filled with misery. It is lack of privilege, not privilege, that now confers prestige upon a person’s biography.’
“As for Frey, he gave himself not just a juvenile delinquent’s childhood but a flamboyantly bad character – ‘I was a bad guy,’ he originally told Oprah. He had spent most of his life, he wrote, as a drug-addicted, alcoholic criminal. Although his violence and excess were in truth limited to his vulgar prose, Frey was clever enough to know that moral degradation is, nowadays, what wins you admiration, fans and money.”