The shriller parts of the media took the wrong lessons from James Frey. They obsessed over his fraudulent publication of a novel as a memoir, allegedly a singular, unpardonable outrage (until Oprah, confessor of confessors, gave him absolution), but didn’t consider the mitigating circumstances in his case, namely that his manuscript for “A Million Little Pieces” was consistently rejected when presented as a novel but quickly accepted when, on the advice of a probably sleazy agent, Frey recast it as a memoir. Later, after Frey had received his  Winfreyan grace and pardon and more fully established himself as a novelist with the publication of “Bright Shiny Morning,” news of his having opened a bottomfeeding writers’ sweatshop called Full Fathom Five was greeted with a yawn. At least the media weren’t being hypocritical in that instance; it would have been sick to argue that corporations have a right to employ desperate young people as unpaid interns in for-profit enterprises but that James Frey doesn’t. Full Fathom Five is arguably a bit more sordid than the average unpaid internship since it hires MFAs, not the usual undergraduates and recent graduates, which means that its employees are that much older, deeper in debt and behind in establishing careers that will allow them to make rent, but Frey is far from alone in taking advantage of the overeducated, underemployed and desperate. Of course, rarely does anyone in the mainstream media, especially on television, ask why Frey’s writer-peons or those employed by the likes of big publishing houses haven’t organized to join the Writers Guild; whether this omission is the result of obtuseness or of corruption (both would be in character), it’s shitty journalism.

Frey’s memoir fabrication scandal raised some disturbing questions that went unanswered, and often unasked, in the eruptions of outrage about his treachery. In particular, how could practically the same story be both a worthless novel and a compelling memoir? Even more disturbing were the unasked follow-up questions: why are Americans so taken with memoirs but so indifferent to fiction? What does that say about our worldviews and thought processes?

Fiction forces the author to get into other people’s heads; generally speaking, the better the author can understand other people and their interactions through the characters, the better the fiction. Memoir writing makes no such demands on the author. Fiction writers can be narcissistic assholes, but to be successful at their writing they have to be savvy observers of other people. Memoir writers, on the other hand, are encouraged to be self-absorbed because the very purpose of their writing is to focus on themselves and all the wonderful things they’ve done. (“Wonderful” should be defined broadly for this purpose, broadly enough to include “Confessions of a Guidette,” by a young lady who doesn’t even understand the rudiments of her family’s ancestral language but finds it hilarious to cater to vicious slurs about her ethnicity.)

I’ve been working on a few fictional pieces for the past two and a half years (but isn’t every Millennial brat working on a novel?), and I’ve found it disconcerting to be drawn into fictional storylines to the extent that I functionally am each of the characters, mentally speaking in their voices in the first person, when I’m working on dialogue. It’s a weird sort of split-personality psychosis. The thing is, when I compare the coherence and overall quality of my fiction drafts, as shaky as they are, to what I wrote in my autobiographical essays when I applied to be a San Diego police officer, there’s no comparison. My SDPD autobiographies were garbage, especially the first one, which was part of a rather impromptu sixty-page pre-investigative questionnaire from hell that my test block had less than four hours to complete once the five longwinded recruiters (out of six total) were done giving us an hour of pedantic, redundant instructions. One of the two premier talkers in the Recruiting Unit at the time, Officer Vernon Kindred, told us: “We can’t tell you what to write. That’s why it’s called an autobiography: you have to write it yourself.” (Cops can be incredible bullshit artists. Rejection has no real sting when I realize that the alternative would have been listening to God only knows how many more rounds of evasion and nonsense like that, in the course of even more degrading and disturbing intrusion into my personal life, just in order to get a job offer.)

Maybe, though, we ought to tell memoirists what to write, or more to the point what not to write, as a way of sparing readers extraneous crap that clutters and breaks up the narrative. That’s presumably an important function of editors, but to judge from the finished products memoir editors have more limited duties, mainly correcting egregious punctuation and spelling errors and making sure that individual paragraphs are coherent on their own, mostly. The bars at publishing houses for rejecting shitty manuscripts on account of banality, triteness and incoherence are a lot lower for memoirs than for fiction.

The problem is that readers seem to like that crap, specifically a whole fucking book full of it. I studied history in college, and one of the things I came away finding most admirable about good historians was their ability to read through large quantities of often boring primary documents and synthesize them into a coherent, readable narrative. This requires a degree of discrimination, which good memoirists possess but the host of bad ones lack. Memoir publishers seem to prefer full autobiographies, long-form data dumps of family, work, educational and religious information from childhood through old age, precisely the mishmashes that a good historian is able to collate and organize by setting aside the less relevant parts.

And I should revise the point about old age, since the United States recently elected as president a hugely popular memoirist not yet fifty. Presidential memoirs are nothing unusual, but Barack Obama’s pre-presidential memoir is.

New fiction writers, even good ones, find it impossible to get a foot in the door, but any notable jackass with a ghostwriter is able to get a contract for an autobiography. What we get isn’t good writing, but disjointed, self-centered collections of stories from self-centered people, crap that we somehow regard as preferable to fiction. God. I have to respect James Frey for crashing that party and shitting in the punch bowl.