Deborah Orr: The literary world's obsession with sensational 'memoirs' degrades us

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The Independent Online

I'm fascinated by the news that the US publisher responsible for James Frey's fake memoir of alcoholic recovery, A Million Little Pieces, is now offering refunds to those readers who purchased the book before it was exposed as fiction. In particular I'm keen to see whether the British publisher will follow suit. The book had already been a success in the States before it reached these shores, and even before British publication a number of people who had read the proof and had experienced alcoholism were extremely sceptical about the veracity of the story.

The pivotal moment in the book comes when Frey decides to walk out of his Minnesota method rehabilitation course, enter a bar, and order a pint of crème de menthe. He sits looking at it contemplatively for a while, leaves without touching it, and congratulates himself on the inexplicable but miraculously foolproof "cure" he has managed to discover all by himself. At least one of the people certain that this was an absolute load of total rubbish wrote to the British publisher expressing concern. This concern was not met with a reply.

Frey, whose reputation has of course been sorely damaged by his deception, now says that he felt under pressure to present his work as a memoir because this form was the flavour of the month in publishing. His claim is surely only confirmed by the odd tale of J T LeRoy, the young writer who turned up on the US literary scene to great acclaim, refusing to say which gender he or she was, and hinting that his or her novels, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, were probably truthful accounts of hideous child sex and drug abuse at the hands of a drug-addict prostitute mother.

The books were huge succès d'estime and The Heart Is Deceitful... was later made into a film by Dario's daughter Asia Argento. Further, LeRoy was commissioned to write the script for Gus Van Sant's Elephant, published several other books - less impressively written - and became hugely feted by sleaze-by-association-hungry celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic. She or he also acquired a recording contract and launched a fashion line.

Eventually it was discovered that the books had in fact been written by LeRoy's supposed manager, Laura Albert, who organised the scam because, she says, she had been unable to find a publisher for her books in any other way. LeRoy him- or herself was "played" by Albert's own partner's half-sister. No doubt they're all now back to square one in the celebrity stakes.

Both tales are heavily instructive about what has surely become a highly prurient literary culture. I'm all for honest experience, but when young men feel they have to pretend to be recovered alcoholics to get published, or young women rightly feel that hints they suffered dreadful drug-fuelled paedophilia throughout their childhood will be a glamorous USP, then the power of deed rather than word has acquired a rather sinister upper hand. The fashion for heavy-duty personal memoir has been motoring along for quite some while now, but these two cases surely must suggest that after a couple of eye-popping decades of wild enthusiasm, it has become so decadently exploitative that it needs to be reassessed.

* Paris Hilton likes to maintain an image as a party girl who somehow manages to eschew the substances one so often attends parties to imbibe. So it's particularly humiliating for her that she has been picked up for drink driving. I'm glad to say we fared better on the same evening, with something of a triumph for the household's paternal figurehead. Stopped by a policewoman, my husband, a recovering alcoholic, was asked how much he'd had to drink during the evening. "Madam," he boomed with pride and delight, "I haven't touched a drink in seven years." It's hard to say exactly why this was such a moment of triumph for both of us, but there you are - it was.

Who do women think they're fooling?

I take some comfort from the suggestion that Fay Weldon is still faking orgasms at 74, an age at which I dolefully fear I'll be faking my entire sex life. I'm also impressed by the lengths to which the columnist Liz Jones goes in order to keep the nation guessing about whether she's faking her own erotic adventures at the tender age of forty-something. One minute she's claiming that she hasn't made love in eons, the next she's expert enough to be declaring to womankind - or Femaildom at least - that "a few short 'ooohs' and 'arrggghs'" will satisfy all comers (so to speak).

The business of faking "orgasms" just confuses me anyway. No mention can be made of the subject without a nod to Meg Ryan's restaurant shriekings, and it's clear that Liz was watching with avid, credulous attention. But I never understood what that proved anyway. An orgasm isn't a noise. It's an emission. Without sneakily discharging a convenient glass of water over the mattress, or doing something clever with one's pelvic floor and wet sponge, how on earth do you fake that?

And where does it end? Do you also fake grumpily stomping off to the bathroom for a towel, in a fit of manufactured post-coital resentment about the kid-on discomfort of the imaginary wet patch? Do you fake sluttishly throwing back the duvet for sheet-airing the next morning, when you can't be bothered to go through the motions of stripping the ersatz-fetid bed?

Anyway, you don't even move on to penetrative sex, until you're "ready", do you, so isn't that a bit of a giveaway in itself? Or could it be that I was the only person actually readingCosmopolitan in the 1980s? Faking an orgasm seems fraught with difficulty enough. But faking an entire sexual revolution? I'm so glad I was fooled.

Dirty tricks in Gaza

Sometimes I think that the international community prefers to play down the daily abuses of human rights that occur in the occupied Palestinian territories simply because high-profile attempts at intervention can only end in personal humiliation. What else, after all, explains the timidity of Kofi Annan in failing consistently to challenge Israel on the UN resolutions the country has been enthusiastically ignoring for years?

Yet it's quite wrong to persist in the idea that outside intervention in Israeli policy can yield no results. The latest - and undeclared - border-control policy of Israel is to deny Palestinians and foreign nationals entry into or residence in Palestine if they don't possess an Israeli-issued Palestinian ID. Even those who are married to ID holders, or their children, are now being told that they can't come back into Palestine, ever. Many non-ID holders, fearful that they may never see their families again, are afraid to leave, even to go to work.

In Gaza the policy is succeeding in its intention to cause economic collapse. No non-ID holder can get into Gaza, let alone invest in commerce there. And few, of course, can get out to conduct business from beyond their prison-state.

Is it too much to ask that Israel might stop this separation of families, and to allow Palestine to start processing the 60,000 formal applications for family unification on the waiting list?

Is it too much to ask (since economic development is essential to the " democratic, modern, transparent, accountable and productive society" in Palestine) that legitimate employees should stop being arbitrarily barred from entry? Rhetorical question, of course. Which is why one decent first step towards Palestinian self-determination might be to get Israel to admit to this policy, and to end it.