In the spring of 1965, my literary agent called to tell me that Harper’s magazine wanted to publish a short story I’d written. The story, “Luther,” told of a New York City teacher’s longtime friendship with a black student who, while serving time in jail, becomes a Black Muslim. There was one problem, however, my agent said. Harper’s assumed the story was derived from my experiences as a New York City teacher, and the editors wanted to run it as nonfiction.
“But I made it all up!” I protested.
The next day my agent called to tell me that since the story was not “true,” Harper’s had decided not to run it.
I was reminded of this when I read, in the media hullabaloo concerning James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, that Frey had originally submitted his work as fiction, but that when there were no takers, he decided to call it a memoir.
The question, then: Why, in such instances, are publishers and the public more willing to embrace a story when told that it is “true”-that it actually happened-than when told that it is, on the same subject and with the same narrative line (or even, the same words!), a work of fiction? Why this curious belief that nonfiction, because it is “true,” may not only be stranger than fiction, but that it is, ipso facto, stronger?