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Herta B. Feely

Herta B. Feely is an award winning writer and editor. In 2002, she received a Master of Arts in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.


“Part of the fun of Confessions is its appeal as a literary puzzle: readers are invited to try to guess whether each story is fiction or nonfiction, and answers to the puzzle are provided at the back of the book, along with insightful comments by the authors on the complex and interwoven nature of fiction and nonfiction, and the often slippery boundaries between the two. . ."

– Janet Holstrand

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Confessions: Fact or Fiction?

Fact or fiction? Your guess is as good as mine.


I’ll admit it. I really respect James Frey. I followed the controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces (which contained numerous exaggerations and lies) and its aftermath. I watched the Oprah interviews -- when she grilled him, and when she made peace with him. I watched it all, and if there’s one thing that really stuck with me, it’s a comment that Frey made in his final meeting with Oprah. He said, “Let’s say you look at a cubist self-portrait by Picasso. . . . It doesn’t actually look anything like Picasso, or if it does, it does in ways that might only make sense to him.” This seems to suggest that there are more leniencies (and perhaps undeservedly so) in the categorization of genres in visual arts than in literature.

Before the start of his work of fiction, Bright Shiny Morning, Frey stuck in a humorous disclaimer that stands as an acknowledgement of his past: “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.” If Herta B. Feely were to do the same, it would probably read something like: “Some of the stories in Confessions should be considered true, but it’s up to you decide which ones.”

Confessions is an anthology comprised of twenty-two short stories and memoirs whose genres remain unrevealed unless you look them up in the “answer key” at the book’s end. This format provokes questions regarding the boundaries between “fact and fiction,” the degree to which the traditional definition of “truth” is acceptable, and the consequent liberties that authors take as a response to their own interpretations. Feely seeks to engage readers in the subject -- to invite them to examine if they wanted a story to be true or not, and if they felt betrayed when it wasn’t what they expected.

Knowing the way the book was set up, I read Confessions much more skeptically than I’d even read a newspaper. I was a juror and each story was a case. It frequently seemed that certain feelings were described specifically enough that one would have to have experienced them to write them so well. But still, “reasonable doubt” existed. I would often end up contemplating whether these segments seemed to be described a bit too specifically -- whether more detail was revealed than one would have naturally noticed if the said events did, in fact, occur. On the whole, verdicts were difficult to reach.

At the heart of Confessions lies the big question: Does genre even matter, and do authors have a responsibility to inform their readers of the truth (or lack thereof)? George Nicholas, author of the anthology’s “If, Then, But,” states, “Pulp magazines of the ‘40s and ‘50s enticed readers with ‘True Confessions’ in 48-point type on their covers (would their reader have turned away from ‘False Confessions’?).” Nicholas goes on to say, “The Sonoran desert is part of the United States. It is also part of Mexico. But whichever side of the border you’re on, it’s still the desert. That’s what I think about fact or fiction. Makes no difference. It’s the story that counts, and the line has been blurry from day one.”

Confessions is an enthralling literary guessing game. Reading it, I often found myself disillusioned, stranded in the middle of the desert, wondering where the borderlines were and if it even mattered.

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1 Comment

  1. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 04/02/12 at 1:17 pm Reply

    I’m a huge supporter of Frey (I know, I’m steering the conversation away from Feely). It never bothered me a bit about the whole ’tis true ’tis not true debacle with Pieces. In fact, I fully suspect the editorial team of being implicated in the whole thing. Frey shopped “Pieces” as fiction and didn’t get one bite. He then shopped it as memoir and bingo. In any case, none of that matters to me; I read “memoirs” knowing full well that events are being shown through a personal filter. In fact, I’ll say this: I was disappointed with Pieces, knowing that it was fiction, only in that it read very cheesy and somewhat contrived. I figured: if you’re going to give us fiction, at least remove all the cheesy lovey dovey parts. Come at us full throttle, leave the “girl/romance” part out. In any case, I felt he was disgraced for nothing. His follow up w/Oprah was shameful. Shame on her for attempting to wash her hands clean. And you know what? Shame on those who demanded their money back. Because all of a sudden, the book that they loved so much turned out to be fiction? REally? They should THANK Frey, then. Readers need to realize all good writers are thieves. We steal from our own lives, from others’, and from everywhere else we can. If, as a reader, one comes to the table with all sorts of moral or social filters and/or requirements, one should best keep one’s money and just continue watching The Jersey Shore and leave us alone. I like that Frey redeemed himself with Bright Shiny Morning. I continue to pull for him.


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