Oh, that new Nan Talese/Oprah dust-up?

... the one that's been zipping around blogs like Galleycat and FishbowlNY and the ever-supercilious Gawker? The one in which Ms. Talese accused Oprah of "fiercely bad manners" during the infamous on-air contretemps in January 2006 over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces?

book/daddy was the person who started it all.

Really. No, really. book/daddy interviewed Ms. Talese onstage at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference on Saturday. I told her in advance that we'd have to talk about James Frey, and she said she had absolutely no problem with that.

So I asked her. She declared herself completely unrepentant, defended Frey's memoir, declared that the entire furor had not changed her handling of memoirs one bit -- despite the subsequent lawsuit. Ms. Talese said Oprah had basically misled her, telling her the show was going to be one thing -- and then turned it into an interrogation. Later that evening, at the dinner with Joyce Carol Oates, an audience member, apparently disliking my shrugging off of Mr. Frey's sins, brought it up again, arguing he'd broken faith with his readers -- let's all grab the pitchforks and torches -- and Ms. Talese fired away some more.

So why didn't I mention any of this before -- when The Dallas Morning News and Time and Texas Monthly all rushed it online ?

Because, frankly, book/daddy never thought even the original story was that important. I still don't. Oprah and Mr. Frey may be big factors in book sales, but they're nothing at all in literature.

Why, then, is book/daddy stepping forward now? Because a number of people who were at the Mayborn have e-mailed, asking why I've said nothing.

So here goes: I stand by the commentary I wrote the day after Ms. Talese's Oprah appearance last year. Nothing's changed:

Is mostly telling the truth enough?
BOOKS: Flap about James Frey's "memoir" ignites debate
over mixing fact and fiction

by Jerome Weeks
The Dallas Morning News
January 29, 2006

To embellish a famous line by that noted nonfiction author, B. B. King: Don't trust nobody 'cept your mother.

And she could be jivin', too.

If any good comes out of the controversy surrounding the now-admitted embellishments in James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, it would be that readers might be more sophisticated about what they read in memoirs, especially those by recovering addicts boasting about their bad selves. And that publishers would fact-check manuscripts more -- that is, fact-check them at all.

Or perhaps they could develop a labeling system to distinguish poetic, first-person reveries from archival research. The labels could look like those government warnings on nicotine, saving us from any exposure to literary invention: "Caution! This autobiography contains 5 percent fiction."

Not very likely scenarios, any of them. But several were vehemently proposed on Thursday's Oprah Winfrey Show. Having boosted Mr. Frey's book, not only by picking it for her club but also by defending it on-air during Larry King Live, Ms. Winfrey brought the author back and raked him over the coals for betraying her faith in him.

She said he "betrayed millions of readers," but we know which reader has her name on Oprah's Book Club. She tossed in his publisher, Doubleday, as well, for purportedly deceiving her over early reports about the book's inaccuracies, and then she took on the book industry at large.

When Nan A. Talese, whose Doubleday imprint published A Million Little Pieces, explained that memoirs are based on human memory and publishers check them for possible libel claims but little else, Ms. Winfrey snapped, "Well, that needs to change."

Perhaps it will, now that the industry has embarrassed its Biggest Client. And has cast a pall over one of its biggest profit sources. Nonfiction sells; it outsells fiction by a huge margin, and since at least Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life in 1989, memoirs have been hot: The Liar's Club, Tuesdays with Morrie, Running with Scissors, Angela's Ashes.

The great majority of frowny faces directed at Mr. Frey have been worn by journalists, including several of Oprah's guests Thursday. However the public may view us (promoters of disloyalty, suck-ups to power, outmoded old typists), journalists are, as a Bush administration official once put it, "reality based." We have a rather conservative faith in facts.

Not surprisingly, then, many of us have been loudly defending truth against all the purported liars: Mr. Frey, Oprah, the book industry in general. Which, in general, was taken aback by the furor. As Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, put it, publishers just sell people the stories they want to read. "Readers say they want the truth, but they can't handle the truth. Not unless it reads like a novel."

Indeed, Bill Bastone, the investigative journalist behind the Smoking Gun, the Court TV-owned Web site that broke some of the story about Mr.Frey's fabrications, has reported that 40 percent of the e-mails he has received have expressed outrage at him, not Mr. Frey. So what if the author never served three months in jail? So what if -- as The New York Times reported last week -- counselors at the clinic he supposedly attended say his account is untrue? It's called poetic license, isn't it?

"If it were my choice," Mr. Frey said in 2003, "A Milllion Little Pieces would be listed as literature. It doesn't really matter, though. What matters is how many people read it and how it affects them."

Actually, it does matter how it's listed. That's what this has all been about. Even as entertainment blurs with news, even as we can fake anything digitally on the Internet or in a movie, we're obsessed with the tabloid-authentic, with reality TV and its humiliating public confessions, like Mr. Frey's on Thursday. And like Ms. Winfrey herself, many of us have a simple faith in a publisher's imprint: It means they vouch for the book's content.

So, backed by the publisher's say-so, Mr. Frey stole a little of the power of the real. And he cast into doubt all other memoirs.

It was so simple once, pined Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times. Fact was fact, fiction was fiction -- until Tom Wolfe started mixing the two. Conservative columnist John Leo denounced Oprah and her cult of the "emotional truth" -- instead of the truthy-truth -- and took a few whacks at postmodernism for contending "there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives."

On the other hand, liberal columnist Frank Rich, one of Ms. Winfrey's guests, found Mr. Frey's dishonesty to be part and parcel with the "White House propaganda machine" that, he says, has been selling stories to hide its incompetence with Katrina or the hard-right beliefs of Samuel Alito.

Each of these scenarios posits some burgeoning cultural crisis in the printed truth. But most of the furor would never have happened if Mr. Frey's book had been released as a novel, as he originally intended. Or if the book had been touted on TV by, say, Charlie Rose.

Instead, the book got the Oprah Seal of Authentic Worthiness, and Ms. Winfrey was forced to do damage control on her public image. It made for a remarkable piece of talk-show televsion, but it seemed to be about Placating an Angry Oprah as much as anything.

Memoirs have been messing with our heads since St. Augustine's Confessions in A.D. 397. Augustine was revolutionary, the first author to recount his childhood as an influence on his moral development. Scholars have never taken his book as a literal testament of fact but as part of his self-examination, his seeking a "larger truth."

Since then, one would think we've come to distinguish outright fraud from, say, the dream-like beauties of Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory or the so-called "fictional memoir" of Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes. Maybe not. There was The Education of Little Tree (author Forrest Carter wasn't Cherokee; he was a Klansman) and Lillian Hellman's Pentimento (she embellished the story about anti-Nazi work that become the movie, Julia).

And who can forget the swarms of forgettable movie star tell-alls, political memoirs and the many testimonials (weight-loss, religious conversion, financial wonder-working), most of which are about as reliable as Texas rain?

Not every nonfiction writer falsiflies, of course. Samuel Freedman teaches a course in literary nonfiction at Columbia University (full disclosure: I've taken the course). And there's no one more committed to hard reporting.

In his biography of his mother, Who She Was, Mr. Freedman declares that he has a "fundamentalist's faith" in truth and facts. He wrote the book partly as a stand against the memoirists who invent scenes they never saw or recall 30-year-old chats word for word.

But Mr. Freedman set an impossible goal for himself and for nonfiction writing. Despite all his research, he found he could not know "with absolute, 100 percent certainty what was happening inside my mother's head."

Who could? Truth isn't always easy. It's hard enough just knowing yourself. But for Mr. Freedman's pains, reviewers of Who She Was suggested he should have just used more imagination.

You know, invented things.

OK, so how much invention is permitted? Mr. Frey got caught with his lies but insisted Thursday that "not very much" of his book is fabricated. The problem with this line of reasoning is that truth isn't a hard, measurable object, a substance a writer includes on this page but forgets on that one. Neither is truth an all-or-nothing affair, one falsehood and it's gone.

Truth is a destination a writer aims for, and we judge how dilligently or nimbly he heads there, what he finds along the way, how he reveals himself, his artistry. Mr. Frey's sin wasn't writing A Milllion Little Pieces. It was what followed: labeling the book a memoir, lying about his life in interviews, lying about all the documentation he supposedly had that would back up everything. And then came the pathetic backtracking and hedging.

A simple disclaimer, the kind we see very day -- "Names and details have been changed to protect identities, the time frame has also been altered" -- would have made all this jiving unnecessary.

July 30, 2007 10:26 PM | | Comments (4)



If I had read a novel that had the same opening description that Frey gives of being on an airplane injured, bloody and covered in vomit, I would have thrown it away. The fact that it was labeled Memoir was the only thing that kept me from not tossing it aside as hogwash. One only has to watch one episode of Airplane on A&E to know that no airline would allow someone in that condition to fly.

I think the difference between Frey and Augusten Burroughs is that Burroughs story is funny enough that despite what Burroughs may say I can't imagine a reader not taking the narrative with a grain of salt. Frey on the other hand takes his subject far too seriously to allow him to get away with embrodiery.

In any case I loved the Oprah episode when she chewed him out. It made for very interesting TV to watch O rip him a new one. I wish we had more accountability moments like that on TV.

The clamor around those Mayborn tables came mainly from journalists. I noted that writers who practice in several genres were more supportive of Talese/Frey, or at least more comfortable with a nuanced understanding of memoirs. The real story here is probably a subterranean dispute -- which only occasionally breaks to the surface -- between journalists' reverence for "fact" and literary reverence for "truth." As the quotation marks suggest, the issue is far, far more subtle than either side wants to admit.
If anything, the uproar at Mayborn may help drive the discussion out into the open, beyond the "Give me fact or give me fiction" level of discourse.

I agree that this furor over "the facts" is unreal itself -- an aspect of witch-hunting. I recall my mother-in-law who often said she had no time for novels. She only read fact. Since I never saw her pick up a book of any kind, I asked her "like what?" "Movie magazines," she replied haughtily.

Prairie Mary

The biggest impact that the whole Winfrey/Frey dustup had on me personally was that it definitely influenced my decision to declare my OWN book, Learn Me Good, fictionalized and NOT a memoir...


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