Wednesday, January 11, 2006

James Frey: A (Million) Little Lie(s)

FreyToday, at the recommendation of her professor, a student from the university's journalism school interviewed me about the James Frey scandal. For anyone who's been out of the media loop, the Frey (at left, Robert Caplin for The New York Times) scandal involves the author of A Million Little Pieces, a memoir that Oprah Winfrey selected as the first book in her reconstituted Oprah's Book Club. (Let me state that I have not read the book.) In the memoir, Frey details his harrowing experiences as an alcoholic and drug addict, as well as his stint in prison after a felony conviction and other travails. It supposedly has brought tears to readers' eyes. After being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the book's sales exploded, and as of January 1, 2006, it was number 1 in sales on the New York Times Bestsellers paperback list.

Then, the problems began. The Smoking Gun website did a bit of inquiring, and published an extensive dossier showing that Frey had not only exaggerated, but actually made up--also known as wrote fiction--incidents in the book. Initially he denied doing so, and his publisher stood by him. Last night on CNN's Larry King Live, an hour of hackery I never watch if I can help it, Frey admitted that, well, uh, he'd made some things up. But hey, it's a memoir, not an autobiography or history, and memories can be hazy, if you're an alcoholic (or thought you were) or drug-addict (or sort of remembered you might have been) or a ex-con (even if it was only for a few days that sort of stretched, in memory time, into a few years). According to the New York Times, he maintains that "essence of the book is true." Ms. Winfrey called into the show to say that she still supported him (and since her rebroadcast of her Book Club show featuring him on January 2, his tome had surged again in sales), since the "underlying message" in the book was, uh, kinda-sorta true. (She'd initially described it as "a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it's so real.") Edward Wyatt's Times article today states clearly, however, many readers are outraged, while the one he published yesterday, "Best-selling Memoir Draws Scruity," pointed out that some were philosophical and agreed with Winfrey.

What I discussed with the student were some of the things I'd pointed out in my post on JT Leroy, though that situation is different in key ways. Some questions that came to mind were: Based on the genre, what is the author's responsibility to her or his readers? How true does a memoirhave to be, and aren't the expectations for truth still quite high for memoirs which, though they are often akin to novels in form and technique, are essentially works of nonfiction? In memoirs, where do we draw the line in terms of verification? What is the publishing industry's role in pushing and marketing this genre? Given memoirs' financial success, is the publishing industry putting quantity and profits before quality or standards? When an author like Frey is unmasked, how do readers respond? How do we connect the warped notion of truth--or truthiness, which is such a disturbing term--to the larger societal context in which we live, in which we have an administration that has openly questioned fact-based reality (in some cases for faith-based fantasy) and is full of people with Straussian neo-conservative leanings who support the idea of the "noble lie" and officially approved obfuscations and reorderings of (the) truth? (Then there's W's SCOTUS nominee, Samuel Alito, who can't remember anything about his membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, though he can recall all of his dissents and so on.) Ultimately, does Frey's trangression really matter? If so, why? How much? If not, why not? Of course, Frey isn't the first author to fabricate or outright lie in his memoir, though his fame has shoved him into the limelight. (He naively claimed on LKL that he didn't realize he'd get this much scrutiny. Hello? You were on Oprah, man! You became a millionaire! Hollywood was turning your sob-story into film! How could you not think all this attention would provoke people to go through your garbage?) The publisher, Nan Talese/Doubleday, has offered full refunds, as have and Barnes & Noble.

FreyThe student wanted to know if the publisher might have had some role in Frey's calling his semi-fictional text a memoir. I responded that it appeared that in his case, he really thinks he's written a standard memoir and I think the publisher bought it. I believe Oprah Winfrey also thought it was a memoir, and I don't place any blame at her doorstep at all. But I did and do wonder if publishers might not be pushing memoirs, which have become very marketable over the last decade or so; some of them have come to depend on this genre in particular for sales. We also discussed the issue of authenticity and readers' emotional and psychological identification with both the memoir narrative and the memoirist. The novel genre constitutively distances the reader from the author, or can in a way that memoirs and other nonfictional, autobiographical works do not; the fictional nature of the text, its artifice, usually create an identifiable barrier (this is fiction, not a true story), which the author, depending upon other factors, may or may not emphasize, and this is the case even with works that flag the fact that they're "based on a true story." With a memoir, we usually assume we're reading the true story of the author's life, as opposed to some story the author has imagined, unless the author makes this clear (as in a Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which occasioned some criticism for its narrative strategies and practices) and that realness provides a possibility not only for recognition but for deep identification and transposition. What then happens if we learn that the "real" isn't so real after all? How complicit are readers in all of this?

The student asked me about my own work, and I mentioned that my first book could be read as a memoir, but that both I and the publisher chose to call it a novel, for different reasons. (It can also be read as a long poem, or even as a series of stories, but that's for another discussion.) The student wanted to know if the "novel" designation arose because of my desire to hedge my bets on things that might not be true or if it was for creative purposes, and I told her that the second reason was paramount. I didn't think of it as a memoir per se, and still don't. I also have tried, since writing it, to move away from overtly autobiographical fiction, which is one reason that the novel I've been working on is partially set in 1804. (And I've written stories set in 1776, in colonial Brazil, in Haiti and Kentucky around the period of the Haitian revolution, during the final Revolutionary War battle, in Savannah, and so on.) I also mentioned that all works of literature (written by human beings, that is, since now there are computer programs that can hammer out something approximating a work of fiction), even those that partake of Eliot's idea of a suppression of personality to the extreme, are still to some extent are autobiographical, if only in that they serve as an index of the particular contexts, situations, psychology of the writer or writers at the time they were produced. Of course there are contrary theories of literary authorship out there, and this ventures a bit afield of the Frey imbroglio, but I think it gets lost at times in academic discussions of fiction (or conversely, of course, in popular culture, the author's biography, as in the case of JT Leroy, gets fetishized).

So what now? Well,

On the New York Times best-seller list to be published on Jan. 22, which reflects sales in the week ended Jan. 7, A Million Little Pieces will be ranked No. 1 among paperbacks for the 16th straight week. The hardcover edition of the book returned to the best-seller list for the first time since May 2003, shortly after its original publication, ranking No. 15. And Mr. Frey's second memoir, My Friend Leonard, soared to No. 1 on the hardcover nonfiction list from No. 9 a week earlier.

As I once wrote somewhere, "Nice work if you can get, and you can get it if you lie."


  1. Perks up: And when will your novel be due? Slight pressure, just slight.

    I'm obsessed with technology and what it allows. Admittedly, I don't follow the narrative theory circuit, but I'm not sure if anyone has gone beyond the Barthes/Foucault/Derrida paradigms to look at how "new" technologies have changed how we think about authorship?

    In some way, I think Derrida anticipated much of this, refusing, for instance, the line between text and author.

    The case highlights, as well, the problems with identification as a reading strategy (I usually teach poetry so can't speak to fiction). It's usually one of the major struggles to teach that the "I" in a poem is not "I" the reader.

    It makes little sense to say you "identify" with Phillis Wheatley. (And "they" do claim to!)

  2. Who gives a crap if it is true or untrue? It is a beautifully written book that leaves a lasting impression of success in an arena where the chances of success are slight.

  3. Keguro, a number of folks in the new media field (Sandy Stone, Katherine Hayles, etc.) are looking at how new technologies are transforming not only identities but authorship. Some pretty interesting stuff out there. Identification is interesting; I'm not so sure it's the issue I watch out for, and isn't identification something that's championed by our literary culture? You see yourself in someone like Frey, and....

    To anonymous, do you even have a clue as what a "memoir" IS? If so, you wouldn't ask this question. Of course it matters "if it is true or untrue" if someone's calling the work a memoir. If it's not true, then just call it a novel and be done with it. As for a "lasting impression of success," that's sufficiently vague. Do you mean his success at beating addiction? His success at publishing the book? His success at getting away with lying through his teeth for a few years without being discovered? Just wondering.