Monday, January 30, 2006

Frey Updates

I left off Friday wondering how the repercussions on the Frey issue would play out. Here are a few immediate reactions.

From the New York Times:

And on the second day, Doubleday shrugged.

Two days after an investigative report published online presented strong evidence that significant portions of James Frey's best-selling memoir, ''A Million Little Pieces,'' were made up, the book's publisher issued a statement saying that, in essence, it did not really matter.

''Memoir is a personal history whose aim is to illuminate, by way of example, events and issues of broader social consequence,'' said a statement issued by Doubleday and Anchor Books, the divisions of Random House Inc. that published the book in hardcover and paperback, respectively. ''By definition, it is highly personal. In the case of Mr. Frey, we decided 'A Million Little Pieces' was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections.

''Recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers.''

Quite a final paragraph. Nuh-uh, I say. Readers approach a novel and a nonfiction book in different ways. Both can be redemptive. I’ve had plenty of letters from my own readers whose spiritual lives have been impacted by my stories. But Oprah’s apparent indignation was that she approached Frey’s book as someone who was reading truth. And the “truth” of the story—that someone could really live through the degradation that Frey claimed he had and pull himself out of it—was “redemptive.” (If Oprah loves tales of redemption, by the way, I suggest she eschew the druggie stories and read the Bible.)

Despite Doubleday’s public reaction, I wonder what’s really going behind the scenes. It’s clear that Frey lied to his publisher, insisting everything in his story was true. (He made public statements to the same effect.) Is this a mere matter of money? Hey, author, lie to us all you want, as long as you sell 3 million copies?

Further on in the NYT article:

But William Zinsser, the author of several classic studies of the memoir genre, including ''Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past,'' said the most important element in the genre's power is truth.

''I think that the strength of the memoir comes from history and from the truth of what people did and what they thought and experienced,'' Mr. Zinsser said. ''That is more rich, more surprising and funny and emotional and compelling than anything that could be invented.''

From another NYT article:

There was a bit of a panic among publishers this week. St. Martin's Press hurriedly put a warning sticker on Augusten Burroughs's latest memoir, "Possible Side Effects," due out this spring: "Author's note: Some of the events described happened as related, others were expanded and changed. Some of the individuals portrayed are composites of more than one person and many names and identifying characteristics have been changed as well."

Ballantine announced it would no longer ship two memoirs by Nasdijj, supposedly an inspiring Native American writer from the Southwest who said that as a child, he was "hungry, raped, beaten, whipped, and forced at every opportunity to work in the fields." The L.A. Weekly learned that Nasdijj was really Timothy Barrus, a white middle-class man from Michigan who had written gay porn.

Again from NYT:

One former publisher said he believed that the publishing industry would have to change its practices at the behest of its biggest patron, Ms. Winfrey. Laurence J. Kirshbaum, who recently retired as the chief executive of the Time Warner Book Group and who now runs his own literary agency, said in an interview yesterday that "there is no question what she said will have a far-reaching impact on our business."

"Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market," Mr. Kirshbaum said. "Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation."

As for the author himself, this from CBS News:

Frey's career will likely never recover, although so far he has not suffered for sales. His book, a million seller thanks to Winfrey, remained in the top 5 Thursday on A second memoir, "My Friend Leonard," was in the top 20.

He must still answer to his current publisher, Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA. In a statement Thursday, the publisher said there "very serious issues" with "My Friend Leonard," which refers to the jail term he never served, and "we are treating them that way." Regarding his recent two-book deal, Riverhead said, "The ground has shifted. It's under discussion." A novel is scheduled to come out in 2007.

Speaking of novels, Frey’s “memoir” started out that way. (If you decide to believe Frey on this one.) From his interview with Larry King:

Larry King: There's a story around that you offered this to a lot of publishers as fiction. It was turned down, and then you changed it. Is that true?

Frey: We initially shopped the book as a novel. It was turned down by a number of publishers as a novel or as a nonfiction book. ... Nan Talese ... thought the best thing to do was to publish it as a memoir.

King: Why did you shop it as a novel if it wasn't?

Frey: I think of the book as working in a long tradition that great American writers have done in the past, people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.
King: But they all said fiction.

Frey: Yeah, they did. At the time they lived, the genre of memoir didn't exist.


Bonnie Calhoun said...

All I can say is shame on James Frey! Shame on Nan Talese!

And shame on Oprah! By the way, I think she's the only one that learned anything out of this debacle!

Karen Wevick said...

I have to agree. A memoir has to be true to be inspiring. Yes, you can change people's names to protect their privacy, etc., but the facts still remain the facts. I don't know if Frey's story would have gotten the attention it did without the lies, but that doesn't justify lying. I wonder what would happen if people who feel cheated started returning the books and asking for their money back. Now that would make a statement.

Stuart said...

So I guess I should scrap my plans for a memior on growing up in the Karnian Skereta Mines.... Oh well. :)

It has been interesting to follow this story & its developments.

Just shows the need for integrity in everything.