Friday, January 27, 2006

James Frey on Oprah

Oprah’s shakedown yesterday with James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, and his Doubleday editor, Nan Talese, was a mixture of indignation (Oprah), anemic admissions (Frey) and denial of culpability (Talese).

Oprah approached the show with a somber tone, quickly quieting her applauding audience. Regarding her phone call to Larry King, in which she initially defended Frey, she said, "I made a mistake. I left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that because that is not what I believe." She was “embarrassed” over the entire situation. Sitting down with Frey, she began, “I really feel duped. More importantly, I feel you betrayed millions of readers. As I sit here today, I don't know what is true, and I don't know what isn't."

Frey supplied often waffling answers to Oprah’s questions about events depicted in his book. Did he really spend 87 days in jail? Well, no it was only “a couple hours.” Did Lilly hang herself? No. She cut her wrists. Did he really have a root canal without Novocaine? Well, he wasn’t sure.

I was listening hard, but never did I hear Frey apologize. And although he admitted The Smoking Gun’s report of his fabrications was “pretty accurate,” never did he use the word “lie.” Some events in the book merely “were altered.” And he “made a mistake.” He used the word “mistake” so often that Oprah finally pressed, “Did you ‘make a mistake’ or did you lie?” Frey’s answer: “Probably both.”


Frey called the people in his book “characters.” Not real people with real stories, as he has insisted to the world since its publication in 2003. Just “characters.” Apparently fashioned as he pleased.

At the show’s end, Frey said, “If I come out of this experience with anything, it’s being a better person for it, learning from my mistakes and making sure I don’t repeat them.”

You go, guy. But your journey to that “better person” might be a little shorter if you fully admitted your wrongs.

Richard Cohen from the Washington Post noted, “The first part of getting over an addiction is facing the truth.” Seeing as how Frey’s “redemptive” book (as Oprah initially toted it) was all about his comeback from crime and addiction, his lack of veracity turns his entire bad guy story into pap.

Does anybody else see a cultural meltdown in this, by the way? Frey fabricated his crimes and level of debauchery to make himself look good. ?? What happened to the days when people used to lie to cover their crimes?

“Remember the truth,” Frey wrote in his book. “It’s all that matters.”

Editor Nan Talese took no blame for anything. She read the book, was moved by it, and wanted to buy it, period. During all the months of in-house process at Doubleday, she nor any other editor fact-checked the wild events in the book (They were obviously pretty easy to check, as witnessed by The Smoking Gun’s report.) Frey said they were true, so it must be so. She called the whole situation “sad” for everyone. She did note that further printings of the book will not take place until they can include a note written by Frey explaining what is true and what is not.

A day late for Doubleday, but a dollar short? We’ll see. The hold on reprinting may cost sales in the short term, but will this continued controversy sell more copies of the book than ever?

Journalist Roy Peter Clark, Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute, got to the heart of the matter. If we know one part of a book is a lie, we’re likely to take all of it into question, he noted. Then we will question other memoirs. This is key to Oprah, whose next Book Club pick is Night, a memoir by a Holocaust Survivor. (Night was chosen before this controversy arose.) As Clark points out, there are those who already doubt the Holocaust occurred.

Here’s hoping Frey’s flagellation will lead publishers to check so-called memoirs more carefully. Not a bad thing in this age of fuzzy truth. At the end of her show, Oprah quoted one journalist who said this issue has shown “how much value contemporary culture places on truth.”

Does it? Let’s wait and see how all the repercussions play out.


C.J. Darlington said...

Either way you slice it, Frey is getting some great publicity! You know what they say about negative publicity ...

Cara Putman said...

Frey's definition of truth shows how relative our society has become. The fact that a large publishing house accepts ficion as truth without checking it makes me want to stay firmly in the fiction realm. I've read fiction that was more honest and careful with the fact than it sounds like Frey was.

And if this was all a publicity scheme...Makes me want to start a truth brigade!

Corina Bowen said...

Its amazing how people stretch the truth to fit their needs!
It Word says you "Reap what you sow"..
What keeps coming to mind is ~He said he spent 87 days in jail.....

Becky said...

Interestingly, one on-line course about how to detect/portray lying (for suspense and mystery writers) did a bit of analysis on Frey's physical responses to the questions. I thought that was educational. Wish I'd seen it.


C.J. Darlington said...

Of course, by my publicity comments I'm not endorsing Frey's behavior or anything. Just wanted to clarify that.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

New development on the story, too good to pass up. Check out today's post at the Freakonomics blog:

Katy said...

"If I come out of this experience with anything," Frey says, it's that he might become a better person for it.

Yeah, there's that. And then there's the million bucks, or however much he's pocketed!

Katy Raymond

Dineen A. Miller said...

I checked that link, Brandilyn. If it's true, the guy simply does not know how to tell the truth. Even what he said to Oprah has been lies. I really don't want him to come out of this unscathed but, alas, that's up to the big guy upstairs.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Well at least the world seems to have tilted back on its axis.

I've been so dismayed at the cottage industry that has grown up around trying to debunk the DaVinci Code...which was written as a work of fiction. Then this fraud perpetrated by Frey comes along and everyone says, "Oh well, no biggy! Truth is subjective."

But now people are waking up, including Oprah. I bet Random/Doubleday never gets another book onto her bookclub!

One note: It is reported that Frey originally shopped this manuscript as fiction, and there were no takers!