Sunday, February 05, 2006

More on Frey? Please God No!

I’ve resisted the temptation to comment on the scandal surrounding James Frey’s admission that portions of his memoir A Million Little Pieces were fictionalized because I didn’t intend to use my blog for Op-Ed pieces on the publishing industry. There are many others who are doing that already—and no doubt they are doing it much better than I ever could.

However, Frey’s last appearance on the Oprah show has completely shattered my will power, and I find now I must weigh in on at least a few aspects of the story.

As I’ll highlight in future postings when I discuss the process of selling Candy from Strangers, it’s getting harder and harder to place novels. My wife, for one, keeps telling me that I’m wasting my time writing fiction—particularly private eye fiction—and that I ought to be doing “creative nonfiction” instead. Maybe with all the alternative media available, consumers want to get their “fiction” from other, more tangible sources such as TV, movies, video games, etc. and the few precious hours they devote to reading they only want to read “true” things.

In any case, it’s clear from the many rejections that Frey received when he shopped the book originally as a novel that the desire to get published was at least partially responsible for his decision to label the book nonfiction.

Another factor that contributes to the “untruth” of any memoir is the simple fact that humans do not have perfect recall, so conversations, descriptions of surroundings, clothing, etc. must necessarily be augmented through the “creative” part of “creative nonfiction.”

Two of my favorite memoirs are Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. In the preface to Feast, Hemmingway says:

If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.
And Wolff includes the following at the front of his book:

I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it a truthful story.
Frey had no similar sort of statement in the first edition of his book, and of course, there is a difference between outright fabrications and a creative “filling in of the blanks,” but no one should read a memoir and take what he or she finds in it as the gospel truth—just as no one should do that with a newspaper, a history book or Internet blog.

Apparently, few in the jaundiced publishing industry thought Frey’s work was the gospel truth. Miss Snark, for one, claims that it was common knowledge that the book was at least partially fabricated. Is the antique dealer who sells you a fake Chippendale any less guilty than the maker? How about the local TV show host who picks the chair for “antique of the week?”

Which brings us to Frey’s appearance on Oprah. I watched some clips from the show and I found them cringe-making, to say the least. Frey comes off as weak and mealy-mouthed, and Oprah righteous, indignant and vengeful.

Probably he deserved it. Probably he should have come clean in his earlier appearance on Larry King’s show. But why did Oprah call into the King show to support him, and why did she abruptly change her opinion about the situation and invite him to a public whipping on her own show?

Mainly because of the spate of newspaper editorials and Internet blogs that criticized her support of the book. And perhaps because it made great television (to some, at least) to play the avenging angel.

I once heard an interesting story about Oprah’s Book Club from an employee: Oprah representatives used to insist that the “Amazon Sales Rank” for Oprah editions of books be higher than non-Oprah editions, so Amazon rigged them to make that the case, even if the sales numbers didn’t bear it out.

This was particularly important when Oprah had taken a hiatus from recommending current releases and was only endorsing older books, such as Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The Oprah Edition had to be higher than the plan old Penguin edition.

Is that the sort of behavior you expect from an organization whose leader told Frey, “I feel duped … you betrayed millions of readers?”

I submit all this not as an apologia for Frey’s actions, but to highlight some of the extenuating circumstances in the case. If I were prosecuting attorney, I’d consider pleading him to a lesser charge in exchange for testimony into the broader conspiracy.


At 9:12 PM, Blogger Miss Snark said...

I like your books. Tell your wife that you have to keep writing or I just won't be responsible for my reaction.


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