What to make of the news that bestselling memoirist James Frey concocted many of the most dramatic events in his Oprah-sanctioned book, "A Million Little Pieces"?
As thesmokinggun.com, which broke the story, puts it:
Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey's book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw "wanted in three states."
In addition to these rap sheet creations, Frey also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students. In what may be his book's most crass flight from reality, Frey remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy's third victim.
TSG was able to prove these events false because they found contradictory records; who knows how many other lies there are in the book that can not be so easily disproven?
When TSG asked Frey about the fabrications, Frey responded, "There's nothing at this point can come out of this conversation that, that is good for me."
I'd like to return to that quote in a minute.
The response from Doubleday, Frey's publisher, has been less than candid. Here it is, as printed in the Times:
"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."
Translation: Fact, fiction, who cares? We sold 3.5 million copies.
Well, as an author of a memoir, I care. I could easily have made up some "facts" about my subject, John Kennedy, or attributed quotes to him that would have stirred up controversy and sold more books. But, well, that would be wrong. The challenge of writing a memoir is to be both literally true and to impart some larger truths. That's what gives it its power--the authenticity of the experience.
Maybe that's an old-fashioned opinion, but here's another one: As a writer, I think you also have a contract with your audience to tell them the truth. They're not only giving you their money, but their trust. Millions of people didn't buy Frey's book because they thought it was a pastiche of fact and fiction and they were okay with that. They bought it because they believed it was a true story and something about that truth inspired them or moved them or reassured them. Now Frey has, if only in some small way, disillusioned and disappointed millions of people.
Consider this paragraph from the Times story I linked to above:
In an interview with The Times last month, Mr. Frey said that he originally envisioned "A Million Little Pieces" not as a memoir but as a novel. "We were in discussions after we sold it as to whether to publish it as fiction or as nonfiction," he said. "And a lot of those issues had to do with following in a legacy of American writers." Mr. Frey noted that writers like Hemingway, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac had written very autobiographical books that were published as fiction.
The paragraph raises a host of questions. Think about that sentence, "We were in discussions after we sold it as to whether to publish it as fiction or as non-fiction."
A curious remark. Something is either fiction or non-fiction; it can't be both. Its authenticity is not something to be imposed upon it, or not, as a marketing decision; it arises organically from the material.
So why publish it as a memoir? Because as a "true" story about drug addiction and recovery, A Million Little Pieces is infinitely more marketable than as a novel. (After all, how many novels are there on the subject?) As a work of fiction, it's a first-time novel, and we all know how hard it is to promote first-time novels. But memoirs sell because readers value their truth. That's why, in our self-help oriented culture, memoirs sell; that's certainly why Oprah Winfrey decided to promote the book.
Consider too Frey's point that Hemingway, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac had all published heavily autobiographical works as fiction.
Well, yes. Because they were honest and Frey isn't. Their experiences infused their works, but when they took artistic license and added fiction to fact, they knew they couldn't publish the books as non-fiction. What Frey has done is taken a heavily autobiographic novel and published it as fact...which is the oposite of what those far superior, and intellectually honest, writers did.
And that brings us back to Frey's earlier remark, "There's nothing at this point can come out of this conversation that, that is good for me."
What an unintentionally revealing comment! It's all about Frey. Even though he's already made millions of dollars from his dishonest book, he's still just looking out for number one. Never mind all the little people who gave him their money.
To my disappointment but not surprise, Random House is sticking by Frey without caveat. What a shame that the publishing company didn't say something like: "We didn't know about the fictional sections of this book, or we might have published it differently. But we still believe it's a powerful story that can inspire readers all over the world." But maybe Random House doesn't really care whether the book is "true."
I hope that other people do care, and that honesty hasn't become an old-fashioned concept. But I'm not all that optimistic. Today, A Million Little Pieces is #3 on Amazon; yesterday, the day the news broke, it was #1.
James Frey, it would seem, is lying all the way to the bank. I do wonder, though, how he sleeps.