A public figure admitting they made a mistake? Stunning. On her show today, Oprah flat out said that she was wrong about James Frey and that the truth does matter. For an hour she dragged Frey over the coals for lying to her and a million plus others who not only believed "the essential truth" of his memoir, but the literal truth about his fight against addiction. Frey gets credit for going on the show to take his medicine like a man, though still doesn't seem to quite get it, what with his meek mumbling about learning from his mistakes.
Publishing in general smells pretty rotten. Frey's publisher, Nan Talese (whose cellphone went off during the show, causing Oprah's head to almost go into orbit) basically took the "truthiness defense," saying that she "absolutely believed what I read." So did a lot of Talese's customers. Does belief obviate a legal review? Or how about the most cursory of background checks? No red flags were raised by a manuscript that had first been submitted as fiction? The Smoking Gun started unraveling the Frey ball of yarn when they couldn't find a mug shot, nor any reference to "criminal with a big C" Frey's life of crime. For a poetry book I published last year, the house lawyer made the poet change a reference to a TV reporter whom she had slept with in college, before they were both married. A book of poetry. So how did something as salacious as Frey's bloody book get a free pass? Talese's cellphone and condescending tone toward Oprah and her audience--lecturing her on the difference between a novel, a memoir, and an autobiography--didn't help.
Give Oprah a lot of credit for admitting she was wrong, and doing so publicly. Imagine if George Bush admitted that he was wrong, just once, about anything. He could buy a whole lot of credit with one little mea culpa.
Lost in the Frey is an utterly mesmerizing story about "Navajo" writer "Nasdijj," author of--you guessed it--three gritty memoirs about death on the reservation. All were well-received and well-reviewed, and the last one, The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping, won the PEN/Beyond Margins Award in 2004. Unlike the nonexistent "J.T. Leroy," "Nasdijj" is a real person. He is white guy from Michigan with the real name Tim Barrus and before he started writing as "Nasdijj" Barrus was a semi-successful gay porn writer, author of the leather S&M "classic" Mineshaft. (Does he know Jeff Gannon?) A real Native American writer, Sherman Alexie, saw through "Nasdijj" from the start, but few, including "Nasdijj's" publisher, listened to Alexie. "The backbone of multicultural literature," says Alexie, "is the empathy of its audience--their curiosity for the condition of a group other than themselves. Nasdijj is taking advantage of that empathy."
The same can be said about "J.T. Leroy" and James Frey. We all want to empathize with the exploited former street kid with AIDS and the recovering addict and the Navajo whose life seems grim and violent yet he perseveres. Publishers want to cash in on our empathy and in their rush of "belief," the truth has been left by the curb. Maybe, just maybe, in the wake of Frey, "Leroy" and "Nasdijj," publishers will now vet their latest "outsider" writer. And, maybe, just maybe George Bush will apologize for something.