I opened my New York Times Book Review yesterday and was stunned to see that James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" was still listed as the #1 best-selling nonfiction paperback book in the country.
Hello? Forget Oprah's public acknowledgement that that much of the book was a pack of lies, we've known for weeks that this work was utterly fictitious -- ie definitely not a work of nonfiction. So what does it take before a book is reclassified -- an executive order from "Pinch" Sulzberger?
According to Maureen Dowd, the Book Review's editors believe the list is "simply in the business of counting the books sold, not checking whether memoirs -- from stoned rockers or spinning politicians -- were mostly true." But no one is asking the editors to hire fact-checkers or private investigators to vet the books on the list (editors and publishers should be doing that) -- just to respond to the facts on the ground. Frey's book is not a work of nonfiction, so therefore should not be listed as a work of nonfiction. Period. The end. (Dowd helpfully suggests some potential categories it could rightly be listed under: "Non-nonfiction? Self-help and self-dramatization? Pure bunk?")
Last week, it appeared as though we'd reached a rare national consensus that truth -- actual truth, not emotional truth -- matters. If that's the case for what is contained in books, why not for what is contained in book lists?
This is all the more important because of which book "A Million Little Pieces" has prevented from being #1: Jared Diamond's "Collapse" -- a brilliant, sweeping analysis of why so many great civilizations of the past have failed.
For the last three weeks, January 15, January 22, January 29, "Collapse" has actually been the #1 bestselling nonfiction paperback in the country -- but has been listed as #2 behind Frey's work of fiction. And in bestseller lists, as in life, there is a big difference between being #1 and #2 -- both in terms of book sales and public perception.
In "Collapse," Diamond asks, "What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?" There is definitely a lesson to be learned in the collision of Diamond's landmark book with Frey's blip on the cultural radar. Is there any doubt that the more people exposed to Diamond's bracing look at the reasons societies collapse -- and its lessons for our "live for the moment" culture -- the better?
Plus, think of the message it would send about our country (or, at least, the slice of it buying and reading books) to have such an important book -- a worthy modern successor to the works of Gibbon and Toynbee -- atop the bestseller list.
"Having a book reach #1 on the New York Times bestseller list," John Brockman, Diamond's literary agent, told me, "has large consequences because the list heavily influences public taste and what readers buy. To misrepresent an acknowledged work of fiction as nonfiction, and to therefore skew the nonfiction list, is a disservice to all the authors affected, as well as to the readers of the New York Times."
Publishers scrambling into damage control mode are talking about ways to reform the system -- author's notes, publisher's notes, better fact-checking... warning stickers!
Let's start with a simple step: books made up of admitted lies should be taken off the nonfiction list.
As for making good on "Collapse's" loss of the #1 spot, how about Oprah offering up some couch time to Jared Diamond? A heart-to-heart about what we can learn from the fate of the great civilizations of the past could make for surprisingly riveting TV.