Why James Frey Matters

Some of you have written asking why I care so much about James Freys' fabrications. It's still a good book, you've said. It's helped a lot of people.

I have some personal feelings related to having written a memoir myself and also my training in the craft of journalism. But mostly, I believe that truth does matter, and I worry that our culture is stumbling down a slippery slope of reality TV, presidential spin, academic corruption and made-up memoirs in which truth is becoming malleable, obsolete and irrelevant.

Michiko Kakutani writes about this phenomenon in a similar, more eloquent vein in today's Times. Frey's book, she argues, not, however, just a case about truth-in-labeling or the misrepresentations of one author: after all, there have been plenty of charges about phony or inflated memoirs in the past, most notably about Lillian Hellman's 1973 book "Pentimento." It is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth. Indeed, Mr. Frey's contention that having 5 percent or so of his book in dispute was "comfortably within the realm of what's appropriate for a memoir" and the troubling insistence of his publishers and his cheerleader Oprah Winfrey that it really didn't matter if he'd taken liberties with the facts of his story underscore the waning importance people these days attach to objectivity and veracity.

Kakutani smartly places Frey in the context of other cultural trends, such as postmodernism, which suggest that all truth is relative and, indeed, there may be no such thing as objective truth.

The Bush White House has used similar arguments to try to discredit the mainstream press and its watch-dog role, suggesting that there is no such thing as truly independent reporting or even a set of mutually agreed upon facts, that there are no distinctions between willfully partisan hacks and reporters who genuinely strive to deliver the best obtainable truth.

This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like "credibility" and "perception" replace the old ideas of objective truth - a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability, a climate in which Ms. Winfrey can declare that the revelation that Mr. Frey made up parts of his memoir is "much ado about nothing."

Now you know why James Frey matters -- because truth is important, and the skepticism that objective truth exists doesn't stay confined to the genre of memoir, but creeps into historiography, politics, the law, and every other aspect of society. If you don't believe me -- if you think that James Frey's book helped millions, and so whatever he did is acceptable -- let's turn this around:

You weren't really alcoholic, you just say you were.

Are you sure you were raped? Maybe you just have a different perspective on a sexual encounter?

It doesn't matter if there weren't weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- there could have been.

Patrick Tillman died a hero's death.

Despite what Elie Wiesel says, the Holocaust didn't really happen. After all, his book is just a memoir.

Two plus two equals five.

You see? James Frey's game isn't hard to play. Anyone can do it, and if no one objects, soon everyone will. And the resulting cynicism, corruption, historical revisionism and violence is far more damaging to society than even the very painful -- and real -- problems of alcoholism and drug abuse.