Friday, January 27, 2006

James Frey: Big Fat Liar or Big Fat Liar like a Fox?

You know the story: James Frey wrote a "memoir" A Million Little Pieces about his fantastic transformation from alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal into a relatively normal person in recovery. It turns out most of his most harrowing adventures were either gross exaggerations or just plain made up.

Worse still, he pissed off Oprah Winfrey who had picked his book as an Oprah Club selection and defended him several times until it he finally confessed to the lies.

What did we all learn: don't piss off Oprah.

The following is a portion of the transcript of the Oprah show where Oprah Winfrey interviewed James Frey's publisher Nan Talese about the falsehoods in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.

Oprah: We asked if you, your company, stood behind James's book as a work of non-fiction at the time [it was selected as an Oprah Book Club pick.] And they said, absolutely. And they were also asked if their legal department had checked out the book. And they said yes. So in a press release sent out for the book in 2004, by your company, the book was described as "brutally honest and an altering look at addiction." So how can you say that if you haven't checked it to be sure?

Nan: You know, Oprah, I mean, I think this whole experience is very sad. It's very sad for you. It's very sad for us.

Oprah: It's not sad for me. It's embarrassing and disappointing for me.

Nan: I do not know how you get inside another person's mind.

Oprah: Well, this is my point, Nan. Otherwise then anybody can just walk in off the street with whatever story they have and say this is my story.

Nan: This is absolutely true…

Oprah: That needs to change.

Nan: No, you cannot stop people from making up stories. We learn by stories.

Oprah: You can if you call it a memoir. You can make up stories and call them novels. People have done it for years.

Nan: A novel is something different than a memoir. And a memoir is different from an autobiography. A memoir is an author's remembrance of a certain period in his life. Now, the responsibility, as far as I am concerned, is does it strike me as valid? Does it strike me as authentic? I mean, I'm sent things all the time and I think they're not real. I don't think they're authentic. I don't think they're good. I don't believe them. In this instance, I absolutely believed what I read.

Oprah: So did I.

A lot of bloggers have mentioned this story because a lot of bloggers dream of selling a memoir of their own one day. I am actually one of those dreamers. I don't think I will be writing a "memoir" or an "autobiography" because, frankly, I haven't lived through the kind of surreal existence that would make for interesting reading.

Neither, apparently, did James Frey.

Jocelyn of The Smussyolay, however, seems to have that very type of story to tell. Okay, maybe not the over-the-top "root canal without Novocain" way, but I'm sure it will have parts which will be exceptional – which is why I want to read it!

I would hate to think that publishers would scurry away from the "moving, inspirational memoir" genre (such that it is) based on this one literary confidence man.

Memoir or autobiography or "based on a sorta made up story," James Frey is a putz but he doesn't strike me as a sociopath or a criminal genius. He lied and he had to keep telling lies to cover his first series of lies and, as always happens, the truth came out. I feel a little sorry for the guy but he deserves a heaping helping of ridicule.

I will tip my hat to him for going back on Oprah's show and taking his beating. I was going to type "like a man" and then I felt a twinge of political correctness creep into my brief editing process and removed it. Then I remembered that his publisher, who is a chick, looks like the worst kind or corporate weasel. I don't think that the reaction is gender based; it's probably liability based (and while he is a freelancer, she probably wants to keep her job so I guess I'm not going to blame her either).

This post won't have the satisfying "wrapped up like a bow" ending for which I strive. I don't really know how to feel about the million little lies.

My wife Kelli's response was "what's the big deal? If it was a good book, then isn't it still a good book?" And in that, she is correct. Time Magazine staff writer Joel Stein said much the same thing:

"It's wrong and immoral to pass off a piece of fiction as a memoir, and I wouldn't do it.

"You know, I felt like he was a liar and a weasel. But the more I thought about it, I still loved the book. When I found out a lot of it had been made up, it didn't really change how I felt about the text. But it certainly changed how I felt about the author."

So, kind reader, do me a favor. If you haven't bought A Million Little Pieces, please don't. Instead buy a book by David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs or John Cowart or even Danielle Steel.

Or tuck those couple bucks away for when the Smussyolay book comes out. You'll want to buy that one, I'm certain.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh come on, please! Your wife is right, the rest of it's a pissing contest about celebrity. Take a look at this.

TEN33GIRL said...

Thank you so much for including Joel Stein's comment. I agree with him completely.

Evil Minx said...

Kelli's right, (well -- she is your wife, she's likely to be right about 99% of the time...), in that it is a good story. And yes, James Frey is a putz.

BUT...

It's the whole fact that he purported to be writing from personal experience. Once he began to defraud innocent people of their hard-earned cash, he stopped being a putz, and became an outright criminal. And i cannot stop being completely pissed off at that.

Just. Can't.

AM said...

Ironically, E, she WOULD have that "the over-the-top "root canal without Novocain" way" thing going - she has done ALL her dental work without Novocain!! If I wasn't living with her at the time and nearly passing out from "vicarious" pain, I wouldn't believe it.

But you're right - I'll buy the book, too.

smussyolay said...

here's the deal. i definitely felt the same way (what's the big deal) when it seemed like it was a few trivial details that he exaggerated. now that it seems like a lot of the stuff is outright bullshit, i think ... wow. that sucks. the guy is a liar.

i read both his books long before all this stuff came out. i think they're good, compelling reads. i don't think that they should have been sold as truth if they weren't. i think he got caught, and that sucks.

HOWEVER, i also think (i did not see the show, but i've heard some about it), that oprah ran him through the wringer because she wanted to make herself look good. cause she's also got a product line to uphold and maintain, and because i think she went and defended his ass on larry king and now she was really made to look the fool.

and NO ONE makes oprah look the fool. so she fucking tore him a new asshole on television. also not the mark of a real classy lady. she could have just owned up to HER part of things, and left it at that. but why do that when you can bring the miserable guy out and rip him a new one?

i think there's lots of crap to get up in arms about IF you want to.

i still have signed copies of both books, so whatever. and when i write mine, it's not going to be lies, so i have nothing to worry about.

Jeff said...

I'm strangely aroused by Oprah.

I wonder what that means...

Deb said...

Yeah, go get some David Sedaris. He ROCKS!

Ripley said...

As a writer, I cannot begin to express my disappointment and disgust that this kind of thing has and will most assuredly happen in the future.

I am sick to death that every time something good happens in life that gives people something to grab a hold of (such as writing one's memoirs and actually finding success in writing), there's always someone (some %@$#*!$ jerk) to come along and take advantage.

This "Frey Lie" example will surely make things harder for the rest of us.

-Ripley

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