Monday, January 30, 2006

Oprah giveth, and Oprah taketh away

It's been talked about too much already, but I wanted to weigh in anyway. And then I'm done.

Last Thursday, Oprah dragged James Frey onto her set and had him answer to the charges that he lied his way through his memoir A Million Little Pieces. He caved and admitted an authorial flourish here and there and there and over there too. She had defended him before, and now she's embarrassed. Her response...? To have all witness her wrath: Tear open a new asshole for Frey in front of millions of Americans and in front of a rather revenge-as-applause-happy audience.

My position on Frey's embellishing of the truth and then selling it as memoir is maybe a little fluid. I would argue that no memoir is an absolute truthful representation of events; how can one remember entire pages of dialogue word for word from their childhood? You can bet that memoirists and nonfiction writers up the ante to add energy and forward momentum (to make things more dramatic, to make things more comedic) to their stories. It's natural, and it's an elemental part of storytelling. Frey did stretch the truth too far in his book, and I think people are coming down on him harder than he deserves. This doesn't exactly excuse him from fabricating events and then backing them up, lying that they were true after the scrutiny came down. Aside from this, does it matter that he lied, in terms of the entertainment value of literature? Oprah chose his book because of the power of the writing (though I'm sure she chose it too in part believing it to be nonfiction), and nobody is arguing that his writing is awful. People are just getting hung up on the facts. Too bad the backlash turn out isn't as strong in the case of presidential administrations fabricating events. Frey got targeted because he was unfortunate to have the bright light of fame shined on him, and that light found a few skeletons in the editor's closet. The word 'unfortunate' might have a mixed meaning though: his career in publishing is likely over, but his financial security is not. At the time of this writing, A Million Little Pieces sits pretty as the #5 bestseller on

So, was it appropriate for Oprah to haul him in and rake him over the coals as a testament to her almighty power? She even had the man thanking her when it was all over. I think maybe she could've have issued a statement of her disappointment and regret instead, because the whole public-bludgeoning thing might have been a bit impulsive. She did it to protect her name, which I respect, and then so stamped out the fire that got started.... and kept stamping until she made sure it was out. At least there is life for the guy, even after Oprah's seal of approval has been stripped from every last copy of Pieces in print. Soon all this will be banished to the vaults for use only by end-of-the-decade television specials.

she can film it has already put it nicely, and there was a minor noise-contigency in reply to that post. I agree that why not simply mention that fictional elements had been added to the book (à la Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius)? Although unlikely that we'll see Pieces scuttled over to the fiction bookshelves, fledgling memoirists will likely take this as a cue to be a little more specific when advertising their books to publishers.


Writeprocrastinator said...

"Too bad the backlash turn out isn't as strong in the case of presidential administrations fabricating events."

Excellent point, why doesn't Oprah take President Shrub to task on her show, as long as she is demanding that the truth be told?

What better forum than a show where millions who don't want to confront policital and economic realities of the evening news, will eagerly watch any story that Oprah presents, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them feel?

J.J. Gittes said...

Last night, The Daily Show had a spectacular piece on the Frey/Oprah (Froprah) situation that essentially said, "We can destroy this dumb shit author for lying to us. With the help of Oprah and ravenous media, we can bury him so he'll never hurt us again. But we'll just let our government get away with things that are a million times worse."

Laurenhoffman said...

No memoir is absolute truth. The concern of the memoirist, oftentimes, is with depicting emotional truth, rather than presenting facts. It's not biography. I can see some of the choices that Frey made as being not lies, but rather a presentation of how things felt. Things were "as bad as" getting a root canal without pain meds. But he did cross a line with other misrepresentations. I want to reread the book (which I liked, but didn't love, the first time around) and see what bearing "all of this" has on my opinion of it. I don't think that this is enough to "ruin" the book for me. It's not like finding out Frank McCourt grew up wealthy in Scarsdale.
But yeah...I really, really don't get the fact that this has turned into Freygate. Dying soldiers in Iraq, kids? It doesn't seem worthy of this much media attention and hullabaloo, let alone the presence of the entire literary and journalistic community turning up on Oprah to help Lady O bitch slap Frey.

is that so wrong? said...

LaurenH nailed it, being she is somewhat of an authority on the subject of nonfiction. Can't wait to hear how reading #2 of Pieces musters up.

Okay, it goes without saying that Oprah's far-reaching power to expose her audience to a variety of topics is probably one of the great media of communication we have, interestingly enough. I guess one can argue that Oprah doesn't tackle political issues because of the potential of alienating some of her audience base. But will she really alienate them? I'm inclined to think that the America that watches her is more inclined to follow her lead than the disturbingly untouchable current presidential administration. Just imagine, though, what would happen if Oprah incited America to take a closer look at the questionable politics that this country has started to fingerpaint with. That would be revolutionary television.

oh, and "Froprah" = hilarious.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I don't even know how many times I've now posted the following statement on a blog...

Are we really such stupid readers that we don't know "memoirs" is somebody's version of the facts, not the facts themselves?

..nice to see a blog that is, at least, near the same ballpark I'm standing in.

Dale said...

This is why I'm waiting until everyone I know dies to publish my mem-wah!