worlds collide: A Published Author Gets Checked by Online Reporting -- Blogs and Oprah Chime In

by Sid Steward

Related link: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0104061jamesfrey1.html




This comes to my attention from Publishers Weekly, which covers the book industry and offers breaking news. I haven't delved deep into the topic myself, but rely on these sources, below.



From James Gets Frey-ed in Blogosphere:



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It looks as though James Frey's "haters" and "doubters" are coming out in ever greater numbers. The response to the damning expose published by The Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com) claiming key elements of the author's bestselling, Oprah-backed memoir A Million Little Pieces (along with its follow-up, My Friend Leonard) were either exaggerated or wholly fabricated, has hit the media and the blogosphere with quite a thud. After PW reported Monday on The Smoking Gun piece, the major media outlets ran with the story in full force on Tuesday (articles appeared in The New York Times, The AP, Reuters and USA Today among others), while Frey's fans and readers reacted to the scandal on various online message boards.


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The cited expose is The Man Who Conned Oprah, which says:




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Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey's book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw "wanted in three states."


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This is an issue only because the book is sold as truthful non-fiction. The blogs suggest that many readers feel betrayed.



I almost find it humorous. Readers are upset that this crummy guy ("430 pages chronicling every grimy and repulsive detail of his formerly debased life") might also be a con man (or, rather, a con man instead of the described crummy guy). If I had read the book, however, I might not find this funny at all. I understand the book is supposed to be about redemption -- seems it was really about money. That's a dirty trick. Or, rather, new fuel for my cynicism.


The capper would be for the author to now write a book about conning readers into buying his books -- like Malcolm McClaren's Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle ... Okay, make it a movie, not a book.



Today, Publisher Weekly reports: Frey Backs Book, Winfrey Backs Frey:




Although he acknowledged on the Larry King Show last night that he changed certain details in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, James Frey insisted that the essence of his story—of how he overcame years of addiction—was true. That stance was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey who called the King show just before it went off the air to say she viewed the controversy "as much ado about nothing." She said that while some details may have been altered, Frey’s message of redemption "still resonates with me and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read the book." Winfrey somewhat distanced herself from the uproar over the book's authenticity by pointing out that she relies on publishers to vouch for the accuracy of their works. She challenged publishers to more closely examine what they classify as fiction and nonfiction.


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... Geoff Shandler, editor-in-chief of Time Warner Books's Little, Brown imprint, said, more than anything else, he was disheartened to see support for Frey's work continuing, despite the now overwhelming evidence that key elements of it were greatly exaggerated and/or entirely fictionalized. "As someone who works on a lot of nonfiction…to hear folks say this is OK because that's the nature of memoir, that's upsetting," Shandler said. "There is a huge difference between subjective recall and flat out fabrication," he added, noting that those defending A Million Little Pieces by saying Frey did what any author does, embellish the facts to make for a better read, are essentially offering up "an ends justify the means argument."


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Among booksellers the consensus seemed to be that, if anything, the scandal might help the already-strong sales of A Million Little Pieces and its follow-up, My Friend Leonard. As Tom Steadman, owner of The Book Depot in Mayetta, NJ, put it, "the more controversy, the better it will sell." Steadman pointed out that the first he heard of the scandal was from a customer who bought AMLP explicitly because of the media coverage it's now getting.


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So a fraud becomes a bestseller, and its expose becomes a PR event. That is disheartening.


The interesting part is that traditional media has advanced the fraud, and the online media (it appears) has advanced the truth. Mad crowds notwithstanding, might this be a trend? Or does social media simply like to criticise?






Update (1/17/06)


Here is a helpful report on the topic:


Why James Frey Doesn't Get It by author Heather King.



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Now that the accusations of lying have surfaced and I've actually read the book, I see the differences go even deeper. Drama is the movement from narcissism to humility, but Frey is exactly the same at the end of his story—minus the drugs—as he is at the beginning: an insecure braggart without a spark of vitality, gratitude or fun. "A ballsy, bone-deep memoir," Salon.com called it, but for any alcoholic worth his or her salt, throwing up blood, puking on oneself, and committing petty-ass crimes in and of themselves couldn't be bigger yawns. What's gritty is the moment, knowing you're dying, when the world turns on its axis and you realize My way doesn't work. What's ballsy isn't just egomaniacally recounting your misdeeds; it's taking the trouble to find the people you've screwed over, looking them in the eye, and saying you're sorry. What's bone-deep—or might have been if Frey had done it—is figuring out that other people suffer, too, and developing some compassion for them. Oprah speaks of "the redemption of James Frey"—but redeemed from what, and by whom? Sobriety, in my experience, isn't the staged melodrama of sitting in a bar and staring down a drink to prove you've "won"—as Frey does upon leaving rehab. It's the ongoing attempt, knowing in advance you'll fall woefully short, to order your life around honesty, integrity, faith.


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As John Cheever said, "I lie, in order to tell a greater truth." But Frey lied to tell a lesser truth: he lied to make himself look like a hero. He lied—about the crimes he supposedly perpetrated and the tragedies that befell him—because on the one hand he wants the reader to feel sorry for him, and on the other he wants to be held in awe. ...






Update (1/26/06)


Oprah takes Frey to task, publisher too:



James Frey and publishing standards were both in the hot seat this morning when Oprah Winfrey brought in the author and his editor Nan Talese to talk about the controversey swirling around Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Saying she felt "duped" by Frey, Winfrey said she had allowed her feelings about the book and Frey's strong relationship with her producers to cloud her judgement about the author when she called in to defend him on the Larry King Show earlier this month. "I made a mistake and left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that," Winfrey said.


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