I Got a Way-Back Machine-- Let's Go For a Ride
Yesterday's post about Nan Talese, James Frey, and other lying bullshit artists got me thinking about that whole scandal again. I know a lot of people got sick of hearing about James Frey pretty quickly, but I still find the story absolutely fascinating-- and horrifying. Here's a man who got caught lying in a piece of creative nonfiction, but rather than admitting his wrong-doing, he tried to destroy an entire genre of literature by claiming that "everyone else is doing it"; anyone who claims to be writing about his or her own life is just as big a liar as James Frey. Anyway, as an author of a memoir and a scholar of creative nonfiction, I can't help but take that personally-- this is my livelihood this whiney little Bukowski-wannabe is fucking with, after all.
Anyway. Here, for your reading pleasure, is an open letter I wrote to Oprah Winfrey back on January 10, 2006-- the day the New York Times reported the story as revealed on The Smoking Gun. The piece was originally written to be published as a Missouri Review web editorial, but by the time the web content editor got around to looking at it, Frey had already appeared on TV and answered some of the questions raised. So I wound up putting this little piece of writing on my Livejournal blog. Oprah never replied.
Anyway-- the preface and the letter itself, as I said, was written in January, 2006. But all comments in bold are brand new, special edition, director's cut additions, exclusive to this presentation of the letter. So... Time Machine Go!
James Frey-- Worthless Fraud/ An Open Letter to Oprah
I'm not sure if you've all been following the James Frey story. He's the author of the "memoir" (and Oprah Book Club Selection) A MILLION LITTLE PIECES. I put "memoir" in quotes because much of the book is actually distortions, exaggerations, embellishments, and outright lies. The Smoking Gun reported the story over the weekend, The New York Times started reporting on it Tuesday morning, and last night Frey appeared (with his mother, no less) on Larry King Live to explain that memoir really means "a bunch of shit that I just made up with some details of my life throw in as well." That's not a verbatim quote, but that was the gist of it. Later on in the show, Oprah actually called in to offer her support to James and to reassure everyone that she still liked the book. [Obviously, this changed later. Oprah subsequently had Frey on her show again and pretty much read him the riot act and talked about feeling "betrayed." Which-- Nan Talese's objections aside-- was the right thing to do. Apparently, Frey later claimed that Oprah sold him out because "it's just business." I tend to think Oprah had more to lose by by confronting Frey and revealing that she'd been duped, but what do I know?]
Anyway, I wrote the piece that follows on Tuesday morning. I'd hoped to turn it into a Missouri Review web editorial, but the story developed so quickly that, by the time it could be considered, much of the information was already too "dated," as Frey pretty much admitted to being a fraud (thought not in so many words) and Oprah spoke up. But here, for your reading pleasure, is my Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey.
If you’re like me—and I know I am—you were disappointed to see in the January 10th edition of The New York Times an article with the headline “Best-Selling Memoir Draws Scrutiny.” Edward Wyatt reports on an article posted on The Smoking Gun website that makes a pretty compelling argument that James Frey, author of the memoir (and Oprah Book Club Selection) A Million Little Pieces, is… well… a fraud.
At this point, of course, nothing’s been proven conclusively. [At this point, though, Frey's blatant bullshittery has been proven conclusively] The Smoking Gun has alleged that Frey embellished, exaggerated, and simply made-up large portions of the violent, grim tale of his own addictions and the criminal activity that resulted from them. Frey, on the other hand, has written on his website (bigjimindustries.com): “I stand by my book, and my life, and I won't dignify this bullshit with any sort of further response." [Ha! How'd that work for you, Big Jim?] However, both The Smoking Gun and The New York Times reveal that Frey has admitted that parts of the book “were embellished… for obvious dramatic reasons.” Furthermore, Frey apparently refuses to provide records as evidence that this violent, swaggering narrative of his life is true, while The Smoking Gun provides eye-witness testimony, police reports and court records to back up their claims that Frey was not the dangerous man he claims to have been in his book. As I said, we don’t really know how this will all turn out, but for the moment Frey, his publisher, his editor, his agent, and his lawyer all refuse to comment to the newspaper of record about the allegations. So far, at least, Frey hasn’t given his fans much reason to trust him now that he’s been questioned.
I wouldn’t blame you if you were upset, Oprah (may I call you Oprah?); like anyone who reads a piece of creative nonfiction, you entered into a relationship with an author/ narrator with the understanding that the story he was relating to you really happened. Trust is a given when it comes to memoir—as readers, we assume that the memoirist won’t betray that trust, just as we don’t expect strangers we meet at a cocktail party to immediately start lying to us. By nature, we tend to assume that other people will tell us the truth, and when they don’t, we feel hurt and betrayed. That’s why the defense offered by some of Frey’s fans—“It doesn’t matter if it really happened—it’s still a good story”—is so hollow and meaningless. When one individual is conversing with another, honesty matters—whether that conversation is happening in a kitchen, in a bar, or on the page.
At this point, Oprah, you’re probably throwing your hands in the air and shouting, “To hell with this. I’m going back to focusing exclusively on dead authors who can’t do anything scandalous or humiliating anymore.” [Some of you kids may be too young to remember, but years ago novelist/essayist/egoist Jonathan Franzen made a pretty big splash when he accepted Oprah's offer to make The Corrections an Oprah Book Club Selection, then publicly bitched that Oprah's Book Club was bad for American letters (don't try to make sense of that argument-- it's vapid and intellectually dishonest). As a result, Oprah stopped selecting works written by authors who were still alive for a brief period of time, focusing instead on more canonical works.] Again, no one could blame you—if I were in your shoes, that’s probably what I would do. But I think that would be a mistake, because I’m not in your shoes. I’m in mine. And, as me, I find it very important that you continue to recognize the efforts of living writers. Especially living writers of creative nonfiction. Preferably with the initials WB. [God, I miss those shoes].
Those of us who are truly committed to writing creative nonfiction know that it’s inappropriate to embellish “for… dramatic reasons,” whether they’re obvious or not. For writers like Joan Didion, Alix Kates Shulman, Danielle Ofri, Natalia Rachel Singer, William Bradley, Abraham Verghese, Steven Church, Jamaica Kincaid, William Bradley, Scott Russell Sanders, Bob Cowser, Jr., Patricia Hampl, William Bradley, and Kay Redfield Jamison, the goal of the writing is to expose and explore a transcendent, capital-T Truth that is spoiled by “dramatic embellishment.” Furthermore, we know the Truth of—and agree with-- Tobias Wolff’s point-of-view, which he articulated in a Missouri Review interview with essayist, gadfly, and all-around neat guy William Bradley: “I do take the distinction between genres very seriously,“ Wolff said, “When I call something a memoir, it’s my understanding with the readers that they can accept this story as a chronicle of actual events as I remember them. When I call something a novel, it’s fiction… I might use colors from the same palette and use experiences from my memory and my own life, but I take off… I’m after a different type of truth, if you will, when I write fiction.” It seems like this is the kind of truth Frey was after as well; as he pointed out in a previous Times interview, he had originally considered the book a novel, but then his publisher decided to call it nonfiction. “It was written exactly as it was published,” Frey said, revealing his own carelessness when it comes to distinguishing between genres. [This, I think, is what Brian was referring to in his comment posted last night on the subject]
Oprah, I know what you’re thinking—“This young creative nonfiction writer is pleading with me out of self-interest. He wants me to select his book and make him rich. What a massive, massive dork.” But you’re wrong. No, okay, you’re right. It’s more than that, though. The fact of the matter is, if James Frey is really the liar that The Smoking Gun says he is, then he has done a considerable amount of damage to all of us who write creative nonfiction; the deceptions of one casts us all under suspicion. You, Oprah, are in a position to rectify the damage James Frey is alleged to have done by facilitating a dialogue between memoirists and readers, thus enabling the exploration and sharing of transcendent Truth.
Wishing you the best for 2006,
Can I have a car? [See, once Oprah gave every member of her studio audience a car. It's funny. Har!]
Okay. That's it. I'm re-presenting that letter here because... well, I'm still kind of pleased with it. And it still seems relevant. Nan Talese feels comfortable standing up in a roomful of nonfiction writers and saying Truth doesn't matter. The archair reviewers who have Frey's books on their Shelfari pages still feel empowered to say, "I don't know what the big deal is. Isn't the whole point of literature to TELL A GOOD STORY?! LOL!!" And my local Barnes and Nobel is still-- still!-- a year and a half, later, stocking Frey's stupid, poorly-written, lie-filled dreck in the "Autobiography" section rather than with the other novels.
Bah! James Frey is the devil! Tell your friends.