In Alberto Gonzales and Nan Talese's America, the Truth Doesn't Really Matter Much

This is going to be one of those rare blog posts where I don't talk explicitly about politics and current events. Much. Though I do want to direct you towards this story, which is concerned with the many untruths uttered by Alberto Gonzales and which asks the questions, "Is he a liar, or is he just really, really incompetent?" (Spoiler Alert: Liar). Obviously, the nation's top law enforcement official needs to be someone honest, someone who will obey the law. Certainly, we can't have someone who committed perjury occupying such an office.

Don't get me wrong-- if he were really that incompetent, it would be a really good story. I mean, if the Attorney General was a total buffoon, an inarticulate lout who's so out-of-the-loop that he can't help but make up outrageous stories before testifying in Congress, wearing a dumbfounded expression the entire time... Well, that's an Adam Sandler movie I'd go to see. I can hear the voiceover in the trailer right now: "Adam Sandler in... HOMELAND INSECURITY." And, you know, maybe someone gets hit in the balls!

As wildly entertaining as that narrative would surely be, I don't believe it, and I don't think I should believe it-- when someone in a position of authority tells us he's being honest, then he needs to be honest. And that means no lies, no matter how entertaining the fictional version might be.

Which brings us, once again, to James Frey.

I wrote about James Frey quite a bit on my old Livejournal blog last year, and I have a new piece coming out in this fall's College English that talks about him quite a bit. Some people argued that I've been too hard on him, that my standards for nonfiction are too high. Of course, I disagree. I tend to believe that Vladimir Nabokov gave memoir writers an effective formula for writing memoir when he wrote Speak, Memory almost four thousand years ago (okay-- maybe it wasn't that long; my copy's at school and I just don't feel like looking up the publication date): Memoir is a record of memory. It might not always be literally true (as memories are subjective and, at times, corruptible), but that's okay, so long as the author is accurately recording the truth as she understands and remembers it. But the moment she steps away from her memory and "embellishes" for "obvious, dramatic reasons" (to use Fray's language), then the project is no longer creative nonfiction; it's fiction.

Nan Talese-- Frey's publisher-- apparently disagrees with me, which is disappointing because I want very much to like Nan Talese, mainly because I think her husband, Gay Talese, is one of the great New Journalists. Nevertheless, though, Nan Talese doesn't quite seem to understand that there's a difference between fiction and creative nonfiction, and that the distinction matters. No, as she articulated on Saturday at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest, she feels that Frey did nothing wrong, and that those of us who get upset when someone exploits other people and lies about his own experience in order to swindle us out of our money are sanctimonious and ill-mannered.

"I'm afraid I'm unapologetic of the whole thing," she said regarding her decision to publish Frey's faux memoir A Million Little Pieces. "And the only person who should be apologetic is Oprah Winfrey," who she says exhibited "fiercely bad manners – you don't stone someone in public, which is just what she did."

That's an interesting metaphor, both for its melodrama and its inaccuracy. In fact, when one is "stoned" (in the way she describes the phenomenon), it's always a public spectacle. Anyone out there ever heard of a discreet, private stoning? I guess she meant to say you shouldn't stone someone ever (a position I can agree with), but then, that doesn't really apply to the Frey situation, does it? I mean, I'm sure he's humiliated and all, but didn't he kind of do this to himself? He published a memoir that was largely fiction-- is it really bad manners to point out when someone is obviously lying to you and a bunch of other people? If someone comes to a dinner party at my house and claims to have been the first Minnesotan to scale Mt. Everest (and now he's trying to raise money from my guests to fund his next expedition), is it really rude for me to point out that I know for a fact that this person has never lived in Minnesota, or that his description of the mountain reveals that he's never been there? It seems to me that the rude person in this situation is the liar trying to take people's money, not the person who points out the lie.

"When someone starts out and says, 'I have been an alcoholic. I have lied, I have cheated' ... you do not think this is going to be the New Testament."

Again, are there people out there who think that the New Testament is literal truth? I hate to split hairs here, but...

And let's look at the grammar in these sentences "I have been an alcoholic. I have lied. I have cheated." These sentences all apply to actions taken in the past. He's not saying-- as Lauren Slater did in her book Lying (which I also disliked, but for different reasons)-- "I am a liar." Frey deliberately misleads his audience in his memoir, which is not allowed. Talese's defense-- "You were a fool to trust him to begin with"-- is insulting in its attempt to shirk her own responsibility in this fraud.

"And so I really, really am bothered by the sanctimoniousness of Oprah Winfrey. "

Oprah may be sanctimonious-- I'm not a big fan, to be honest-- but how sanctimonious do you have to be to claim to have had a drug addiction when you didn't actually have one, then write a book telling drug addicts that recovery programs don't really work, and that the key to recovery is to just not be a pathetic weakling and take charge of one's own life? I mean, seriously. As you're involved in this exercise in smug superiority, I should think you'd want to avoid calling anyone else sanctimonious.

"I published the book, I'm proud to publish the book. ... I think it has helped a lot of people."

No you don't. No it hasn't. In fact, from what I've read, the book may have actually hurt a lot of people with its anti-treatment, do-it-yourself guide to overcoming addiction.

More from the article:

"She described the Oprah audience as 'holier-than-thou' and discussed being on the show as Mr. Frey amended his account of one character's suicide.

"'Oprah kept saying, "Did she kill herself? Did she cut her wrists?" And he said, '"No, she hung herself." And the whole audience went, "Boo! Boo!" It was like being in the Roman circus. And after I said to them, "The tragedy is not how she killed herself, it's that she killed herself," they all looked like a treeful of owls – no expressions at all. It was awful.'"

I remember that episode, actually, and one of things I clearly remember is watching Frey shift in his chair nervously, obviously trying to come up with something smart to say, before eventually saying, "She hung [sic] herself." The sense he gave was that he wasn't actually telling the truth-- or, if he was, it was simply because he couldn't come up with an effective lie. That's why the audience was booing-- his whole demeanor during the interview was shifty and untrustworthy. And let's remember, too, that at the time, his defense was a very weak, "I only lied in about 5% of the book-- that's allowed in creative nonfiction!" If people found him difficult to trust, it might be because of that claim. Once someone tells you "I only lie 5% of the time," it puts everything he says under suspicion. Even if I know he's going to tell me the truth 95% of the time, I'm still not going to trust him, because I'll never know what falls under his 5% personal dishonesty allowance.

Another reason why they might have booed him? Even if you believe his accounting of the hanging suicide, that still doesn't change the fact that, in the book, he says she slit her wrists. Why in the world would he make that change if, as Talese claims, "The tragedy is not how she killed herself, it's that she killed herself." No, for some reason Frey decided that the suicide had to be bloody, more violent, in order to get that visceral reaction from his readers. So, given that Frey made that choice in order to write a book that would appeal to the masses (even at the expense of what really happened), I think it's entirely appropriate for the audience to boo him when they discovered how crass and exploitive he really was in handling this material.

I'm assuming that this woman-- Lily, if memory serves-- really existed. Maybe she didn't, and that was part of his 5%. If that's the case, then he at least didn't exploit a real person and her tragic death. Just his readers and Oprah's viewing audience. That's slightly better, but it's still terrible.

The defenders of James Frey-- and they are legion-- usually respond with "But it's still a good story! Who cares if he made it up?" I care. If someone asks me to trust him, and I agree to trust him, then I care when that person betrays that trust. It doesn't matter if that person is a member of my family, a co-worker, a politician, or an author I'm only goint to "meet" on the page. If you tell me one thing's the truth, and it turns out you were lying, then I simply don't like you, and I think your fraud should be made known so that others know to not trust you.

I'm afraid that, in our culture, we no longer expect that people will be honest with us. We've been conditioned-- through pop culture and literature-- to expect that we're surrounded by liars. This works to our leaders' advantage-- Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales can get on TV and lie through their teeth everyday. Even their supporters know they're being dishonest. But nobody does anything because, hey, what did you expect? Of course they lied. Why wouldn't they? What does it matter, so long as we remain entertained most of the time?

It matters. Honesty is still of fundamental importance in our human interactions, no matter what James Frey, Alberto Gonzales, or Nan Talese try to tell us.

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