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American Journalism Review
Faking It  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2006

Faking It   

A best-selling memoirist made up some of the details. But that’s OK, he reassures us—some of it’s true. And Oprah’s still down with it. Posted Jan. 12, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder ( is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Give me a break.

Here we go again. Someone writing alleged nonfiction is caught making things up. But it's fine, the author tells us. After all, it's mostly true.

Now there's a great standard.

Our latest embellisher is James Frey, author of the bestselling "memoir" "A Million Little Pieces." It's the story of Frey's battles with drug and alcohol addiction and his recovery.

But apparently Frey didn't feel his story was quite lively enough. According to an investigation by the Web site The Smoking Gun, he exaggerated and made up some of the more dramatic aspects of his account. The Web site says the author "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states.' "

In an effort at damage control, Frey took to the airwaves, appearing on CNN with the always sympathetic Larry King on Wednesday night to get his message out.

And what a message it was.

According to USA Today, Frey said he stood by the "essential truths" of his book. "This is a truthful retelling of my story," Frey said. "The primary focus of the book is not crime, but drug and alcohol addiction."

Fine. So why not stick to the battle with the demons-the facts-and not make stuff up? This is always the defense in these cases: Don't sweat the details. It's the big picture that counts.

What complete nonsense.

The situation is really quite simple: You want to make things up, write a novel. But if you bill something as a "memoir," how about limiting yourself to the facts, even if they aren't quite as sexy as you would like them to be?

But not to worry. Only 18 pages of his 432-page book are "in dispute," Frey reassures us. That's an "appropriate ratio for a memoir."

Equally appalling is the reaction of Frey's No. 1 fan, Oprah Winfrey. "A Million Little Pieces" is a selection of Oprah's ever-popular book club. ("For two nights this man kept Oprah awake!" her Web site gushes.)

So how did the TV goddess respond to the news that her idol has feet of clay? Was she appalled that he played fast and loose with the facts?

Not so much. According to USA Today, she regards the dispute as "much ado about nothing." The story, she says, still resonates with readers.

Truth, schmuth.



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