Falling to “Pieces”  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FULL COURT PRESS    
From AJR,   February/March 2006

Falling to “Pieces”   

A best-selling memoir unravels.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


EDITOR'S NOTE: At AJR's press time, Oprah Winfrey came to her senses and denounced James Frey.

When Jayson Blair's massive fabrication and plagiarism problems came to light, the New York Times published an astonishingly detailed — and candid — look at his transgressions. It played the story on page one and jumped to four open pages inside. Rarely has a newspaper displayed so much dirty laundry in public.

The paper also took a close look at its operations to see how a similar episode could be prevented in the future.

When USA Today found that its star reporter, Jack Kelley, was guilty of similar wrongdoing, it also ran a comprehensive report on the embarrassing situation and commissioned a thorough investigation of its own operations to see how such massive journalistic fraud could have gone undetected.

Newspapers have been plagued by fabrication problems in recent years. But they certainly take them seriously when they encounter them.

I guess the book business plays by different rules.

Take the case of Doubleday, which published the hardcover edition of "A Million Little Pieces," the memoir of one James Frey. It's the story of Frey's recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, and a particular favorite of TV book doyenne Oprah Winfrey. With a nice push from Winfrey, the book became a huge best-seller, one that resonated with many readers.

Trouble is, an investigation by The Smoking Gun Web site (thesmokinggun.com) discovered Frey's tale was a little, shall we say, enhanced. Turns out Frey had simply embellished and fabricated elements of his problems with the law.

In an appearance on "Larry King Live," Frey conceded that he had played fast and loose with the facts, but dismissed it as no big deal. In the time-honored tradition of authors caught in such straits, he played the "essential truth" card.

Frey's chicanery and his defense of an indefensible position were bad enough. But the reactions of his publisher and his No. 1 Fan were equally disturbing.

Winfrey stood by her author, calling the King show to express her undiminished support. She dismissed the contretemps as "much ado about nothing" and said she'd continue to recommend the discredited memoir.

As for Doubleday, no cries of alarm or expressions of regret were forthcoming. The Random House subsidiary said it would add an author's note to future editions explaining the content of the book. What that note will say is anyone's guess.

And don't look for any mea culpas from publishing titan Nan A. Talese, whose Doubleday imprint accepted Frey's book after it had been widely rejected. She downplayed the significance of the brouhaha in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, saying, "We are not talking about weapons of mass destruction." As for the fabrications uncovered by The Smoking Gun, Talese told the Times, "Memoir writing is not like mathematics. I am not at all dismayed. The truth is that the book has helped people enormously... There might be some facts missing."

The problem isn't the missing facts so much as the made-up facts.

Apologists for Frey have also invoked the "greater truth" defense and have suggested that memoirs are somehow exempt from the rules of nonfiction. Which is ridiculous. A memoir is supposed to be the real story of a real person's life. That's the reason Frey's book had such a profound impact on some readers. They thought this was a true-to-life account of degradation and redemption.

What's most disturbing in all of this lack of remorse and outrage — from Frey himself, from Winfrey, from Doubleday, from the "greater truth" crowd — is a stunning contempt for the importance of the truth.

Perhaps that shouldn't seem so shocking in a country so pervaded by spin — a place where politicians can repeatedly assert confidently that black is white, and pay no price — but that doesn't make it go down any easier.

There is a sense of déjà vu about the controversy. Back in 1999, Random House published a biography of Ronald Reagan by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Edmund Morris. Despite unparalleled access to the former president, Morris apparently didn't feel his material was quite sexy enough. So he inserted a fictional character who encountered the Gipper throughout his life. While quaint purists were appalled, Random House was down with the approach. It described the use of the phony character as "a unique literary method" in which the author's "biographical mind becomes in effect another character in the narrative." That's one way to look at it, I guess.

As for the latest imbroglio, the disclosure of ample fiction among the facts has hardly slowed down the Frey juggernaut. Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com reported after the controversy erupted that "Pieces" remained at the top of their charts.

That could be the saddest part of this sordid chapter.

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