Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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How Oprah Winfrey and James Frey Got Into Big Trouble
Part 1 of the series: Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
Posted for Monday, January 30, 2006
By now I expect that most of my readers are aware of the recent scandal involving Oprah Winfrey and James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. If you're not, or if the facts are a bit hazy for you, let me supply a brief summary of events.
|In April 2003, Random House published A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. This books was purportedly a true account of Frey's experience as an addict, and was called a memoir. The book sold well on its own. But sales went through the roof after Oprah Winfrey gave her imprimatur to the book, choosing it as one of her book club entries, and having the author on her show on October 26, 2005. Frey's book sold more than 3.5 million copies, and was at the top of the New York Times nonfiction best seller list for a few months.
Although suspicions about the truthfulness (or, should I say, truth-less-ness) of A Million Little Pieces have been around for some time (see this article from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune), Frey wasn’t fully outed until The Smoking Gun website published its definitive exposé, showing that vast portions and key incidents in Frey's supposed memoir had no basis in fact. In fact, Frey had initially tried to sell the manuscript of A Million Little Pieces as a novel, but when this failed, he switched to the "memoir" genre. It was picked up by Nan Talese, a highly regarded publisher with Doubleday/Random House.
In the aftermath of The Smoking Gun story, Frey appeared on Larry King Live to defend himself and his book. (You can read the transcript here.) He seemed not the least sorry for what he had done, defending his right to his perceptions of his own life, however far from reality they might in fact be.
In the middle of that interview, Oprah herself called in to defend Frey. Oprah seemed to acknowledge that something wasn't quite right with calling A Million Little Pieces a memoir, but she put the blame for this misnomer fully on the shoulders of the publisher:
So the truth is this. I read and recommend books based on my connection with the written word and its message. And, of course, I am disappointed by this controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces, because I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work.
Oprah when on to say:
And I feel about "A Million Little Pieces" that although some of the facts have been questioned -- and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book. . . .
Whether or not the cars' wheels rolled up on the sidewalk or whether he hit the police officer or didn't hit the police officer is irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil, from the time he was 10 years old, drinking and -- and tormenting himself and his parents.
And, out of that, stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today, and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves. That's what's important about this book and his story.
When Larry King asked if she would continue to recommend the book, Oprah responded: "Yes. Yes."
Although many lovers of A Million Little Pieces agreed with Oprah, both she and James Frey came under heavy fire from commentators and critics. Oprah, in particular, was accused of showing little concern for the truth. Her argument seemed to be, "If a supposedly true story touched my heart, then I don't care if that supposedly true story turns out to be substantially false." Oprah had succumbed to blatant subjectivism.
But the chorus of criticism appears to have altered Oprah's opinion on the matter. Cynics say she changed her tune simply to preserve her social and financial position. But, be that as it may, on January 26, 2006 James Frey appeared once again on Oprah's television show, this time to endure her wrath rather than enjoy her adulation. (I have not found a complete online transcript of the show, but extensive excerpts can be found on Oprah's website.) She began her interview with Frey by stating:
James Frey is here and I have to say it is difficult for me to talk to you because I feel really duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers. I think it's such a gift to have millions of people to read your work and that bothers me greatly. So now, as I sit here today I don't know what is true and I don't know what isn't.
Later, when Frey attempted to downplay his deception, this dialogue ensued:
Frey: Since that time I've struggled with the idea of it…"
Oprah: No, the lie of it. That's a lie. It's not an idea, James. That's a lie.
Yikes! I sure don't want to make Oprah Winfrey mad at me.
The next person to visit her woodshed, oh, I mean, show, was Nan Talese, an executive of Doubleday/Random House and the publisher of A Million Little Pieces. Talese was much less willing than Frey to admit that she had done anything wrong. Now, Random House has issued an official statement, including a modest admission of wrongdoing and a weak pseudo-apology. Officially, Random House says: "We bear a responsibility for what we publish, and apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion surrounding the publication of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES." Notice: No apology for a lack of fact checking. No apology for printing fiction as if it were fact. No apology for taking people's money under false pretenses. Simply an apology for "unintentional confusion."
In the next couple of days I want to offer some reflections on the controversy over A Million Little Pieces. I do not intend to hammer further on James Frey, who has finally admitted that he lied, or Oprah, who redeemed herself quite honorably, no matter what her true motivations might be. But I do think there are some important lessons to be learned here for all of us.
I want to begin my reflections by explaining my strange connection to Oprah, James Frey, and the truth. In two ironic and telling ways, I am only three degrees of separation away from the Oprah/Frey controversy. Stay tuned for the details . . . .
Three Degrees of Separation, Network #1
Part 2 of the series: Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
Posted for Tuesday, January 31, 2006
I expect you've heard the "six degrees of separation" thesis, namely that every person on earth is connected to every other person by a relationship chain of no more than five intermediaries. (If not, or if you want the facts, check out this Wikipedia article). Well, as it turns out, I'm connected to the Oprah Winfrey and James Frey by only two intermediaries, thus being three degrees of separation away from them and their recent scandal. In fact, I have at least two relational paths that join me to Oprah and Frey.
I'm not trying to brag or anything. In fact most people could make the same claim if they only knew how their acquaintances were networked to others, who were networked to others, etc. But the ways in which I'm related to Oprah and Frey are curious and telling. They provide, for me, anyway, an interesting perspective on this whole scandal.
Three Degrees of Separation, Network #1
In the interest of truth and full-disclosure, I'll admit that I've broken the "degrees of separation" rules in Network #1, because the relationship chain between me and Oprah/Frey has to do not with people but with companies. In the panel above, the deer logo is from my publisher, WaterBrook Press, which has published my last three books. WaterBrook, a Christian company, is owned by Random House, which has a house as its corporate logo. Random House is the publisher of A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, through Doubleday/Nan Talese/Anchor. So, in a sense, both James Frey and I have the same publisher. In fact, ironicall, enough, I just received my 1099 tax form from Random House today. (James Frey probably received his 1099 today too. I'll bet his Random House earnings in 2005 were about 1000 times more than mine, literally. But at least I didn't get chewed out by Oprah!)
Okay, so apart from being some nifty bit of trivia, why is my connection to Frey through Random House worth mentioning? Because, my experience as a non-fiction writer (truly!) working with a Random House company was almost completely different from that of James Frey when it comes to the matter of truthfulness. His publisher was willing to accept his account at face value, even when he claimed to have experienced things that were truly incredible and seemed to beg for additional evidence. But there was no fact checking, no corroboration. Just blind trust.
When WaterBrook Press edited my first manuscript with them (Jesus Revealed), it almost seemed to me as if I were guilty of falsehood until being proven innocent. For every single quotation in the book I was asked to submit, not only the precise bibliographical reference, but also a photocopy of the original or an Internet link. When I protested that I didn't have some of this information, I was encouraged to go to the library and get it, which I did. WaterBrook, I was told, wanted to make sure that every jot and tittle was correct, without exception.
Since Jesus Revealed was filled with lots of personal stories, WaterBrook wanted to know if these stories were true. I explained that they were in every case, though I sometimes changed names and incidental details to protect the identities of certain people. (Frey says that he did the same thing in A Million Little Pieces.) We decided to declare this on the copyright page, where it now reads: "The author has made every effort to ensure the truthfulness of the stories and anecdotes in this book. In a few instances, names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the persons involved."
Why, I wonder, would one subsidiary of Random House have such a high commitment to truthfulness, while another does not? I'm tempted to say that this can be explained, in part, by the Christian values of the WaterBrook staff. They do not think that truth is merely a matter of personal perception. Rather, they tend to think in more objective terms. Had James Frey's book ended up with his Christian conversion, such that it might have been published by WaterBrook, there's no way in heaven he would have gotten the free ride he received from the Nan Talese label. Of course he'd probably have sold a few million less books, too.
Yet it's not only Christian publishers that have high regard for the truth. Last year I was mentioned briefly in a New Yorker article on Hugh Hewitt, my friend and fellow blogger. (No online version, sorry.) As I recall, I was included in one sentence of an article of several thousand words. Before that New Yorker story ran, I received a call from a magazine staff person. He was checking facts. He and I spent at least five minutes on the phone together. He asked about many things that never appeared in the article, concerning me and concerning Hugh. I mentioned that he was thorough. His answer was something like, "At the New Yorker we are committed to getting everything right." I was impressed.
Fact checking like this isn't fun. It takes time (in my case as I had to go back to the library and do some photocopying). It takes money (in the case of the New Yorker). And, frankly, it can feel like a big hassle. But if one is writing non-fiction, I believe that both writer and publisher have a responsibility to make sure the facts are right.
Now, of course, the shape of stories and the choice of facts will reflect a given writer's perspectives and biases. My personal stories in Jesus Revealed were carefully crafted to make the points I wanted to make. But this postmodern insight in no way relieves me of the duty to make sure my non-fiction stories are essentially truthful. I might change a name in a story from Bob to Bill to protect Bob's identity. But I wouldn't change Bob Smith's name to Bill Gates in order to make the story more fascinating or sell more books.
Admittedly, there are lots of judgment calls to be made here, both by authors and by publishers. But these decisions will be wisely made, I believe, when authors and publishers have a strong, fundamental commitment to truthfulness.
I unpack the notion of essential truthfulness more thoroughly in my book, Dare to Be True
It seems like James Frey has learned his lesson in this regard. I'm not so sure about Random House. In my opinion, the larger company might do well to learn from its subsidiary, WaterBrook Press, when it comes to the issue of truth in non-fiction books.
Three Degrees of Separation, Network #2
Part 3 of the series: Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
Posted for Wednesday, February 1, 2006
Yesterday I described one way in which I'm three degrees separated from the Oprah Winfrey and James Frey controversy. This was an institutional connectedness, linked through Random House publishing. My point was to contrast the stringent fact checking of my Random House subsidiary, WaterBrook Press, with the looseness of the Doubleday/Nan A. Talese label. Today I will introduce the other way in which I am separated by only three degrees from this scandal.
The two intervening people in the graphic above are a husband and wife, Gay and Nan Talese. Gay Talese is a best-selling author of non-fiction (!) books, including Honor Thy Father and Thy Neighbor's Wife. Nan A. Talese is the Random House VP who published James Frey's A Million Little Pieces under her personal Nan A. Talese/Doubleday label.
I suppose I'm stretching the rules of "degrees separated" once again by claiming Gay Talese as an acquaintance. He and I are not even casual friends. But, 25 years ago, Mr. Talese and I had a very public argument about his book Thy Neighbor's Wife. It happened on a television talk show in Boston, Massachusetts. Talese was making the rounds to promote his new book, which was quite controversial at the time. The controversy had to do not only with the content, an investigation into sexual deviancy in America, but also with the way in which Talese had done his investigation. He didn't just observe various forms of sexual indecency and interview practitioners. Rather, Talese became a participant in many such actions. For example, he didn't merely write about adultery as an observer, but became an adulterer himself as he did his research.
Not surprisingly, Thy Neighbor's Wife received lots of bad press, not only from critics, but also from lots of decent Americans who were shocked by Gay Talese's open admission, one might even say, glorification of his own sexual immorality. This point was raised during the talk show where I was a member of the audience. Talese explained that he was not making any moral statement about sex in his book. He had committed adultery in a variety of ways, not because he was being unfaithful to his wife in the ordinary sense, but because he was doing research. He rejected the criticism that his book was advocating sexual immorality.
At this point in the conversation I shot up my hand and, lo and behold, found myself with a microphone in my face. I said, "Mr. Talese, I believe you when you say you aren't intending to promote sexual immorality in your book. But, usually, when a person does some action considered by others to be wrong and then doesn't admit error, we understand that person to be making a moral claim through his or her behavior and lack of apology. You admit to committing adultery in doing your research, and you have also said that you didn't do anything wrong. So we naturally understand that you are making an implicit, obvious moral claim here. At a minimum, your argument is that in some cases – when one is doing research – adultery isn't wrong."
Talese responded by reiterating his point that he was only doing research, and therefore his sexual experiences were neither wrong nor advocacy of such behavior. I shot back, "If you were writing a book about rape, would it be morally neutral for you to rape somebody in your research?" Of course the answer would be "No," and I'm quite sure Talese believed this. My question pointed out the shallowness in his ethical position.
At that Mr. Talese became unglued. Rather than dealing with my ethical argument, he attacked me personally. He accused me of being too young to understand the intricacies of marriage. He assured me that later in life I would be unfaithful to my wife so I had no reason to be self-righteous. His voice was loud and his tone very angry. Then we cut to commercial, and that was the end of our dialogue.
One of the things that struck me about that encounter was Talese's apparent lack of reflection about ethics. Though he was a sophisticated writer, he a very non-sophisticated ethicist. And when I confronted him with a simple moral argument – committing adultery under the guise of research is not amoral – his only recourse was to emotion and attack.
Tomorrow I'll move from Gay to Nan Talese, and her conversation with Oprah. We'll see how her responses to Oprah's moral arguments were both like and unlike those of her husband in his argument with me. Then I'll suggest some things we might learn from watching the Taleses as they confront, or don't confront, moral issues.
Three Degrees of Separation, Network #2 (continued)
Part 4 of the series: Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
Posted for Thursday, February 2, 2006
Yesterday I began to explain another way in which I'm connected by three degrees of separation to the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey scandal. This relational channel passes through Gay Talese (the author) and Nan Talese (his wife and publisher of Frey's A Million Little Pieces). In 1981, I had a brief, on-the-air argument with Gay Talese concerning the ethics of his having engaged in sexual immorality as part of his research for the book, Thy Neighbor's Wife. Talese had argued that his actions were morally neutral because he was doing research. When I challenged him with an ethical argument and illustration, he became enraged and attacked me personally.
Now, cut to Oprah Winfrey's recent conversation with Nan A. Talese, wife of Gay and publisher of A Million Little Pieces. Oprah grilled Mrs. Talese concerning her naïve acceptance of the incredible elements of Frey's story without checking to see whether they were actually true or not. Talese explained that she took Frey at his word, without asking if he was telling the whole truth or checking to see if his astounding "facts" were true. Finally, Oprah pressed even harder:
Oprah: We asked if you, your company, stood behind James's book as a work of non-fiction at the time. And they said, absolutely. And they were also asked if their legal department had checked out the book. And they said yes. So in a press release sent out for the book in 2004, by your company, the book was described as "brutally honest and an altering look at addiction." So how can you say that if you haven't checked it to be sure?
Nan: You know, Oprah, I mean, I think this whole experience is very sad. It's very sad for you. It's very sad for us.
Nan A. Talese on the left, next to James Frey and Oprah.
Oprah: It's not sad for me. It's embarrassing and disappointing for me.
Nan: I do not know how you get inside another person's mind.
Oprah: Well, this is my point, Nan. Otherwise then anybody can just walk in off the street with whatever story they have and say this is my story.
Nan: This is absolutely true.
Oprah: That needs to change.
Nan: No, you cannot stop people from making up stories. We learn by stories.
Unlike her husband in his televised dialogue with me, Nan Talese did not attack the one who challenged her ethics. But, like her husband, she seemed unable or unwilling to deal with the ethical issues placed before her. When Oprah kept on pressing, Mrs. Talese said, "I think this whole experience is very sad." There it is: no more ethical discussion, just emotion. Of course it is sad that Nan Talese would publish as true a "memoir" with many embellished, fictional elements. But it's more than sad. It's also wrong.
In the end, Nan Talese tried to bail herself out by offering a couple of implied moral arguments. Argument #1 would be:
Premise: You cannot stop people from making up stories.
Conclusion: Therefore, a publisher is morally exonerated by publishing made up stories as if they were true..
I think Talese's premise is true. People do make up stories. And they also have faulty memories. So it's quite likely that a manuscript of a memoir would include falsehoods. Given this assumption, however, shouldn't a publisher exercise even more due diligence when faced with a memoir that includes lots of fantastic stories (The case of my publisher, Random House subsidiary WaterBrook, is a positive example of a publisher that doesn't take anything for granted. See my last post.) Talese's argument only works if a publisher doesn't really care about the truth in the first place.
Nan Talese's second argument went like this:
Premise: We learn by stories.
Conclusion: Therefore, it's right to publish a fictional story as if it were true as long as people learn from it.
This appeal to stories is startlingly weak in context. Yes, of course people learn from stories, wonderfully so. I'm a huge proponent of the power of fiction to change people's lives. But certain stories live or die according to whether or not they are true. The story of Lance Armstrong's recovery from almost terminal cancer to become the premier long distance biker rider in the world is an amazing one. If it turned out the Lance Armstrong's cancer had been, in fact, a minor skin cancer that was easily removed by a dermatologist, Armstrong's story would lose much of its power. On the other hand, we don't need to believe that there really was a Jean Valjean to be moved and transformed by Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
James Frey is an engaging author, after a fashion. Yet when he tried to market A Million Little Pieces as a novel, which he did at first, it was rejected by seventeen publishers, including, it appears, Nan A. Talese. (See the first page of The Smoking Gun exposé.) My own secondhand experience of Frey's book (I've only read portions; my wife read the whole book.) confirms the wisdom of the seventeen publishers. When my wife read A Million Little Pieces, she kept telling me about Frey's amazing experiences, and how they were almost unbelievable. Yet she kept on reading because she believed that they had actually happened in more or less the way Frey described them. Had my wife, who is quite a discerning reader, believed that A Million Little Pieces was substantially made up, especially the outlandish parts, I expect she'd have been much less engrossed in the book. She still believes, by the way, that as a "fiction based on a true story" account of addiction, A Million Little Pieces has something to say. But she agrees that it's much less compelling given that much of it isn't true.
What I find fascinating in this "three degrees of separation" story is the fact that two leading figures in the publishing world, a best-selling author and a leading publisher, share in common not only a marriage, but also a determined lack of interest in genuine moral dialogue. Where they attempt to make moral arguments, these are unpersuasive. And when they're caught with their pants down, so to speak, they try to divert the conversation with an appeal to emotion.
Though I don't defend Gay's sexual exploits or Nan's minimizing of deceit, it seems to me that both Taleses are not so much immoral as they are amoral. They live in a world – and thrive in that world – that has set aside moral arguments and concerns. What a person feels makes all the difference in the world. Everything else is secondary.
Oprah, in her initial defense of Frey on Larry King's radio program, seemed at first to make arguments that were similar to those of Nan Talese. But then she changed her mind and her tune. I want to take a closer look at this about face in my next post.
How to Be Rightly Wrong: The Example of Oprah
Part 5 of the series: Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
Posted for Tuesday, March 7, 2006
When The Smoking Gun first published its exposé of A Million Little Pieces, Oprah Winfrey sprang to the defense of its author, James Frey. On January 11, 2006, when Frey appeared on Larry King Live to fend of attacks upon his honesty, Oprah herself called in. Here's part of what she said:
As he said, he's had many conversations with my producers, who do fully support him and obviously we support the book because we recognize that there have been thousands and hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been changed by this book.
And I feel about "A Million Little Pieces" that although some of the facts have been questioned -- and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book.
Like Nan Talese, publisher of A Million Little Pieces, Oprah's defense of the book rested largely on its impact upon readers. It was a classic "ends justifies the means" argument. The fact that Frey's impact depended, not only upon his story, but also upon the widespread belief that his story was true, didn't occur to Oprah at the time.
Fifteen days later, however, Oprah had changed her mind and her tune. On her television program of January 26, 2006, Oprah interviewed James Frey once again, though "interviewed" is probably not the best verb. "Scolded" or "chewed out" would be better, or maybe even "pummeled." Yet Oprah did not simply admonish the author and his publisher, Nan Talese. She also took responsibility for her mistakes and apologized for them.
Her admission of guilt came after she had finished with Frey and Talese. Oprah then interviewed several journalists who had been critical of Frey and of Oprah herself, beginning with Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post. Here's how she began that segment:
Richard Cohen is a Washington Post columnist who wrote in the case of James Frey: "The liar whose memoir turns out to have a good deal of fiction alongside fact." [Richard Cohen also] said, "Oprah is not only wrong but deluded." And I was impressed with that. I was impressed with that because I thought sometimes criticism can be very helpful. So thank you very much. You were right. I was wrong. What do you want to say?
Now that's what I call an admission of guilt: "You were right. I was wrong." It couldn't be much clearer than that: "I was wrong."
From the left: Frank Rich, Richard Cohen, Nan Talese, James Frey, and an angry woman who needs no introduction
How refreshing! When is the last time you heard a public person – an elected official caught with his hand in the cookie jar, a CEO of a failed company, or even a pastor who committed some grievous offense – say, flat out, "I was wrong." Such people usually find ways to appear to be sorry, without admitting error. "Mistakes were made," is a familiar refrain. Or "I apologize for any confusion." Sometimes a leader will appear to admit error, "I take responsibility for what happened," while actually blaming others.
In a follow-up story, some PR experts explained that Oprah was simply "protecting her brand." Other sultans of spin saw more genuineness in her admission of error: "My guess is that Oprah truly is more concerned about her customers, her viewers," said Andrew Pierce, senior partner at San Francisco-based Prophet, a marketing and branding consulting company. "That's what has always made her such a powerful brand."
In fact, Oprah herself claimed to care, not only about her customer-viewers, but also about the truth. Near the end of her show she said, "I read this quote in The New York Times from Michiko Kakutani, who said it best, I think. She says, 'This is not about truth in labeling or the misrepresentation of one author. . . . It is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth.' And I believe that the truth matters." Now I don't doubt that Oprah's reversal of ground concerning A Million Little Pieces was wrapped up with her concern for the integrity of her "brand." But her commitment to truth, even if it lapsed during her first response to The Smoking Gun exposé, was seen in the bluntness of her admission of error.
This point was underscored in part of her on-air dialogue with Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times:
Oprah: So what do you want to say about what you've heard today?
Frank Rich: Well, I think it's amazing television. I mean, I think that I share Richard's view. I think it's great that you up and took a stand and the hardest thing to do is admit a mistake…
Oprah: In front of millions of people.
Frank Rich: In front of millions of people.
No matter what her motivations, Oprah exemplified a gutsy honesty in admitting that she had erred in her defense of A Million Little Pieces. Thus she exemplifies for all of us how to be rightly wrong: Admit your error. Don't make excuses. Apologize. And move on.
Nan A. Talese and Doubleday/Random House, publishers of A Million Little Pieces, would do well to imitate Oprah. In my next post I'll look to see if they did.
The Lesson that Random House and Nan Talese Should Have Learned from Oprah
Part 6 of the series: Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
Posted for Wednesday, March 8, 2006
So far in this series I've been examining the controversy surrounding James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces. In my last post I examined Oprah Winfrey's blunt admission of error following her initial dismissal of the revelation that Frey had made up a substantial part of his supposedly factual memoir. In response to columnist Richard Cohen's claim that Oprah had been both wrong and deluded, she said, "You were right. I was wrong." It doesn't get much clearer than this.
By contrast, Nan Talese, the publisher of A Million Little Pieces, as I detailed in an earlier post, has been evasive and dismissive. Doubleday & Anchor Books, the Random House company for which Talese works, has issued what has been called an apology (PDF only). Yet this statement, though not quite as slippery as Nan Talese's comments on Oprah, is also cagey and weak. Let me quote some relevant excerpts.
The statement begins:
"The controversy over James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES has caused serious concern at Doubleday and Anchor Books. Recent interpretations of our previous statement notwithstanding, it is not the policy or stance of this company that it doesn’t matter whether a book sold as nonfiction is true. A nonfiction book should adhere to the facts as the author knows them."
Comment: Notice the slipperiness here. "A nonfiction book should adhere to the facts as the author knows them" (italics mine). This seems to imply that if the author believes certain things to be true, when they are not in fact true, it's okay for these things to be published as truth. The publisher appears to put all the burden of proof on the writer, without accepting any role in the process.
Oprah takes on Nan Talese, with a very uncomfortable James Frey caught in the middle.
The statement continues by explaining the publisher's tendency to support and trust its authors, which is a good thing. This accounts for its initial defense of Frey. But then:
". . . we have questioned him about the allegations and have sadly come to the realization that a number of facts have been altered and incidents embellished. We bear a responsibility for what we publish, and apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion surrounding the publication of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES."
Comment: Ah, yes, sadness once again. This is exactly how Nan Talese tried to avoid Oprah's accusations of wrongdoing. So the publisher is sad that James Frey made stuff up. Fine. But sadness doesn't quite cover the offense. What about being sorry? What about being embarrassed? What about repentance? It's not there. The publisher apologizes, not for publishing fiction as non-fiction, not for deceiving the public, not for failing to do its fact-checking homework, but for "unintentional confusion." I guess this means: "We're sorry that readers were confused, thinking Frey's story was true, when it fact it was partially made up."
Of course what's missing here is any admission of wrongdoing on the part of the publisher. They claim, fairly enough, that Frey presented his book as if it were wholly true, and they took him at his word. (If anyone at Doubleday ever knew that A Million Little Pieces began as a novel, which is claimed by The Smoking Gun, then the publisher isn't telling the truth here. Of course if the publisher thinks it is telling the truth, then . . . .) But, given the outlandish claims Frey makes throughout his book, and given the extent to which the book's appeal lies in the apparent truthfulness of his wild life, I don't find the "we trusted Frey" excuse to be convincing. If Frey had claimed to fly across the room when he was high, would the publisher have believed him because they found his story to be so moving?
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, and Anchor Books still have the chance to redeem themselves, at least a bit. They should learn a lesson from Oprah, and come clean about their own error (a lack of fact-checking when it was surely necessary). In the close of their official statement, they refer to notes that they and Frey will add to all future printings of A Million Little Pieces. If these statements include some admission of error, in addition to noting that the "memoir" isn't fully factual, then this will be a positive step.
Still, I don't think this is adequate. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of people bought A Million Little Pieces with the assumption that it was true. They read it and were moved by it based on this assumption. Now, as it turns out, there were deceived. Many readers, I'm sure, continue to value what they gained from the book. But others are, well, sad . . . and more than sad, angry. And they have every right to be angry, because they were deceived.
I believe the publisher needs to make a clearer statement of culpability and a stronger commitment to making amends. Specifically, I believe Doubleday should offer a refund to anyone who owns a copy of A Million Little Pieces and wants to return the book. No questions asked. What I'm describing would be rather like what happens when an automobile company issues a recall. In my opinion, Nan A Talese, Doubleday, and Anchor Books should recall A Million Little Pieces. Sure, this would be messy and expensive, at least in the short run. But it would be right. Moreover, it would be a powerful statement of the publisher's concern for truth. A cynical observer might even suggest that it would be a PR coup.
I'm not expecting this to happen, mind you. But I can always hope. Perhaps someday when I write my own memoir, the publisher of A Million Little Pieces will have done the right thing.
Does Truth Really Matter?
Part 7 of the series: Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
Posted for Thursday, March 9, 2006
These days, whenever an issue of truth pops up, inevitably somebody will suggest that truth is in the eyes of the beholder, and therefore something we shouldn't get worked up about. We've seen this sort of thing in some of the responses to the revelation that James Frey made up key elements of his best-selling "memoir," A Million Little Pieces. "Who are we," the objection goes, "to reject Frey's perceptions of his own life? It's his life and his truth. So that's that."
But, curiously enough, the most common defense of A Million Little Pieces does not point to the author's subjectivity. Rather, the impact of the writing on the reader is brought forth to justify all measure of sins. So it's the subjective experience of the reader, not the writer, that makes all the difference.
Nan A. Talese, publisher of Frey's book, made this point in her conversation on Oprah. She did not check the facts in Frey's manuscript, or have somebody else do it, because she believes that truthfulness is much less important than the impact of a book on the reader, and on herself, in particular. Here's what she explained to Oprah:
As the publisher of the book, I read the manuscript. I thought this was an absolutely—I would say there was an authenticity in the book
A memoir is an author's remembrance of a certain period in his life. Now, the responsibility, as far as I am concerned, is does it strike me as valid? Does it strike me as authentic? I mean, I'm sent things all the time and I think they're not real. I don't think they're authentic. I don't think they're good. I don't believe them. In this instance, I absolutely believed what I read.
Nan Talese is certainly right in part. As a publisher of a memoir she needs to "believe in" the book and sense that it is authentic. The problem is that this is as far as she goes. Her subjective response to the story, even a story with many incredible elements, is the final arbiter of truth. Doesn't this seem a bit arrogant? In my opinion, Nan Talese had better reexamine her standard of truthfulness, given how much she missed the inauthenticity of A Million Little Pieces.
Yet I've heard other folks defend Frey's "memoir," even knowing that it's not all true, on the basis of its impact on readers. Oprah Winfrey initially took this line, though she ultimately rejected it. On Larry King Live she defended Frey's book in this way:
And I feel about "A Million Little Pieces" that although some of the facts have been questioned -- and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book. . . .
Whether or not the cars' wheels rolled up on the sidewalk or whether he hit the police officer or didn't hit the police officer is irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil, from the time he was 10 years old, drinking and -- and tormenting himself and his parents. And, out of that, stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today, and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves. That's what's important about this book and his story. (italics added)
The first person I ever heard use the argument that the impact on a person makes lying okay was Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. About twenty years ago on a talk show, Lasorda told stories of motivating his players by telling them inspiring stories which they believed to be true, but which Lasorda admitted were false. Of course he may have been telling tall tales on the talk show.
At this point in her thought process, Oprah believed that if a book that purports to tell the truth in fact lies, the book is still okay if it impacts readers in a positive way. Later, she rejected this view, claiming that Frey should have been more truthful and that his publisher should have checked the facts.
Many agree with the earlier Oprah, however. I've heard this opinion in conversations about A Million Little Pieces. Basically, folks have argued that if the book has touched people's lives, it really doesn't matter that it contains many falsehoods. This raises two crucial questions: Does the truth really matter? And if, so why? I'll attempt to answer these in my next post.
Does Truth Really Matter? (continued)
Part 8 of the series: Oprah, James Frey, and the Question of Truth
Posted for Friday, March 10, 2006
In my last post I began to consider a popular defense of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Even if the supposedly non-fictional memoir turns out to have major fictional elements, the argument goes, the fact that the book has had such a profound impact on many people redeems it. The truthfulness of the supposedly true story, it turns out, isn't really all that important. What matters is the power of the book to touch people's lives.
So then, does truth really matter? And if so, why?
Before I speak directly to these questions, I need to reiterate something I've said earlier in this series. Fiction is fantastic. It can touch hearts and changes lives. I have been deeply touched and challenged to be a better person by the fictional writings of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Howatch, and C.S. Lewis, to name just a few authors. Jesus Himself used fiction (parables) both to teach and to draw His listeners to the kingdom of God. So it is certainly possible for made-up stories to have a life-changing impact on people, and this is just fine. . .
. . . as long as the writer of fiction doesn't present fiction as fact. Why do I believe this? Let me offer several reasons. First, and most simply, I think it's almost always wrong to deceive people. I say "almost always" because there are some instances when deception may be okay. Consider, for example, the harmless deceptions that surround a surprise birthday party. More importantly, success in war often depends on deceiving the enemy. But in almost every other case, I believe deception is simply wrong. I base this conviction on my Christian theology, as well as common sense. If you're looking for the reasons, I'd point you to my non-fiction book, Dare to Be True.
Second, a lack of truthfulness can end up harming people. Take the case of A Million Little Pieces. It is essentially a moving story of a man's path from hopeless addiction to hopeful freedom. This freedom came, partly through therapeutic treatment, and partly through Frey's own rock solid will. Unlike many recovered addicts, Frey did not rely on the support offered by a 12-step program. Now this aspect of his memoir might be accurate. But suppose it is exaggerated. Suppose Frey's will is not as strong as it is portrayed to be. And then suppose that readers who are themselves struggling with addiction attempt to find healing by imitating Frey. Suppose they abandon their 12-step groups. This might be devastating both to these individuals and to those who care about them.
Please pardon a bit of shameless self promotion. But I really do believe that my book Dare to Be True
has valuable things to add to this conversation.
Third, a lack of truthfulness damages the very thing that is so essential to the relationship between an author and a reader: trust. When I read a book, I'm putting myself in the hands of the writer. I'm offering my trust. I trust fiction writers to follow the "rules" of their fictional world. It would not have been okay, for example, if in The Return of the King, Frodo all of a sudden discovered that he could fly and was thus able to cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom. I trust writers of non-fiction to tell the truth as they see it. Yes, yes, I recognize the inherent subjectivity of such an exercise. I'm postmodern enough to realize that every recounting of events is shaped by the "agenda" of the author. But if a writer of a memoir tells me he was in jail for 87 days, I might be okay if the truth were closer to 80 days, but I'm not okay with the fact that he was in jail for only two hours. Frey's lack of truthfulness means that I don't trust him, and this ends his ability to impact my life. Or to make me want to buy his future books, by the way.
I am saying these things as a non-fiction writer who labors over the truthfulness of my writing because I want to be trustworthy. Surely I make mistakes, but I try not to. One nice thing about blogging is that I've got thousands of potential fact checkers, and I can easily make corrections in my online writings. This happens periodically, I might add.
I've admitted to my various audiences that I sometimes change incidental details in true stories to protect the identities of the people involved. But I work hard to ensure that these changes do not impact the essential truth of the story. When I tell a story, for example, of how God miraculously healed a marriage that had been shattered by adultery, I might change names or other incidentals, but, to the best of my ability, I don't exaggerate the action of God, even if it might increase people's wonder and faith. If the miraculous healing came over many months, with the help of a competent therapist, I don't pretend as if the marriage was restored in one magical instant. That makes for a better story, but it isn't true.
||Randy "Duke" Cunningham, former Congressman found guilty of taking bribes, on his way to sentencing. Here was his response: "After years of service to my country I made a wrong turn. No man has ever been more sorry. I could have said no and didn‘t. It was me, Duke Cunningham, and it was wrong." However much Cunningham deserves public scorn for taking bribes, his admission of guilt is honorable and true. (HT to blog reader, Joseph Timothy Cook.)
I think my commitment to truthfulness helps to explain why people read my books, or my articles, or my blog, or even listen to my sermons, for that matter. The trust I have earned through honesty allows people to open their minds and hearts to what I have to say. If I were found to be intentionally deceptive, that trust would quickly vanish. (My readers and listeners are gracious enough to accept a fair amount of unintentional mistakes, I'm glad to say.)
Let me offer one more reason for my belief that truth really does matter. (If you're looking for more reasons than this, you'll have to read my book, Dare to Be True.) My last reason has to do with the culture in which we live. Near the end of her second interview with James Frey et al., Oprah said this:
I read this quote in The New York Times from Michiko Kakutani, who said it best, I think: 'This is not about truth in labeling or the misrepresentation of one author. . . . It is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth.' And I believe that the truth matters.
Does contemporary culture value truth? The answer must be "Yes and no. Well, sort of. Sometimes yes, but often no." If we really valued truth, would we tolerate so much lying? I doubt it. If we really valued truth, would there be an epidemic of cheating among American teenagers? I don't think so. If we really cared about the truth, would we continue to reward the political spinmeisters by electing them to office? No way. Now I think we do value truth at times, especially when that truth is to our personal advantage. But a commitment to truthfulness, both in speech and in living, is a rare commodity these days.
This is my fourth reason for the claim that the truth matters. In our day, truth is like gold. It's precious, beautiful, and increasingly rare. Truthful people might have to do embarrassing things at times, like admit their mistakes. And they may not be the most successful politicians or salespersons or PR experts. But, in time, those who are committed to the truth will gain the trust that is essential to a healthy, happy, and ultimately rewarding life.
This series on Oprah, James Frey, the Question of Truth has been concerned with the issue of fictional elements in a supposedly non-fictional book. Ironically, my next series will address the opposite issue: supposedly non-fictional elements in an admittedly fictional book. Yes, I am planning to turn my attention to The Da Vinci Code, where the question of truthfulness in fiction takes center stage.