In 2006 I was a newly minted PhD in nonfiction and grateful for the few job interviews that came my way. One disastrous campus visit concluded with my getting tipsy on margaritas while interviewing in North Texas, and exploding into expletives when asked, “So what do you think about James Frey?”
Creative writers should know his name, as well as anyone interested in the ethics involved with the publishing industry. General reading audiences may not care whether his memoir was true or not, but hardly anyone enjoys being duped, least of all Oprah Winfrey, who chose A Million Little Pieces for her Book Club in late 2005. Three months later, The Smoking Gun exposed the memoir for what it was in an online story titled “A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction.” His memoir was not just an exaggeration of facts, but an extended fabrication.
What ensued was a controversy that resulted in a media circus, lawsuits, and seemingly endless conversations about truth in nonfiction. It was a frustrating time for anyone who believed in the integrity of literary genres. My friends and I had defended dissertations in creative writing, and we had been held accountable by our committees for understanding the aesthetic properties of memoirs and novels. To think that a bestselling author could flout literary conventions so profitably was repulsive for those of us struggling to find entry into the literary nonfiction market.
Over time, I’ve come to see the Frey incident as a complex ethical problem. Perhaps a recap is in order. In this video, which TV Guide Magazine counts as #18 among “Top 25 Oprah Show Moments,” we are given an overview of the debacle. But a few hours of online research can provide a pretty clear idea of what happened and who’s to blame. I’m listing the culprits below, along with links to articles and videos that expand on the matter.
Frey, who has no respect for memoir, or even the concept of genre, didn’t care how his book was labeled as long as it reached a receptive audience. The perspective represented in his 2011 interview with Oprah presupposes a naive appreciation of the books that affected him the most as a teenager, thereby providing insight into his approach to writing. (Refer to 19:00-25:00.) The 2011 interview explicates the problem fully, but a quick scan of the Salon article titled “James Frey’s Infuriating Return to ‘Oprah'” will bring this point forward with greater expediency. But Frey’s open contempt for facts and readers’ preferences for factual information is conspicuous in a ten-minute interview done with QTV promoting his novel Bright Shiny Morning. The QTV interview precedes the Oprah interview by four years, but perhaps reveals his actual position more accurately.
Frey’s agent at the time he published A Million Little Pieces, Kassie Evashevski, claimed that he had always represented his book as true, and that when she consulted publishers about his story, was advised to present it as memoir. An article in the New York Times book section titled “Literary Agent Drops Writer of Memoir Larded With Fiction” drives this point home. Because she consulted publishers regarding how his work should be classified, and given that agents are a kind of “middle man” in the industry, Evashevski evades some scrutiny.
New York Magazine’s article, “James Frey’s Enabler” explains how Frey’s editor, Sean McDonald, who “talked up, acquired, and edited” A Million Little Pieces, never saw the book as anything but nonfiction. He spent a year and a half cleaning it up, but somehow never took the time to fact check, or ask the questions that could have placed the book into a different genre altogether. One has to wonder where he was when the media was lambasting Frey.
Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese, is revealed to have an incredibly large threshold for what she considers nonfiction, which extends the net of culpability further. Slate Magazine’s article “Did Nan Talese Lie to Oprah?” asserts that Nan Talese had some inkling that Frey’s memoir lacked credibility, even though she claimed that she didn’t know this until The Smoking Gun exposé. She suggested they should have probably issued a disclaimer page for Frey’s book, but also that she had no idea how she could have “gotten inside his head” to know how false his story was. All of Talese’s comments regarding the book are fishy, not least her views concerning nonfiction, which run exactly counter to those of her husband, writer/journalist Gay Talese, as can be seen in this snippet taken from an interview. The two were also interviewed by Anderson Cooper, and a fuller discussion of their differences regarding how they view nonfiction is offered in Independent Publisher’s article, “Semi-Fiction: Inside James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES controversy.”
Given that Oprah elaborately promoted him, denounced him publicly as a liar after she learned the truth, and asked him back for another interview to apologize for being too hard on him . . . I wonder how much the media encourages and benefits from controversies such as this one. She had the resources to afford a fact checker in the very beginning, but didn’t pursue the question. Additionally, the way she handled the initial interview with Frey may have been suspect, according to these remarks from Frey’s publisher Nan Talese in 2007, who quotes Oprah as saying, “it’s just business” to Frey after the interview, which Talese characterizes as a “puppet scourge.” Oprah’s audience, as witness to what Frey himself said felt like a “public stoning,” may also be to blame for a controversy that generated at least seventeen lawsuits in the US alone.
All of the readers who read the book, loved it, and then were angry and surprised when the truth came out may share some of the responsibility as well. We sometimes forget that a book is also a commercial product. If an outrageous story is presented as news or memoir, I often ask myself, “Do I believe it?” Readers are never absolved from determining the credibility of information they consume. TIME Magazine’s “Top 10 Literary Hoaxes” is worth a look. So is the “Literary Hoaxes” portion from The Museum of Hoaxes which carries examples of the form back through antiquity. Perhaps the hoax is its own genre? Extending responsibility to everyone involved in the success of a hoax is probably the most fair way to proceed. If there isn’t an audience ready to receive a hoax, the concept will fail.
However, to return to James Frey within the context of a lesson in ethical editing practices, Frey’s editor emerges as the critical link between writer and reader. Perhaps Sean McDonald was told to ignore the truth value of the work. Maybe he didn’t care. But no one other than Frey himself spent as much time with the work as Sean McDonald, and therefore, no one else knew it better. In a sense, an editor can come to “own” a book’s production nearly as much as the author, albeit from a behind-the-scenes perspective.
Even if James Frey was ignorant of genre, even if Frey intended to write a book that artfully told a “truthy” story (and no, I’m not the first to apply the concept of “truthiness” to Frey), the editor had every opportunity to recognize the lack of factual support behind the memoir, and query the author. The trouble may be that fabrication is not nearly the sin in popular literature that it is among journalists who strive to capture their stories in the most factual way possible. But for writers of nonfiction, some kind of shape for the genre must hold, else there is no reason to distinguish between the account of an actual child survivor of the Holocaust, for example, and someone who merely imagined to have survived it. (Although that can be fascinating reading in delusion and memory.)
As a way of concluding this long ramble, I’ve mellowed some over the past nine years. I still demand that my nonfiction students save their radical embellishments for their fiction workshops. Though I’m not a fan of David Shields’ Reality Hunger, I can appreciate his playfulness with regard to how our culture perceives of the real and the facts that shape it. Other writers of nonfiction have been equally willing to defend the openness of a genre dependent on the faulty human memory as its central referent.
Frey’s legacy to nonfiction is the importance of asking the questions that matter about what we read. How much do we believe without evidence? When does the truth matter? Why would I rather read a true story or watch a documentary when I can enjoy a mesmerizing fiction? But most important for me now: What role does an editor play in shaping the work of an author? Is it right to hold a writer solely accountable for the work he or she submits as true? And should nonfiction be fact-checked by its publisher before being labeled . . . just a little?