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“How much fiction can a nonfiction book contain before it must be re-classified as fiction?” That’s the question of the month that’s raising eyebrows far beyond publishing industry.

James Frey’s book, A Million Little Pieces (2003), a drug-addiction novel-turned-memoir, sold more copies in 2005 than any other book except J.K. Rowling’s latest tome in the “Harry Potter” series. Everything was going swimmingly for Frey, including an October 26, 2005 appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and Oprah’s selection of the book for Oprah’s Book Club, which resulted in some 2 million book sales (3.5 million total to date) and counting just from Oprah’s fans.

Then the website, The Smoking Gun, outed the book’s numerous fabrications built into the supposedly true, gut wrenching story of addiction rehabilitation. Frey and his publisher, Doubleday, have been doing damage control since including an appearance (with his Mother sitting at his side) on “Larry King Live” January 11, 2006 during which Oprah literally placed a last minute call blessing the book’s “underlying message of redemption” and saying the book, “still resonates with me.” Later she added, “To me, it seems to be much ado about nothing.”

Frey has refused to respond directly to The Smoking Gun’s allegations and has threatened the site with a lawsuit. Larry King zoned in and Frey responded to accusations of falsehood by bizarrely admitting to 18 pages of “embellishments,” which he said represented “less than 5 percent of the total book.” For Frey, “The important aspect of the memoir is getting at the essential truth.”

So now instead of Truth we have “essential truth,” which is a bit like Al Gore’s “no controlling legal authority” or Bill Clinton’s “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” Clinton still owns the Baby Boomer Fabricator-in-Chief title with his finger-pointing “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” But Frey is introducing his generation’s definition of truth, which is to say, “essential truth.”

Neither Frey nor Doubleday much care about the hoopla, for it simply sells more books. And Oprah thinks its much ado about nothing. But shouldn’t the rest of us care? If nonfiction is fiction aren’t we left with Orwellian double-speak offering no certainty and eventually no hope. Former New York Times reporter Jason Blair lost his job for fabricating stories. Why is what Frey did any different?

Frey’s book was first conceived as a bloody, graphic novel, which was, according to Frey, rejected by a dozen publishers. When his agent then suggested Frey call the book a memoir it sold and sold big. Memoir is a form of the word “memory,” and everyone’s memory grows dim with time. But “memoir” also means “one’s personal experiences,” which is to say that the author tripping down memory lane is remembering, however dimly, actual events, times, places, and people---not fantasy.

Politicians are often accused of “spinning” the truth, which may mean putting one’s best foot forward (actual occurrences) or it may mean stretching the truth (which is a form of not telling “nothing but the truth” and, therefore, a lie).

Christians are guilty too. For years I have disliked the phrase “evangelistically speaking,” which is used as a generally kind but sometimes biting comment about a preacher’s tendency to exaggerate his statistics. I’ve never liked even the kindly use of the phrase for it seemed to indicate the preacher was either an uninformed boob who could not get his facts straight, an avid spinner creating a fuzzy impression, or an outright liar. None of these images seemed very preacherly to me.

Lying began in the Garden of Eden. As part of Adam’s race, we’ve all lied at some point if not multiple points in our lives. But this condition of the human race does not make lying acceptable, whether its called prevarication, fabrication, spinning, equivocation, hedging, evangelistically speaking, dissembling, pulling the wool over his eyes, fibbing, “truthiness” as has been cited on comedy channels, or lying.

The concept of “essential truth” fits neatly within moral relativism-the idea that there is no such thing as absolute, for-sure, for-certain, “true even if you don’t believe it” truth-which is one of the defining characteristics of postmodern culture. Francis A. Schaeffer coined the phrase “True truth” a long time ago, just to convey the reality of divinely given ultimate, objective truth. Truth is, whether James Frey, Oprah, Bill Clinton, Jason Blair, you or I own it or not.

No one ever said nonfiction can have no fiction within it, just that respect for God, truth, one’s own integrity, the writer’s craft, and the reading public demands the fiction be identified. I’m glad Frey is no longer addicted to drugs. Let’s hope he can break his addiction to falsehoods. Even more, let’s hope the publishing industry rediscovers the definition of fiction and nonfiction.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

Oprah Winfrey's back-pedaling apology for defending falsehood-published-as-truth is a very welcome development. On Thursday’s show, Winfrey expressed chagrin, remorse, and anger, some of it directed at herself and most of it aimed at James Frey and his book, A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s “memoir,” now known to contain more than a few documented falsehoods, still tops the bestseller lists and is still making money for Frey and his publisher. But at least people know it’s not what it claims to be.

Before the legion of fans who watch her show, Oprah told Frey, “I feel duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” In that she was echoing the rest of us. Frey admitted to lying, and he’s lost respect and what reputation he was attempting to rebuild even if he is walking away with a bigger bank account.

But Winfrey cannot offload all of this on Frey. Her organization selected Frey’s book for the Oprah Book Club, apparently without vetting it thoroughly. And worse, she called Larry King’s CNN program on January 11, staunchly defending Frey and his work, saying the growing controversy about truth versus fiction was “much ado about nothing.” Winfrey can make a mistake like anyone else, but she is too shrewd not to have known what she was doing when she made that call.

But let’s salute Winfrey’s quick ownership of her misstep. She told her viewers, “I regret the call. I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that. That is not what I believe.”

Whether Winfrey’s own conscience got to her, whether she is worried about her image and reputation, or whether she is simply responding to the thorough shellacking she experienced in the national media, we don’t know. But she did acknowledge that she has been the subject of numerous online and print editorials, calling her to account. In clear contrition she said, “To everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.” And they were.

Truth matters after all in postmodern culture. We cannot live without it, even if people and philosophies persist in suggesting that we can. Frey is just a blip. He’ll soon disappear. But integrity in speech, writing, and testimony are critical to the functioning of a free society based on objective truth and the rule of law. The day that truth really does not matter is the day the American experiment is only a step away from demagoguery and demise.

It’s more than a little interesting to see authors, columnists, and other writers (liberal or conservative) reacting so strongly against Frey’s infractions. Writers have taken greater umbrage with Frey than publishing houses. Why? Because this strikes at the very heart of what writers do and who they are. It’s about intellectual property, their incomes, and talent. It’s about their ox being gored, and they rightly do not like it. Publishers make money either way, true or false. Indeed as the Frey experience has shown once again, controversy sells books.

So in the end truth won this battle in the culture wars. Winfrey learned, publishers learned, and, hopefully, so did the rest of us.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.