James Frey: Up against the Wall
The revelations that author James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces
, which had been sold by the publishers Doubleday
as a memoir, was in fact almost entirely a work of fiction, have shocked everyone, including Oprah Winfrey, who chose the book for her book club because she thought it was true. Yesterday, Oprah took Mr. Frey to the cleaners on her show
, and also hauled his publisher, Nan Talese, over the coals for misleading her, and by default (since Oprah's endorsement made A Million Little Pieces
the biggest selling "non-fiction" book of 2005) the American public. In a piece of poetic justice, today sees the U.S. release of Michael Winterbottom's film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
. Tristram Shandy
, written by the eighteenth-century traveler and sentimentalist Laurence Sterne
, itself is a kind of anti-memoir, in which the hero struggles mightily for hundreds of pages even to enter the world through the birth canal so that his role in his own autobiography can begin. In the process, there are digressions, tall tales, and a host of lies, evasions, errors, and escapades that all lead up to no conclusion at all. In short, it describes a life pretty well!
Writing in The New York Times
, columnist Frank Rich has lamented that Frey's lies are merely symptomatic of the lies of our land and times: that everywhere we look, both in the media and government, everyone is trying to pull one over on someone else. In the case of the Bush administration, says Rich, it's the American people.
Now, that may be true enough of now. But it's only true of now because it's true of human beings all the time. Only a few decades before Sterne penned his anti-autobiography, Samuel Richardson
was engaged in a writers' war with Henry Fielding
. Richardson had written Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded
, an epistolary novel that depicted a maidservant who resists the attempted seduction of her master so adeptly that she reaches the zenith of success by getting him to marry her [sic]. Fielding in response wrote Shamela
, a parody of the epistolary form and an attack on what Fielding perceived as hypocritical moralizing of the worst sort. From the very outset of the novel and the memoir as forms, therefore, what could be claimed as "truth" and "falsehood" was up for grabs. Oprah's initial statement that A Million Little Pieces
, while not literally true, was nevertheless true in its essential message, was probably closer to the mark than she realized. Fielding spotted humbug and wanted to expose it; Sterne's work is a pack of lies and diversions, but it is a wonderfully true and realized expression of the human comedy.
As a publisher, I find Frey's freaky day in the sun is very entertaining. It's somewhat quaint and charming that people believe that what everyone has ever said in a book is true, that every fact is checked and double-checked. It's simply not true: we at Lantern don't have the time, money, or personnel to be able to check facts, and that's true of all publishers. You take the author at their word, and if the book is wholly in error, you remove it from the marketplace or you provide an erratum slip or you change it in the next printing. The fact that book publishers are generally held to a much lower standard of libelous or factual accountability than other print or the general media either shows how much the United States Supreme Court values freedom of speech or how low most people esteem the morals of the publishing profession.
This means that publishers get away with a lot. What's also funny about this episode is the shameless way that author and publisher collaborated on turning what the author originally tried to sell to his publisher as fiction as a memoir. Nan Talese denies she ever knew that Fryey had been trying to sell his manuscript to publishers as fiction, but I can imagine the publisher saying, "Well, I can't sell it as fiction; but I can sell it as a memoir." This happened I believe with Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
, which, as I understand it, was rejected by a host of publishers as a fiction, and accepted finally as a memoir. I'm sure it's all true, every word.
So, what are the lessons: Don't believe everything you read in books; don't think that because something has verifiable facts in it, it's "true," and because something is demonstrably made up, it's "false." And don't believe a word that publishers tell you about their books. It's all a lie; and that's the truth.