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Truisms of publishing

January 12, 2006

'KNOW THE TRUTH, and the truth shall make you free." Those timeless words, from the Bible, now have a timely meaning for Doubleday, publisher of a memoir by James Frey called "A Million Little Pieces." Both publisher and author take too flexible a view of the truth.

"A Million Little Pieces" became a bestseller because it seemed to employ a brutal honesty in telling a personal odyssey from the lower depths of alcohol and drug addiction to a painful recovery. Frey's harrowing tale, and utterly reckless attitude toward the law, attracted Oprah Winfrey, whose teary-eyed endorsement sent sales into the stratosphere.

Now it turns out that Frey's tough-guy antics were largely made up. The three-month stint in jail that he describes -- for instance, reading "War and Peace" aloud to a fellow inmate -- actually lasted a few hours. Dozens of other violent events in the book were unmasked as gross exaggerations or outright fabrications on the website thesmokinggun.com. The details of Frey's addiction appear to be more accurate than his claims of criminal notoriety. But they are harder to verify, so who knows?

The term "literary nonfiction" was coined to describe a story whose facts are altered to better tell the tale. Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller pushed the limits of literary journalism, often to great effect. Lesser writers have also experimented with the form, usually to lesser effect. The line between history and fiction is most blurry in the memoir genre, where many writers take literary license to massage a time sequence or recall selectively in order to get to the emotional heart of things.

After these disclosures, however, no one can honestly call "A Million Little Pieces" a work of nonfiction, or even a memoir. Perceptions of the truth may depend on your vantage point, but Frey's book is clearly fiction. Doubleday tried to pretend otherwise, arguing that the book is still "a deeply inspiring and redemptive story." Its parent company, Random House, says unsatisfied customers are always free to return their purchase to wherever they bought it, and that readers of "A Million Little Pieces" are no different.

So much for truth in publishing. The real story here is the industry's blinding hunger for "true life" tales that shock, regardless of literary value. Frey originally tried to sell his book as a novel. He was turned down by more than a dozen publishers before Doubleday bought it, only to convince Frey that marketing it as nonfiction could be more effective. At the time, Frey could hardly have imagined that his book would draw so much scrutiny, and he has said that he agreed to the change without bothering to rework his manuscript.

From today's vantage point, it's hard to know which is worse: a writer who acts as though there is no distinction between a novel and a memoir, or a publisher who does not care.

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