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Throwing the book at reality

January 14, 2006|MEGHAN DAUM

FOR THOSE OF US with too much time on our hands, last week's brouhaha surrounding "A Million Little Pieces," the bestselling, Oprah-sanctioned memoir by James Frey, was the most fun we'd had since the Milli Vanilli scandal. In case you missed it, last Sunday, the website "The Smoking Gun" published a screed alleging that much of Frey's blood-and-vomit-drenched recollections about his prodigious substance abuse, lengthy jail time and wrenching stint in rehab are about as true as Harry Potter's exploits.

By Wednesday afternoon, a rumor was circulating that Random House, which oversees the imprint (Nan Talese) that published "A Million Little Pieces," would be refunding readers the $24.95 they'd spent on a book they believed was the god's honest truth. Sure, the memoir genre has become a major industry, and it seems increasingly debatable how much veracity readers expect inside the pages of "true" stories. But for a while last week, it looked as if the whole nonfiction roman a clef empire was about to fall.

Later that evening, though, Frey appeared on "Larry King Live," and King stated that the refund rumor was untrue. (Moreover, Oprah herself called in to reaffirm her commitment to the title.) Phew, that was close.

I started trying to write this column shortly after the story broke. I was in Nebraska, where I used to live, and every time I got on the Internet, the Frey story had taken on a new dimension, forcing me to start the piece all over again. The night Frey appeared on Larry King, I became even more frustrated. My friends in a book club I once belonged to -- 10 women from their mid-30s to their mid-50s -- had rescheduled their monthly meeting in honor of my visit. I couldn't very well cancel on them because I had to watch CNN.

But as it turned out, the book club wanted to watch Frey too. So we gathered up our cheese, crackers and bottles of wine and trundled to the basement to sit in front of the television set. Within the first 15 minutes of Frey's appearance, much of the cheese had been thrown at that TV set. I don't know what my fellow writers and journalists in the big city made of Frey's nervous equivocations, but I can tell you that my girls in Lincoln were not impressed.

Here are some snippets:

James Frey: "We initially shopped the book as a novel. It was turned down by a number of publishers as a novel or as a nonfiction book .... When Nan Talese purchased the book.... we talked about what to publish it as, and they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir."

Barb in the basement: "When I see that something says 'memoir,' I expect it to be true."

Larry King: "But you were willing to publish it as fiction."

James Frey: "I don't think it's fair to classify it as fiction."

Mary: "It makes me angry because there are so many good stories and writers out there that don't get published."


Larry King: "The Smoking Gun says the closest [you] ever came to a jail cell was a few unshackled hours in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond. True?"

Penny: "Haven't we all done that?"

Mary Ethel: "Not in Ohio!"


James Frey: "We're dealing with a very subjective memory."

Melinda: "Oprah is going to hang him!"

Sharon: "I don't care what books she picks anyway."

Meghan: "You guys have picked Oprah books."

Everyone else in the basement: "But not because they're Oprah books!"

Unlike Frey, I have not changed the names of the women in my former book club. And unlike what the publishing world seems to believe, not all American book buyers rely on Oprah's endorsements. Still, my friends were shocked and disappointed when Oprah called in to say she stood behind the book.

But Oprah also said that she "relied on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and the authenticity of the work." That, ultimately, is the point here.

Since this story broke, all I could think was that it's not Oprah or Frey who has let us down but the publishing business. By pandering to our culture's increasingly perverted sense of voyeurism, by knowingly taking material that's not good enough to pass as fiction and packaging it as a tell-all that can be parlayed into a sordid companion guide for the self-help movement, the book business has proved that it's just as concerned with the lowest common denominator as the television business. Hollywood has figured out that it's more economical to sell reality programming than to craft fictional stories that require real writers, directors and actors, and publishers know that making a bad book seem good involves not rewriting and editing but merely marketing it as a reality show without pictures.

Though I don't in any way condone the Faustian bargain Frey made, he's hardly the first desperate writer to sell his novel down the river. He may, however, be the first successful writer to show us just how far publishers are willing to go to feed our culture's urge to gawk at human suffering. And even if Oprah's book club doesn't draw the line between fact and fiction, the book clubs in the living rooms (and basements) of America do.

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