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The Frey affair revisited

August 05, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic; David L. Ulin

During a Dallas-area writers conference last weekend, Nan Talese, the publisher of James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces," was asked about the ordeal involving Frey's book. Talese didn't hesitate, lamenting the way that she and Frey were treated when they appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," saying the host has "fiercely bad manners."

"You don't stone someone in public," Talese said of the way Winfrey grilled them.

You may recall that when Talese appeared with Frey on "Oprah" in January 2006, she appeared calm and even sympathetic to the host's distress. At the time, she called the entire mess over Frey's fabrication of events in his memoir a "very sad" affair; she also tried to explain to Winfrey her firm belief in trust between editors and writers when it comes to facts. Winfrey would have none of it, but Talese was guarded in the face of the talk show diva's fury. Not anymore.

The gossip site Gawker (gawker.com/news/oh-no-she-didn.t!) calls Talese's continued support for Frey's memoir completely wrong, but gives her points for standing up to Winfrey's self-righteous attitude and -- a silly way to end -- for having "those great teeth."

Meanwhile, Time magazine online ( www.time.com/time/arts /article/0,8599,1648140,00.html) suggests that Talese was well-prepared -- even expecting -- to comment on Winfrey. At one moment, she "pointedly turned toward the C-SPAN crew that was filming the event." A four-minute video clip of Talese's comments is now up on C-SPAN2's BookTV. www.booktv.org/default.aspx

-- Nick Owchar

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Vintage Twins and some odd couples

Must the Brits always have the fun first?

This fall in the United Kingdom, Vintage Classics is bringing out "Twins" editions, paperbacks in which two works of literature -- one classic, one contemporary -- are wrapped together in a single volume. At the Guardian's book blog (blogs.guardian.co.uk/books), Giles Foden is a bit skeptical about the enterprise, although he does find some merit in it.

What sorts of pairings are we talking about? At the Random House Australia website ( www.randomhouse.com.au /Default.aspx?Page=General &Section=vintagetwins), you'll find books grouped under brief explanatory labels, like "Crime" for Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley's Game" and Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and "Lust" for Martin Amis' "The Rachel Papers" and Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones."

Of course, it's a marketing strategy that can lead to some bizarre matchups: I'm not sure what Dante's "Inferno" really has in common with Philip Roth's "Sabbath's Theater" (they're presented under the diffuse title "Sin"), but there it is. On the other hand, if this gets readers to appreciate classic works and think of them in dialogue with modern novels, is that so bad? No word yet from Vintage on if the twins will appear in U.S. bookstores.

-- Nick Owchar

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Junie B.'s mushy, gushy vernacular

Recently, the New York Times ran a piece on parents who are upset about the use of misspellings and improper grammar in Barbara Park's "Junie B. Jones" series for young readers. In case you're among the uninitiated, Junie B. Jones is a first-grader with attitude, a good kid who can't help getting in trouble on occasion and definitely has a hard time sitting still. Children love her; according to the Times, the 27 Junie B. books have more than 43 million copies in print. And yet there is now a backlash among some parents because the character, who narrates her own stories, doesn't use grammatical English or even (necessarily) proper words. "In 2004," the Times informs us, "Park was selected as one of the American Library Assn.'s 10 Most Frequently Challenged Authors, alongside Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck."

Can we be blunt? This is ridiculous, a fundamental misapprehension about how reading and writing work. Books do not exist to teach us proper grammar but to draw us into an experience, to share with us a piece of the world. Language, and by extension the literary canon, is in a constant state of evolution, transformed and broadened by outsider voices and forms. Mark Twain wrote in vernacular, as did William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, even Chaucer and Shakespeare. Without vernacular, in other words, we wouldn't have an English language or a literature.

As for Junie B.? "I think she's in kindergarten and first grade," my 8-year-old daughter says, "and she should talk like that."

I agree. But more to the point, we ought to stop looking for reasons to take books away from kids. It's hard enough, in a culture that offers endless flashier entertainments, to convince young readers that books are a viable outlet for their curiosity. When we find a book that resonates with our children, shouldn't we just get out of the way?

-- David L. Ulin

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