James Frey

The James Frey Affair

An essay by Kenny Brechner

    The knowledge that a memoir contained lies and other forms of embellishment upon the truth is hardly surprising in itself. People lie and embellish upon the past as a matter of course. The outrage leveled at James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, and at his publisher Nan Talese, by Oprah Winfrey this last January 26thon her televison show, for fabricating important elements of his memoir, argues against the widespread acceptance of deception as a matter of course, however. Oprah, in telling Frey that he had "betrayed millions of readers," took on the role of speaking for a broad consensus of the book’s readership.

    Winfrey went on to hold Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese, responsible for the debacle. She stated that, in response to a Hazledon counselor coming forward and questioning the book’s veracity eight days after it was announced as an Oprah book club selection, the Oprah Winfrey Show had directly inquired as to whether Doubleday "stood behind James's book as a work of nonfiction at the time, and they said absolutely." Winfrey questioned how Doubleday could have, in a press release, described Frey’s book as "brutally honest" when in fact they "haven't checked it to be sure." Oprah concluded by telling Talese "I'm trusting you, the publisher, to categorize this book whereas fiction or autobiographical or memoir. I'm trusting you."

    The Frey affair raises a number of important issues, the relationship between truth and memoir, and the role of author, publisher, editor, agent and other persons involved in the production of published works in that relationship. It is clear to everyone that James Frey stepped over the line between fiction and non-fiction in an illicit manner. Yet to assess responsibility there are three areas which we need to consider here: the role of trust in the publication process, the role of authorial intent, and substantive changes in the theory and methodology of memoir writing which have come about over the last decade.

    On the Oprah show it was suggested by a journalist that publishers, in order to meet their responsibility to the reading public, ought to hire fact checkers to determine the veracity of memoirs. This is not a good idea. Having publishing houses attempt to police the truthfulness of memoirs is neither cost effective nor desirable, nor even possible most of the time. Is Grove Press to be expected to fact check William S Burroughs’ classic memoir of drug induced experiences, Naked Lunch? How could they? The idea of standardized fact checking is a misguided response to a perceived abuse of trust. When it comes to relationships in the book world, trust will always be a factor. There will always be abuses of trust, of course, yet we cannot replace trust with some kind of ill advised war on falsity.

    The basis, and effectiveness of trust is largely determined by the editorial climate, and marketing expectations brought to the table by publishing houses, however. It is here that responsibility comes into play. The decade long fad for increasingly lurid and novel memoirs, along with the ascendency of the concept of creative non-fiction, has unquestionably blurred the lines between fact and fiction, and made the memoir a fuzzier, if perhaps more literary art form.

    For the reader, trust in non fiction derives from authorial intent. As local non-fiction writer, and paragon of authorial integrity, Bob Kimber notes, trust in a work of non-fiction resides in "the expectation that the author is doing his level best to capture and report what actually happened." The undermining of the integrity of authorial intent, the encouragement to fictionalize and sensationalize memory for literary and monetary purposes, has certainly contributed to he climate which led to the many failures of trust which are the James Frey affair.

    Memoir, and memory itself, has always been a fuzzy enterprise, of course, but the deliberate fictionalization of them is a matter which ought to concern us as readers. Different genres of non fiction have different rules. If readers and authors of creative non fiction are on the same page, as it were, all is well. Yet the murky nature of fictionalizing memory for effect suggests that some rules tempt cheating more than others, particularly when the stakes, whether emotional or financial, are high. The prevalence, and perhaps even the intrinsic nature, of lying about the past does not obviate the need for integrity and truthfulness. If anything, it makes the need for them more important.