Faaaaaascinating. I am fascinated by news that the mighty Oprah Winfrey took little old James Frey to task on her show for having fabricated many of the details and experiences he recounted in his "memoir," A Million Little Pieces. Oprah told James that she and the million of viewers who agree with everything she says felt "betrayed" upon learning, thanks to the website The Smoking Gun’s exhaustive investigation, that he fictionalized his account of his addiction to drugs, his rehab at Hazelden, the amount of time he served in jail (in the book: 3 months; in reality: 3 hours), and the way his girlfriend died.
I suspect it maye have been The Smoking Gun’s lede ("Oprah’s been had") that got Oprah’s ire up more than Frey’s actual embellishments and ok, lies. Because I’m reading this article in the New York Times scratching my head. Shelley wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but unless I missed something, no one has updated that sentiment to make Oprah the unacknowledged legislator of the poets of the world.
I haven’t read Frey’s book (with all due respect it’s not really my kind of read), but I have to say it: the Oprah has no clothes. What’s the big freaking deal if a memoirist changes the events of his life around to make a more compelling narrative? The Times reports that Frey told Oprah that "he had developed a tough-guy image of himself as a ‘coping mechanism’ to help address his alcohol and drug addiction. ‘And when I was writing the book,’ he said, ‘instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image.’"Seriously– whatever happened to poetic license?
It’s such a strange genre, memoir, difficult to distinguish (if at all) from its generic counterpart, autobiography. The difference between the two may be negligeable, something for literary critics to fight over, but both genres cover an enormous range of purposes. For example, there’s the historic service provided by De Gaulle’s war memoirs; every President of the US these days is expected to set down his view of his administration, providing historians with an irrefutable "he said" point of view. Did anyone think that Clinton’s memoir, My Life, contained unadulterated truth, particularly with regard to his sexual hijinks? The ethics of the famous man memoir are always up for debate, but any autobiographical narrative is, even in the hands of the most meticulous life-writer, a subjective account at best. Simone de Beauvoir didn’t tell half the truth of her life in her memoirs, leaving out most of the juicy bits about her arrangement with Sartre and her sapphic sexual encouters– and it was her choice to do so. She explained later that she did so to protect the personal lives of the people involved.
But this is a different situation; Frey’s book belongs to the genre of memoirs by unfamous people, people whose only reason for writing the book is kind of like some of the explanations I’ve heard for writing a blog: because they’ve lived through something interesting that other people might want to read about. So if it was his life, his experience, and not a life led in the public service, or a life that will form part of the history of famous men, what does it matter if Frey fudged the details? Will we, by which I mean the "millions of betrayed readers" that Oprah refers to, only read a memoir of someone no more famous or important than you or I if that memoirist tells the absolute truth about his particular experience? Why do we cry "no fair" if the little guy’s account isn’t absolutely factually accurate? Is it because we wish we had lived through something important enough to write about? Oprah, of course, has a different scenario at stake; in her own autobiography, as one of the major figures in millennial American culture, she has certain responsabilities to "truth" that Frey, as a nobody, doesn’t have.
Or does it have something to do with the way our culture values a "true story," to the degree that movie posters will always include the tagline "Based on a True Story," if that is the case– to remind the audience that strange things to happen in life, even if theirs is all about their kids’ next soccer game. Or look at the early 21st century obsession with "reality television," which faded as soon as it became clear that the situations, even if they were played by non-actors, were thoroughly choreographed by the producers. Thus the return to the dramatic series– because we can all agree on the fact that "Desperate Housewives" is pure fiction.
I’m writing this quickly because I have other work to get done today, so I feel I’m cutting rather a large swath across this question, but I would be interested to hear other points of view on this…
And in a vaguely related story, Alex Beam of the International Herald Tribune can’t deal with BHL…