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Friday, January 27, 2006

A Million Little Fleeces 

James Frey: A Million Little Fleeces Whilst not strictly a First Amendment issue, the controversy raging over Oprah Winfrey's surprising defense of author James Frey, by calling in to CNN's cartoonish Larry King, culminated in a public apology yesterday by Winfrey.

Winfrey's own First Amedment history relating to the beef industry, as well as the greater debate as to what distinguishes fact from fiction, opinion from reporting and other such "thin lines" makes the debate relevant here.

For those living in a bubble -- or outside America -- in a nutshell, James Frey cooked up a story called A Million Little Pieces, which was apparently rejected by his publisher as a fiction, and subsequently repackaged as a memoir. Not to be confused with an autobiography, which suggests a factually accurate, verifiable recalling of events, but simply a memoir, which is a non-fictional, but far less scrutinized recalling of events by the author. What Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert might call “truthiness.” (Add that word to your word-processing dictionary). Memoirs sell better than fiction does.

The enterprising sleuths at the web site The Smoking Gun on a quest to find Frey’s mugshot to add to their considerable collection of celebrity mugshots, found themselves ensconced in a six-week investigation, uncovering details that made James Frey’s memoir as an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal as convincing a non-fiction as the White House propaganda that prompted the Patriot Act and apparent congressional relinquishing of their role as a constitutional balance of power.

What made the story even more juicy, is that America (with a literacy rate, incredibly, of 97% according to the CIA) was induced to read a book by Winfrey’s powerful book club, arguably the most powerful there is, which shot it straight to the top of the New York Times (and every other noteworthy) best-seller list.

What bothered me most about Oprah’s defense of James Frey was compounded by a recent profile in Newsweek in which Oprah, in her words, attributed her entire success as a woman to being truthful. I readily admit that there is no one truth and that truth, in and of itself, is a subjective concept, but the distinction between one’s perceived truth and a blatant embellishment is clear enough. A redemption tale presented as a factual account but predicated on lies and embellishments is far less inspiring than a fictionalized tale presented as such.

Winfrey’s defense of Frey on Larry king bothered many, including yours truly, who included references to it in my Cry-Baby piece, featuring Martha-Ann Alito and disgraced congressman, Randy “Duke Cunningham”. Some felt it was much ado about nothing.

In addition to frying Frey, Winfrey attacked Doubleday publisher Nan Talese, who seemed to wither under Winfrey’s relentless showdown, (enhanced by a televised appearance of a smug, purse-lipped New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, wagging an accusatory finger at all concerned, urging Winfrey to withdraw the endorsement of her book club.) Doubleday, later released an apology.

However, cynical as I am, Oprah Winfrey redeemed herself yesterday, and restored her credibility. She is the first American public figure in the eighteen years I’ve been in the country that was so quick and so unequivocal in admitting she was wrong, had made a mistake, and was sorry about it. It’s so unbelievably rare and refreshing I am surprised at how quickly my scorn and cynicism turned to forgiveness and appreciation. She may be a lot of things, and her quest for publicity may be all-consuming, but authenticity is authenticity, and she deserves a hat tip here.

James Frey -- his long-drawn, stumbling, piecemeal confession in the wake of some fine investigative journalism by the The Smoking Gun notwithstanding -- on the other hand, doesn’t quite have the balls.

The truth in a memoir is not quite the same as the truth from our government. With cooked intelligence leading to a pre-emptive war, domestic eavesdropping, a culture of absolute corruption, the leaking of names of CIA operatives and a media culture that makes it impossible to differentiate the National Enquirer from the Los Angeles Times, are we simply being distracted yet again?

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