“How much fiction can a nonfiction book contain before it must be re-classified as fiction?” That’s the question of the month that’s raising eyebrows far beyond publishing industry.
James Frey’s book, A Million Little Pieces (2003), a drug-addiction novel-turned-memoir, sold more copies in 2005 than any other book except J.K. Rowling’s latest tome in the “Harry Potter” series. Everything was going swimmingly for Frey, including an October 26, 2005 appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and Oprah’s selection of the book for Oprah’s Book Club, which resulted in some 2 million book sales (3.5 million total to date) and counting just from Oprah’s fans.
Then the website, The Smoking Gun, outed the book’s numerous fabrications built into the supposedly true, gut wrenching story of addiction rehabilitation. Frey and his publisher, Doubleday, have been doing damage control since including an appearance (with his Mother sitting at his side) on “Larry King Live” January 11, 2006 during which Oprah literally placed a last minute call blessing the book’s “underlying message of redemption” and saying the book, “still resonates with me.” Later she added, “To me, it seems to be much ado about nothing.”
Frey has refused to respond directly to The Smoking Gun’s allegations and has threatened the site with a lawsuit. Larry King zoned in and Frey responded to accusations of falsehood by bizarrely admitting to 18 pages of “embellishments,” which he said represented “less than 5 percent of the total book.” For Frey, “The important aspect of the memoir is getting at the essential truth.”
So now instead of Truth we have “essential truth,” which is a bit like Al Gore’s “no controlling legal authority” or Bill Clinton’s “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” Clinton still owns the Baby Boomer Fabricator-in-Chief title with his finger-pointing “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” But Frey is introducing his generation’s definition of truth, which is to say, “essential truth.”
Neither Frey nor Doubleday much care about the hoopla, for it simply sells more books. And Oprah thinks its much ado about nothing. But shouldn’t the rest of us care? If nonfiction is fiction aren’t we left with Orwellian double-speak offering no certainty and eventually no hope. Former New York Times reporter Jason Blair lost his job for fabricating stories. Why is what Frey did any different?
Frey’s book was first conceived as a bloody, graphic novel, which was, according to Frey, rejected by a dozen publishers. When his agent then suggested Frey call the book a memoir it sold and sold big. Memoir is a form of the word “memory,” and everyone’s memory grows dim with time. But “memoir” also means “one’s personal experiences,” which is to say that the author tripping down memory lane is remembering, however dimly, actual events, times, places, and people---not fantasy.
Politicians are often accused of “spinning” the truth, which may mean putting one’s best foot forward (actual occurrences) or it may mean stretching the truth (which is a form of not telling “nothing but the truth” and, therefore, a lie).
Christians are guilty too. For years I have disliked the phrase “evangelistically speaking,” which is used as a generally kind but sometimes biting comment about a preacher’s tendency to exaggerate his statistics. I’ve never liked even the kindly use of the phrase for it seemed to indicate the preacher was either an uninformed boob who could not get his facts straight, an avid spinner creating a fuzzy impression, or an outright liar. None of these images seemed very preacherly to me.
Lying began in the Garden of Eden. As part of Adam’s race, we’ve all lied at some point if not multiple points in our lives. But this condition of the human race does not make lying acceptable, whether its called prevarication, fabrication, spinning, equivocation, hedging, evangelistically speaking, dissembling, pulling the wool over his eyes, fibbing, “truthiness” as has been cited on comedy channels, or lying.
The concept of “essential truth” fits neatly within moral relativism-the idea that there is no such thing as absolute, for-sure, for-certain, “true even if you don’t believe it” truth-which is one of the defining characteristics of postmodern culture. Francis A. Schaeffer coined the phrase “True truth” a long time ago, just to convey the reality of divinely given ultimate, objective truth. Truth is, whether James Frey, Oprah, Bill Clinton, Jason Blair, you or I own it or not.
No one ever said nonfiction can have no fiction within it, just that respect for God, truth, one’s own integrity, the writer’s craft, and the reading public demands the fiction be identified. I’m glad Frey is no longer addicted to drugs. Let’s hope he can break his addiction to falsehoods. Even more, let’s hope the publishing industry rediscovers the definition of fiction and nonfiction.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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