Frey Backs Book, Winfrey Backs Frey
by Rachel Deahl & Jim Milliot, PW Daily — 1/12/2006
Although he acknowledged on the Larry King Show last night that he changed certain details in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, James Frey insisted that the essence of his storyâ€”of how he overcame years of addictionâ€”was true. That stance was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey who called the King show just before it went off the air to say she viewed the controversy “as much ado about nothing.” She said that while some details may have been altered, Freyâ€™s message of redemption “still resonates with me and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read the book.” Winfrey somewhat distanced herself from the uproar over the book’s authenticity by pointing out that she relies on publishers to vouch for the accuracy of their works. She challenged publishers to more closely examine what they classify as fiction and nonfiction.
There is no agreement in the industry, however, on whether memoirs, or certain types of other nonfiction, need to adhere firmly to facts. Geoff Shandler, editor-in-chief of Time Warner Books’s Little, Brown imprint, said, more than anything else, he was disheartened to see support for Frey’s work continuing, despite the now overwhelming evidence that key elements of it were greatly exaggerated and/or entirely fictionalized. “As someone who works on a lot of nonfictionâ€¦to hear folks say this is OK because that’s the nature of memoir, that’s upsetting,” Shandler said. “There is a huge difference between subjective recall and flat out fabrication,” he added, noting that those defending A Million Little Pieces by saying Frey did what any author does, embellish the facts to make for a better read, are essentially offering up “an ends justify the means argument.”
Perhaps the most off-put of those interviewed was author Mary Karr, who has written two memoirs including Cherry and The Liars’ Club. Karr said Frey took liberties no memoirist ever should, or be allowed to, take. “This is not a subtle distinction between what is fiction and nonfiction, and anyone sitting at a typewriter knows it.” When asked if she thought Frey’s trespasses could be equated with those of recently disgraced journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass (both of whom were caught making up stories and sources for their respective publications, The New York Times and The New Republic), Karr replied with an emphatic yes. Gearing up to write an op-ed piece for the Times on this topic, Karr finally said that Frey’s publisher, RH imprint Doubleday, needs to make a drastic statement. “They oughta yank [the book] off the shelf,” she said. “That’s what they do with plagiarism; they pull a history book if it has false information.”
At HaperCollins senior v-p and executive editor David Hirshey had a slightly different take. An Ã©migrÃ© of the magazine world (Hirshey was on staff at Esquire before moving to book publishing), he was less angered by the uproar than Karr or Shandler. “The former journalist in me thinks it’s inexcusable that [Frey] fabricatedâ€¦stories without informing readers,” he said. “But the book editor in me thinks that the writing speaks for itself.” When asked if he thought that the scandal could potentially diminish the popularity of the genre at large, Hirshey said he thought it was unlikely. “There is a long history of blending fact and fiction from Capote’s In Cold Blood to Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But I do think this puts authors on notice: The more outlandish your life story, the more scrutiny it will face.”
Among agents, the feeling was that the scandal wouldn’t have too much effect on the popularity of the genre or the way houses handle similar manuscripts. Robert Gottlieb, of Trident Media Group, said he thought this event is something of “an anomaly” and that, in spite of it, publishers still need to rely on “the truthfulness of an author” as opposed to teams of fact-checkers. Erin Hosier, of the Gernert Agency, echoed Hirshey’s sentiments that Frey’s work continues in a long tradition of non-fiction novels. “When it comes to narrative nonfiction, I don’t care if it’s 60% true, as long as it strikes a chord with people, which A Million Little Pieces has.”
Among booksellers the consensus seemed to be that, if anything, the scandal might help the already-strong sales of A Million Little Pieces and its follow-up, My Friend Leonard. As Tom Steadman, owner of The Book Depot in Mayetta, NJ, put it, “the more controversy, the better it will sell.” Steadman pointed out that the first he heard of the scandal was from a customer who bought AMLP explicitly because of the media coverage it’s now getting.
Karen Corvello, manager of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, CT, said she knew of some colleagues who were upset by the news. “Some bookseller who read it were disappointed to hear that he’d fabricated a lot of it, but it’s been selling itself at our store.”
This article originally appeared in the January 12, 2006 issue of PW Daily