Friday, August 03, 2007

James Frey Redux

Readers of this blog know I'm a fervert NPR listener. Whether I'm at home or at the university, KERA 90.1 is usually playing in the background or on my headset.

Last Tuesday, while I was eating lunch, I listened to a local interview with Nan A. Talese, Senior VP of Doubleday (a division of Random House) and the wife of author Gay Talese. She was the editor for Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides, one of my favorite novels. She is also the publisher of her own imprint for Doubleday.

Mrs. Talese was in Dallas to appear at the Third Annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest sponsored by the University of North Texas. It was during that conference that the real July fireworks occurred.

You see, Nan Talese was the publisher who released James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces back in 2003.

In the unlikely event you've forgotten--A Million Little Pieces supposedly chronicled Frey's experiences as a drug and alcohol addict. After Oprah named it one of her bookclub picks on October 26, 2005, it became a runaway best-seller.

Then The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey had fabricated the more lurid portions of his "memoir," including his arrest and incarceration.

In a very funky marital moment, the New York Times (NYT) reported on January 12, 2006 that Gay Talese (a former Times reporter) said "he believed it was unacceptable for an author or a publisher to present as nonfiction a work that contained any composite or fictional characters or events, or that otherwise blurred the lines between truth and fiction."

Obviously, his wife disagreed with him. In the same NYT story, Nan Talese said "memoir cannot be held to the same standard as history or biography."

"'Nonfiction is not a single monolithic category as defined by the best-seller list,' [Talese said] . . . when asked to comment on her husband's remarks. 'Memoir is personal recollection. It is not absolute fact. It's how one remembers what happened. That is different from history and criticism and biography, and they cannot be measured by the same yardstick'."

I was filled with admiration for Mrs. Talese's aplomb (if not her judgment) when she responded to her husband's poorly timed quote with a mild comment to the effect that "I adore Gay, but this is a debate that we've been having for 40 years."

You have to wonder what she had to say to her hubby when she got home that night.

On the same day Gay Talese was hanging his wife out to dry, Larry King interviewed Frey. Below is a fragment of the interview courtesy of's transcript here:

KING: I'm going to give James Frey a chance to answer some of the things brought up by "The Smoking Gun."

. . . there's a story around that you offered this around to a lot of publishers as fiction and it was turned down and then you changed it. Is that true?

FREY: We initially shopped the book as a novel and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a non-fiction book. When Nan Talese purchased the book, I'm not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.

In a dramatic television moment, Oprah called in to that King program, defending Frey. She said, in part:

So the truth is this. I read and recommend books based on my connection with the written word and its message. And, of course, I am disappointed by this controversy surrounding "A Million Little Pieces," because I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work . . .

And I feel about "A Million Little Pieces" that although some of the facts have been questioned . . . the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book.

When King pointedly asked her if she still recommended the book, Oprah responded, "Yes. Yes."

Oprah took ENORMOUS flack over those comments and, two weeks later, completely reversed her position. On her show of January 26, 2006, she offered a public apology and then proceeded to confront Frey during a live appearance on her show. She demanded that he tell the truth.

If you want to relive some of those Kodak moments, visit Oprah here.

Nan Talese gamely accompanied her author to that public excoriation. Remembering her grace under pressure when confronted by the New York Times brandishing a quote from her very own husband, I had to admire Mrs. Talese for her courage (if not her judgment). At the same time, I asked myself, "Is she out of her pea-picking mind? Why on earth did she show up for this spectacle?" I was reminded of a friend's advice: Try to limit your opportunities to play the fool.

Eight months later, Frey and Random House finally responded to lawsuits brought against them by acknowledging that Frey had altered facts for dramatic effect, changing the book from a memoir to a piece of fiction.

Under a court-ordered settlement, readers were asked to provide proof of purchase for the hardcover or the paperback of A Million Little Pieces. Once they signed a statement that they bought the book thinking it was a memoir, they were reimbursed (Hardcover claims were paid $23.95 and paperback claims were paid $14.95).

That brings us to this past weekend and the Mayborn conference. According to Time, during an afternoon session on Saturday, Talese said that "it was Oprah who needed to apologize for her behavior in the affair . . . She described Oprah as exhibiting 'fiercely bad manners'."

Apparently those comments did not give Mrs. Talese closure because Saturday evening, according to the Dallas Morning News, ". . . Ms. Talese spoke up in response to an audience comment during a question-and-answer session with keynote speaker Joyce Carol Oates, who had been discussing the nature of truth in memoir writing."

Here is the YouTube clip of an obviously uncomfortable Oates and a very verbal Talese:

I'm reminded of an editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune back in January, 2006. In speaking of the Oprah broadcast, Maureen Ryan had this to say:

Talese, for her part, didn’t come out of Thursday’s broadcast smelling like a rose. She explained that, to her, if something seems plausible, why then, it must be true.

Ryan also said:

Really? It’s still a memoir? Well, that would require defining “memoir” as “thing I made up to make boatloads of cash.” If that’s the definition of the genre, I’m going to have to take a break from blogging to pen my memoirs about the career I had as a cross-dressing pirate before becoming the queen of Romania.

Note: Thanks to Nathan Bransford, whose blog yesterday here helped me realize C-SPAN had captured the Talese comments on film.

1 comment:

Stephen Parrish said...

I'm never going to write a memoir, but considering it hypothetically, I can't imagine not leaving out a few things and not embellishing a few others. I think memoirs deserve some leeway that history books do not.

And we've always granted them that leeway. Do you really think, for example, that A Moveable Feast by Hemingway is an accurate depiction of his life in Paris thirty years before he wrote the book? Hemingway himself stated in the preface, "If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact."

The book is classified by the industry as nonfiction.

Hemingway understood, long before Frey, Talese, or Oprah were born, that memoirs necessarily blur the line. No one's life is so routinely fascinating that it can be transcribed unedited into a book. And there's no such thing as objective autobiography.

But we're not really talking about interpretation here, we're talking about the deliberate alteration of facts and events to enhance tension and drama.

Right. Just like they do in movies "based on a true story."