I’m not a person who watches Oprah on a regular basis, but I’m sitting here right now, watching James Frey squirm as Oprah grills him on the veracity of his book, which I just finished reading.
I’m still sorting through what I thought of the book overall. I read The Smoking Gun report long before I started reading the book, so while I never felt duped, it was definitely irritating to have to question what was real and what was not in the book.
I’m also thinking about this from the perspective of a nonfiction writer.
To a certain extent, any person who writes about themselves turns "I" into a character, and all the real people in their lives into characters as well. It’s generally accepted that you can’t fit all the truth about a person into even the longest narrative, and that you will naturally exaggerate (or as we like to say, emphasize) some moments as opposed to others, some characteristics as opposed to others. Obviously, there’s a very big difference between what amounts to shading, and wholesale alteration and fabrication, which Frey has just admitted to Oprah (with a spooky lack of affect) that he’s done in his memoir. Eighty-seven days in jail is just the same as three hours? Death by hanging the same as slitting wrists? Root canal without Novocaine the same as root canal with? Please.
There will doubtless be lots of discussion about whether this incident is another Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, hurt the institution of journalism and particularly narrative nonfiction moment. I don’t think it is, and I’m looking at the reason why. Oprah, our cultural queen, is telling people that the truth matters, and that wholesale alteration and fabrication is very very bad and even makes her even cry. She is also exposing the lack of fact-checking in the book publishing world, which I think would shock most readers.
When I’ve had (or read online) discussion of this book by non-writers, the general tone has been, who the hell cares if he made up a bunch of stuff if it’s a good read? My bet is that now that Oprah is on the side of stricter scruples in memoir, that attitude will change. And that will be good for all nonfiction writers.