It was about 12:30 this morning when I switched our TV to the late-night replay of Oprah Winfrey. I don’t usually watch her show willingly. My wife is as reluctant to have Oprah on the TV when I’m in the room as I am to have old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies on when she is.
But Oprah had been in the news all day for her apparent take-down of “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey, whose fabricated memoir she promoted for three months, putting millions in his pocket for a story he sold as true, but has been proven false in many critical details. So I thought it might be worth seeing. And it was. It had the same cringe-making effect as watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” except this was real.
Here was Oprah, the biggest bookseller and book promoter in America, a force not to be trifled with by anyone in the publishing industry, coming up against our society’s new imperative — the scorching pursuit of maximum transparency.
The show opened with Winfrey’s ritual apology for her initial defense of Frey’s book. Then she brought out Frey, and forced him to confess his sins. While admitting he lied, he tried to psychobabble his way out of trouble, positioning his fibs as another symptom of the root personality defect that led him into drugs. That didn’t really hold water, given that we’d already been told he first peddled the book as fiction before submitting manuscript, unchanged, as a memoir — memoirs being a hotter genre.
Then, after taking his lumps, and looking (as every scribe has described him) like a bad boy sent to the principal’s office, out came the responsible adult in the relationship, Nan A. Talese, a celebrity editor with her own publishing imprint, an elegant figure very much in keeping with the New York media elite, all the way down to the sort-of British accent and refined manners. Oprah’s brutal treatment of Ms. Talese captures the spirit of our age, and the collision between the old and new ways better than anything I’ve seen in awhile. From the transcript on Winfrey’s website:
Oprah: What did you do as the publisher of this book to make sure that what you were printing was true?
Nan Talese: As the publisher of the book, I read the manuscript. I thought this was an absolutely—I would say there was an authenticity in the book. That experience that I responded to, and people have different levels of pain, and I thought, excruciating as the dentistry was, it was not impossible.
Secondly, I shared it with my colleagues. There were no questions. Then what happens with a book is the editor goes over a manuscript with an author and if there’s anything that does not seem true, we question the author. Then it goes to a copy editor. All along in the process of this book, in retrospect it might seem, you know, how could everybody be that stupid and that dumb? But in fact, all the way through in the first nine months of the book…
Oprah: That book is so fantastical, I will say, that, really, that’s not washing with me. But I just want to know because [this show is] live. So what did you do legally to make sure? Did you vet it?
Nan Talese: The book was vetted legally. It would seem that no one was libeled. But it was not…you do not bring an author…an author brings his book in, says it is true, it is accurate, it’s its own.
Oprah: But if you’re publishing it as a memoir, I think the publisher has a responsibility because as the consumer, the reader, I am trusting you. I’m trusting you, the publisher, to categorize this book whether as fiction or autobiographical or memoir. I’m trusting you.
Oprah: We asked if you, your company, stood behind James’s book as a work of non-fiction at the time. And they said, absolutely. And they were also asked if their legal department had checked out the book. And they said yes. So in a press release sent out for the book in 2004, by your company, the book was described as “brutally honest and an altering look at addiction.” So how can you say that if you haven’t checked it to be sure?
Nan: You know, Oprah, I mean, I think this whole experience is very sad. It’s very sad for you. It’s very sad for us.
Oprah: It’s not sad for me. It’s embarrassing and disappointing for me.
Nan: I do not know how you get inside another person’s mind.
Oprah: Well, this is my point, Nan. Otherwise then anybody can just walk in off the street with whatever story they have and say this is my story.
Nan: This is absolutely true…
Oprah: That needs to change.
Nan: No, you cannot stop people from making up stories. We learn by stories.
Oprah: You can if you call it a memoir. You can make up stories and call them novels. People have done it for years.
Nan: A novel is something different than a memoir. And a memoir is different from an autobiography. A memoir is an author’s remembrance of a certain period in his life. Now, the responsibility, as far as I am concerned, is does it strike me as valid? Does it strike me as authentic? I mean, I’m sent things all the time and I think they’re not real. I don’t think they’re authentic. I don’t think they’re good. I don’t believe them. In this instance, I absolutely believed what I read.
Oprah: So did I.
It was great television, and very instructive for anyone (especially in the PR industry) put in the position of defending a serious breach of trust. Ms. Talese is well-mannered and so managed to survive with her external dignity intact, but you could tell the guts had been kicked out of her.
“It would seem that no one was libeled” was, until recently, an acceptable standard for truth in the media. Now Talese knows differently. “We learn by stories,” was the kind of arty insight that used to impress people back when Joan Didion (or was it Janet Malcolm) first uttered those words. Now, it’s a joke. We, our society, want to know what’s true versus what’s a “story.” As Dan Rather and Mary Mapes found out, an appeal to the “larger truth” is not acceptable if the underlying information presented as fact is not factual.
In the past, one might have said a memoir like Frey’s was still valuable because it was hatched from the mind of a man who’d “been there,” strung out on drugs, so the details were no big deal. That was Oprah’s position when this started, but now she’s apologized for it. The publishing industry’s fact-checking appartus will be toughened significantly, if for no other reason than to satisfy Oprah. She can’t be ignored. Memoirists, take heed.
There’s a part of me that’s loving all this. It’s bracing to see the artifice stripped away from the institutions of culture and media. It’s awesome to watch — like seeing a glacier carve a new Yosemite Valley in real time.
But the part of me that studied English at Berkeley found myself worrying about how some of our greatest writers would fare under the new regime. Some of our most treasured literature is non-fiction. Ben Franklin’s “Autobiography.” Mark Twain’s great memoirs of travel and growing up. George Orwell. Ernest Hemingway. De Tocqueville. Jack Kerouac. Norman Mailer. Is every word in Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” true? What about “The Autobiography of Malcolm X?”
William Faulkner, in my opinion the greatest American novelist, was a notorious liar when it came to any discussion of his life. Lies were essential to his existence, and the source of his genius. In his Mississippi drawl, he’d say, “I just like making things up.” Fortunately, his classic fictions won’t be challenged because he never represented them as anything but. But would Faulkner today have been hounded on the Internet for the untrue things he said about his family history, his gross exaggerations of his service in World War One? Of course he would have. It’s a different time now. We will have a different literature as a result.