James Frey and Lying

Unless you don’t watch TV, don’t read the newspaper, and don’t watch Oprah (or you live under a rock), you have probably heard something about the James Frey / Oprah memoir lying thing.  A few days after the rumors of this initially broke – and before Frey publicly admitted he was lying about some of the events in his books, I wrote that James Frey Should Not Be Hung Out To Dry.

Things went round and round, eventually resulting in a public admission by Frey to Oprah that he had lied about details on the characters in his book.  Oprah really fried Frey, resulting in an interesting emotional backlash against Oprah on my blog.  Somehow the string “James Frey Email” brought up the book review I wrote on Frey’s second book My Friend Leonard on the first page of the corresponding Google search – a week later I had 60+ comments on this post, the vast majority of them defending (and praising Frey) while simultaneously bashing Oprah.

In this midst of this, I got a question from a reader of this blog that asked “I wonder if you still stick by James Frey after his interview and admissions today on Oprah?”

I’ve taken a week to ponder this.  Lying is something that I do not condone in any way, but this wasn’t an obvious “yes or no” for me.  I found (and continue to find – even with the new information) Frey’s books to be remarkable.  I believe I would have felt this way if they were presented as “sort of a memoir with a bunch of stuff changed to make them more powerful” and still would have felt this way if they were presented as “fiction.”  Frey’s immediate response (which turned out to be a lie) to assertions that he had stretched the truth bothered me, but as I thought about the books and the author, I realized this behavior was likely self-referential and was symptomatic of the underlying issues that Frey had in the first place.  So – I thought about this some more, especially what the difference is between memoir and fiction.

I then read a brilliant opinion piece in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligence titled “Press corps should take lessons from Oprah” which – when commenting on Bush’s State of The Union Address – finished with “If Bush had put all this in a book, Oprah would have called him and his publisher on the carpet. But Bush has only the Washington press corps and the enfeebled Democrats to answer to. As long as he sticks to speeches, he’s free to leave the truth in a million little pieces.”

After thinking about it for a while, I continue to think A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard are brilliant books.  Frey was wrong when he lied, but I believe that was part of his underlying pathology as a person and not simply a nefarious plot constructed by him and his publisher, Nan Talese, although his literary manager Kassie Evashevski seems to be really struggling with things.

The more unfortunate thing is the amount of time Oprah has spent on this, versus actually addressing lying as an underlying issue in our society.  Jon Stewart is doing a brilliantly entertaining job of highlighting lies told daily (primarily by our government), but the public discourse on “lying” seems to be focused on an addict who has written two magnificent and poignant books instead of on the pervasive deceit of many people in powerful positions in our society.

  • When I read Frey’s book, I never for a moment considered that everything I read in it was the gospel truth. Whether I considered it a “memoir” or an “autiobiography” or just a “story” from a part of his life, I assumed that there were likely embellishments. I assume that with any books from the genre.

    For me, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

    If this had been a scholarly tome, or something purported to be a research book, I would have a different standard. But who among us hasn’t taken a little literary license when telling a story from our life?

  • I have an inside word on this whole thing which I will tell you sometime offline.

    Something I will say publicly, though, is that my big takeaway is the danger of certain people/things having such an impact over culture. THe fact that Oprah can simply name a single book and it instantly becomes a bestseller is absurd. She’s mortal. She messed up, and now all these people are left shattered by the loss of trust. Same with celebrites on fashion.

    With the internet and niche-ification of everything, I suspect these figures won’t loom as large in the future.

  • This entire episode has a lot of “Wag the Dog” feel to it!

    Oprah just wants to do the “CEO Crisis Management Thing” for her reputation and the Book Club Name.

    James apologized “sort-of” and the bump in sales with all the publicity is not hurting him one bit!

    The publisher obviously is enjoying the publicity and the bump in sales.

    The only big question mark as Brad is asking is “does the truth matter at all”. Truthiness is a slippery slope.

    If this whole thing ends up in the publishing industry tightening up and self regulating what they call a Memoir Vs Based on a True Story Vs Fiction, it would be a very good thing! And that is what seems to be happening!


  • emily

    fraudalent or not, this book was amazing. This book, his thoughts, his beliefs can make such an impact on a person. God, fuck the smoking gun and oprah..fuck THEM. why are they making this such a big deal? its a book. its a story and so whut if he exxagerated or made up some stuff..without it ..it might have been boring. He wrote a deep, meaningful, humorous story. After reading this book it gave me a new outlook on everything. He is very convincing and i think the story is beautiful and very well written and original. Also I really don’t like qoutations and the she said, he said stuff. I liked the way he did lt. I like everything about this story because life is hard and life is depressing. People should realize that, people should realize their dark natures. Life is not fun and happy all the time.
    By reading this book i understood how strong he was inside and how he liked to keep how he was to only himself. It is real and explains the addictions of people out there in the world. and yes hard to overcome but to keep holding on. just hold on tight.
    enjoy the fucking story
    stop questioning it
    i wonder if anyone read these things

  • Colleen

    I agree 110% with Emily, everyone should just shut their “hole” regarding James’s 2 books unless it’s a compliment (remember that old saying: “if you have nothing NICE to say, say NOTHING at all!”). An ex-addict myself, let me tell you, is hard enough dealing with. Every damn day is a “war” against my own willpower. To STAY sober is quite a task let me tell ya! I could tell you about the last 10 yrs. of my drug use and I guarantee it won’t be 100% accurate to how it REALLY happened, but to me this is how I remember it and what occurred during this time in my life. And I too blame NO ONE for my use other than myself. It happened, it’s a part of my past, a definate learning experience, and if I can make anything GOOD from it (be it writing a book to help other addicts or becoming a drug re-hab counselor, etc.) than I’ll do it in a heartbeat. Jesus Christ, give James a break and get off his ass with all your petty complaints and bullshit nonsense. I’m fed up as hell just READING all of your childish bitching. And YOU, James Pinnochio, can shove your book up your pussy-ass!! How rude! I hope you choke to death on your own tongue in front of broad daylight w/ hundreds staring and laughing! I’m tempted to buy your book, shit all over it and return it to Barnes & Noble for a FULL refund, and then SUE your pussy-ass!! But I’ll just settle for being patient and letting KARMA do its own work!
    James F. I just want to say:”You’ve out-done yourself in both of your books!! Words aren’t enough to say what an amazing writer you are! You went through hell, defeated it, learned from it, and decided to inspire other addicts by writing of your own personal experiences and by giving HOPE that others too can conquer their addictions. How many addicts live to accomplish this? None I know of. I hope you’re working on your next book, as I’ll be first in line to buy it, and any others you write. You are an amazingly beautiful man whom I admire very very much! And you know, your story has the best ending: a loving & supporting wife and family! 🙂 Always remember that and don’t let the pecker-heads get you down!!! You have not only my support but thousands of others. So keep on writing and/or producing movies!”
    Colleen W.