James Frey Controversy Raises Issues of Fiction in Memoirs
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JEFFREY BROWN: Guests on CNN’s Larry King Live often come to defend or promote themselves. Wednesday night, James Frey was likely doing both.
Frey is the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” a book about his recovery from years of drug use and alcoholism. It’s been an enormous hit, selling 3.5 million copies since it was published in 2003, and topping last year’s non-fiction list.
REPORTER: But, James, what do you say to people who believed in you?
JEFFREY BROWN: But now it seems the book is part fiction.
JAMES FREY: I’ve acknowledged that there were embellishments in the book, you know, that I’ve changed things, that in certain cases things were toned up, in certain cases things were toned down, that names were changed, that identifying characteristics were changed.
JEFFREY BROWN: The trouble for Frey began when an investigative Web site called thesmokinggun.com looked into claims in the book about his criminal background. The Web site found Frey invented several stories, including hitting a policeman while drunk and serving three months in jail.
After more revelations and news articles, Frey made his case on Larry King.
JAMES FREY: Yeah, a memoir is within the genre of nonfiction I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to say I’ve conned anyone. You know, the book is 432 pages long. The total page count of disputed events is 18, which is less than 5 percent of the total book. You know, that falls comfortably within the realm of what’s appropriate for a memoir.
JEFFREY BROWN: The book got a huge boost in sales when talk show host Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club, her first non- fiction selection.
Wednesday night, Winfrey called into Larry King in defense of Frey.
OPRAH WINFREY: 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.
JEFFREY BROWN: But Winfrey also didn’t disagree that the book might better have been published as fiction, and said she relies on the publisher to define a book’s category.
JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m joined now by Karen Holt, who’s been watching this story as deputy editor of Publishers Weekly, a magazine that covers books and the book industry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Karen, tell us a bit more about Mr. Frey and his book. He is a young man completely new to the publishing world, right?
KAREN HOLT: Right, as you said he had been a drug addict, he had gone through some very tough times, although exactly how tough is now up for debate. But he had been through some tough times. He had been through recovery. And he decided that he wanted to tell his life story in a book. Originally, he had shopped it as a novel, eventually as we all know now it has — it ended up being published as a memoir.
JEFFREY BROWN: So how does something like this happen? Are there typically checks in place to check for inaccuracies or distortions in the publishing world?
KAREN HOLT: No, you know, there really aren’t. What typically happens is publishers will have their lawyers look at it to make sure that it is not libelous but beyond making sure they don’t end up in court, they really don’t have any sort of mechanism for fact-checking. And typically there is no fact checking. Publishers pretty much rely on the authors themselves to sort of vouch for the accuracy of the book.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now I with imagine that that would surprise most readers.
KAREN HOLT: Right. Well, you know, I think it has. And I think that is one of the interesting things about, you know, this whole controversy is that it turns out that a lot of people thought that book publishers followed of the same procedures as a newspaper or a magazine where there are actual, you know, fact checkers on staff and a presumption that everything is sort of factually accurate, whereas in books, there really is no mechanism for ensuring that.
And certainly in a memoir, the standards for factual accuracy are nowhere near what readers would expect from say a newspaper article or a magazine article.
JEFFREY BROWN: And this genre of memoirs has been quite popular, right, as you said, he first came with it as a novel, as a work of fiction.
KAREN HOLT: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Came back, somewhat retooled as a memoir. And there everybody, or not everybody but at least Doubleday in this case was ready to publish it.
KAREN HOLT: Absolutely. I mean, it is sort of a truism in book publishing that nonfiction sells better than fiction although nonfiction has many, many sort of fictional elements. And as we’ve seen this week, the line between fiction and nonfiction is incredibly blurry.
Having said that, for some reason the idea that this is a true story seems to — not necessarily just this, but any memoir, the idea that it is a true story, that it actually happened, for some reason that seems to sort of carry an extra power with readers. And it tends to be a lot more marketable.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now what has been the reaction of the publisher in this case?
KAREN HOLT: Well, you know, it was — it’s been interesting. You know, at the very beginning they came out with a statement saying, you know, we stand by the book. It’s not a particular concern for us. We still think this is a valid book. You know, through the week, of course, they were challenged often to, you know, basically take some sort of action.
And now what they are saying is that they will be including a disclaimer in the book, in future printings, you know, saying that there have been some embellishments, you know, for the memoir.
JEFFREY BROWN: The other, or certainly another big player and this Oprah Winfrey. It seems pretty clear that the Oprah effect on books is still very much with us, right?
KAREN HOLT: Absolutely. I mean she — she remains the absolute gold standard for book publicity. There has never been anything like it. You know, probably there never will be anything like it again. She can move books in numbers that are just almost unheard of in book publishing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as we saw in our setup, she pointed out that the book, whatever it is, connected with a lot of readers, millions of readers.
On the other hand, I was interested, just today I was reading a wire story that said that a reader has brought a lawsuit against the publishers for consumer fraud.
Do you have any sense yet about how readers are reacting to this news?
KAREN HOLT: Right, well, you know, it is a very interesting mix because you know, this book, it brings some very strong feelings for a lot of different reasons. I mean the fact that he embellished some facts is one aspect of it.
But this book was controversial from the beginning because he really came out against the 12 Step program. And that has angered the recovery community.
I mean long before all this happened, there were a lot of people who thought he had done damage because of his sort of criticism of the 12 Step method of overcoming addiction.
At the same time, there are a lot of recovering addicts who see him as, you know, an inspiration and a model. So there were strong feelings both for and against him within the whole recovery move long before this ever happened. And so I think that because of that added aspect, there are readers who respond I think a lot more personally to this than they might if it were a different type of book.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And I noted today that Mr. Frey’s next book is due out next year. And his current publisher says that it is definitely fiction. So that much is clear.
KAREN HOLT: That’s right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Karen Holt, thanks a lot.
KAREN HOLT: Thank you.