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Corrina Wycoff

Tim O'Brien's narrator in "How to Tell a True War Story" explains, "Someone tells a story, let's say, and, afterward you ask, 'Is it true?' and if the answer matters, you've got your answer." For millions of James Frey's readers, the answer mattered. By O'Brien's math, however, readers should have doubted the veracity of A Million Little Pieces from the start. Now readers from Oprah Winfrey to my students at the community college where I teach are crying foul. "Duped," they say.

Meanwhile, others are trying to make sense of the grandscale public furor. Arguments range from the political to the ethical to the literary. Here are a few questions percolating to the tops of blogs, book reviews and news shows: Why are people outraged about this but not about more egregious lies with higher stakes? Why has the publishing industry sacrificed honesty in the service of sales? Why should we, in a nihilistic culture that values "perception" above "truth," be surprised by the fictive memoir as a new development? What does this new controversy signify about Oprah’s cultural clout? Even when jumping into the infinite regress of these unanswerable questions, I can’t find a satisfactory explanation why, Oprah’s wrath notwithstanding, so many people are so very angry at one small, shy man who wrote a book with tall tales and bad prose.

Sure. No one likes to be fooled. But if it’s really about truth and lies, why aren’t people screaming in the streets every day about Diebold and Enron and WMDs? If it’s really about the mercenary nature of big publishing houses, why aren’t independent media outposts now the sudden beneficiaries of a windfall? The causal connection between nihilism and lying seems, at best, quaint. If we call for an end to the consciousness of perception and relativism, what are we asking for? Empiricism and essentialism? Haven’t decades, if not centuries, of critical thought exposed those views as even graver lies than any that could be constructed by a single human’s perception? And Oprah. Is it really about Oprah? I know that many of my students, for example, know more about Jennifer Aniston’s divorce than they do about our government, but no single item of celebrity gossip—not even Martha Stewart’s incarceration—has ever instigated their indignation to this extent. Indeed, this is only the second time in my eight years of teaching that students have brought up a current event for discussion before I could. The first time was 9/11.

My best analysis is that the outrage isn’t about truth. It isn’t about politics or publishing or the nature of perception. Anyone who’s read even a page of Frey’s book knows it sure as hell isn’t about literature, either. It isn’t even about Oprah. James Frey’s lies garner widespread and widely publicized outrage because, in Frey’s lies, we recognize ourselves. His behavior reminds us of our own insecurities. Who among us has never tried to make ourselves look better than we are, even if we haven’t done so in "memoir" form? Maybe Frey lied for the same reasons many people do: because he didn’t believe that he was good enough or interesting enough as he was. Maybe even those of us who don’t lie use other questionable tactics to try and make people like or even love us. Maybe we do favors we don’t have time to do or give money that we don’t have to give. And maybe we want to loudly punish James Frey because he reminds us of something we’d like to forget: That we all make dubious ethical choices when compensating for our own feelings of inadequacy.

Barbara Shoup

I totally agree with you about Oprah’s response to the James Frey fiasco. Generally, I like and admire her, but this time I thought she was really out of line in the way she made the whole thing all about her. I thought it was horrible of her to have him on the show just so she could berate him. He was an addict, for God’s sake! Did it not occur to her that all this horrible notoriety might tip him over the edge? But the real disappointment, for me, was in her inability (or refusal) to see that the interesting, important conversation about the situation would have been one that addressed the big question: what is truth, anyway? Is any story anyone tells totally reliable? Of course, it’s not. The great fascination of my life is point of view: how any number of people can live through the same thing and have a completely different, often contradictory and at the same time equally true memory of what actually happened. Then there’s the way, over time, the stories we tell about our lives morph—for a whole variety of reasons. The ragged edges wear away, some parts get a better response than others and you consciously or unconsciously heighten them, others get left off…for whatever reason. Then there’s the way we tell one version to one person and another version to someone else.

I came upon this quote from Elie Weisel, which would probably make Oprah very anxious since she picked his memoir as her next book club choice, probably thinking it was controversy-proof: “Some stories are true that never happened.” I love that! It’s absolutely right—and why, in my opinion, good fiction that grows from something real can be more true than a history or memoir in which a writer sets out in all earnestness to tell the truth, but forgets or just chooses not to acknowledge how many truths there are.

The furor over the Frey book was humorous, in a way. In the past five years, every single person in our government has lied about things so dire that it’s cost thousands of lives and who knows how many billions of dollars—and people are so upset about a…book? Plus, I think Frey was a bit of a scapegoat. (I seriously doubt that Frank McCourt really remembered all the details/dialogues in Angela’s Ashes! And that’s just one example.) The truth is, all memoirs are sketchy. They can’t be confused with autobiography, which is an account of a life. The architecture of a memoir is much more like that of a novel. An autobiography is chronological; a memoir is a chunk of a life, it’s about something, there’s an arc—a beginning, middle and end—to the story about his life that the writer wants to tell. Usually, as with a novel, there’s some question implicit, something the writer is writing to understand.

I found it really interesting that Frey’s agent tried to sell the book both as a novel and as a memoir. It’s a riveting story, no matter how you label it. But right now our culture is so into living vicariously by way of celebrities and reality shows that the idea of being privy to something “real” made it more marketable as a memoir. Definitely does not bode well for us fiction writers!

That said, having loved the book, I was disappointed to realize he’d intentionally fabricated parts of it—especially since the things he fabricated seem to have been sort of superfluous, geared to sensationalize. What I found compelling about the book was the idea that he couldn’t or wouldn’t fake the belief in a “higher power” that’s required to make the Twelve Step program work, and took on the responsibility for finding his own way to get straight. It’s the kind of thing I know I’d have to do if I ever ended up in such a situation myself—that pesky integrity thing—so it was a struggle that seemed real and necessary to me. Enough. He didn’t need to sensationalize it to tell the story. Though, sadly, to sell it maybe he did.

Christine Sneed

Juan-Carlos (my long-suffering partner) watched the Oprah episode where James Frey was held up as example of a bona fide Enemy of the People (and the ever-dwindling book-buying public) and I had a serious physical reaction to the show and could only listen to about 2 minutes of it before erupting into a furious tirade against Oprah's unbelievable self-aggrandizing shtick where she in turn held herself up as a victim whose belief in the ultimate goodness of humankind had been direly compromised.

My reasoning was similar to Barbara and Corinne's:
I said (yelled is more like it) to JC--what about the war in Iraq? the shameful response to Hurricane Katrina? the fact more than 40 million Americans don't have healthcare?

The most ridiculous thing about the whole show was Oprah's moral outrage, as if Frey had entered her house and masturbated into her underwear drawer while she slept.

So what if Frey fibbed? He didn't bilk 2,000 people out of their retirement funds, or however many Ken Lay and Geoffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow cheated...

guile

i love the lovely bones.. can't wait to read lucky..

Addie Tsai

Gina,

I know no other way to write you, having found no other email address except your publicist. But I've just finished your novel, and am also an identical twin (a mirror twin at that), and felt uncanny similarities between the spaces and energies we exist in, and that of your twin characters. I'm not a fiction writer, but a poet currently shopping a manuscript called "when half a body sings." I'd love to talk to you about my own ways of seeing the twin psyche, particularly that of sexual identity, and of the complicated relationships that came out of our own strange, catastrophic family structure, and of the complexities I am trying to express of the two of us, ones that seem hauntingly represented and parallelled in your novel. Please email me if you'd like. I'd love to talk to you about them.

Addie

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