On Thursday, Jan. 26, Nan A. Talese, the publisher of A Million Little Pieces, appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s now-infamous James Frey take-down show.
But Ms. Talese truly had no idea what she was in for.
“I was asked to go onto a program that was going to have James on it, and then I was going to be joined by Frank Rich and Richard Cohen to talk about ‘Truth in America.’ That was the program,” Ms. Talese said by phone this past weekend. As she was walking onto the set of the special live broadcast, however, she was informed that the theme of the show had been changed to something called “The James Frey Controversy.” Ms. Talese was surprised.
A spokesperson from Harpo Productions said that the company had no comment.
So yet another “truth”—this time from the jaws of Harpo itself—is called into question. Ms. Talese might never have agreed to appear on the show had she known Ms. Winfrey’s full intentions. The resulting televised spectacle was less a dissection of the lies that comprise modern American life and how they led to Mr. Frey’s fabrications, than an opportunity for Ms. Winfrey to vent her anger on Mr. Frey and Ms. Talese—in essence, on the entire book business.
Suddenly called upon to defend the troubled industry she’s worked in for decades, Ms. Talese faltered.
“I hoped I would have the opportunity to explain that publishing is a business of trust—we trust our authors are telling the truth,” said Ms. Talese later, outlining what she had wanted to say. “Fact checkers will no more protect people against those who do not honor truth any more than they protect the public against newspapers, television, bloggers—the Internet is rife with misinformation—or indeed from politicians and corporations. So in the end, it depends on honor, trust and character. And, indeed, forgiveness for mistakes.”
Mercy evidently was not on the schedule that day. But what was also clear was that the publishing veteran was unable to adequately explain how this particular mistake happened or, as many have suggested, sufficiently accept responsibility for it. Ultimately, Ms. Talese was taking the fall for a business long known to be ailing—one desperate for the next gimmicky novel or sappy memoir to bail it out of a gloomy fiscal year and satisfy its corporate owners.
Back in Oprah-world, angered by personal humiliation fueled by critical newspaper columns and viewer e-mails, Ms. Winfrey aggressively reduced Ms. Talese and Mr. Frey to puddles on the couch. Ms. Talese said that Mr. Frey was “reeling” on the flight back to New York from Chicago.
Ms. Talese said that she’d initially been reluctant to appear on the show at all and actually said no at first. But Mr. Frey had already agreed. Ms. Winfrey was the one who had asked him to appear on Larry King Live on Jan. 11, and he felt that he had to do Ms. Winfrey’s show as well, Ms. Talese said, since she had made his book such a success. So after repeated calls from Oprah’s people, Ms. Talese relented and agreed to talk publicly about “Truth in America.”
Explaining how the publishing industry failed its public was another matter entirely.
Ms. Talese’s meek performance on TV only emphasized something she has in common with many of her publishing colleagues. In those circles, there is outrage over Mr. Frey’s deceptions, but there is no strong belief that Ms. Talese or Doubleday did anything wrong in the handling of his book in the first place.
THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY BEARS THE WEIGHT of contradictory expectations: It must make money, as well as maintain the illusion that it’s one of the last bastions of highbrow culture. Which leaves book editors and publishers with the impossible task of creating products that will both sell at Costco and serve as intellectual currency at Upper West Side dinner parties.
But if the publishing business wants to keep shacking up with Oprah—and perhaps save face post-Frey—it might have to start paying better attention to distinctions such as fiction and nonfiction, memoir and “autobiographical novel,” reality and “emotional truth.” Ms. Winfrey represents the millions of Middle Americans who don’t trust the “liberal media” and who buy best-sellers at Wal-Mart; New York publishing prides itself on certain intellectual standards. Somewhere in between lies the watchful Google eye. As the financial incentives for exaggeration in art and life have grown exponentially, so have the opportunities to get caught. A permanent alliance between publishers and Ms. Winfrey’s millions signifies the end of the gentleman’s handshake.
Yet, like Ms. Talese, many—perhaps most—people in the book business claim they don’t think that anything is wrong with the old way of doing things, which explains the clash of civilizations apparent on Ms. Winfrey’s show. Thus far, it seems that no major changes will be made to ensure that future memoirs will be more truthful.
“It worked until now. I’ve only been doing it for 30 years,” said one veteran literary agent, who wouldn’t speak for attribution.
“Most authors are law-abiding authors, but you get one in 1,000 who is a nutcase, and no magazine, no book publisher, can defend against that,” said another, who also requested anonymity.
“It will change for a nanosecond because of the fear factor,” said one publisher at a well-regarded house. “If you hope to book somebody on Larry King, you’ll ask harder questions of that writer so nothing explodes in your face. The biggest terror everyone has right now is that Oprah will suddenly say ‘Oh, to hell with it’ and stop doing her book club.”
When asked why the publisher, like the others, refused to speak for attribution, the person admitted it was because they were in the throes of their own memoir panic, revisiting the books in their catalog.
“I don’t want to call attention to them in any way,” the publisher said. “I’m sure they’ll check out and everything, but …. ”
Additionally, the criticism from columnists and reporters and reviewers from newspapers and magazines—which run corrections every day—strikes the publishing people as pure hypocrisy. The nagging about fact-checking seems both naïve and impossible to execute.
“Having journalists pointing fingers at fact checkers … it’s not like it doesn’t happen with The Washington Post and The New York Times,” said Daniel Halpern, the editorial director of Ecco Press. “I just don’t know if fact-checking is the only answer. I think it’s got to be a combination of the legal people, some kind of fact-checking, and maybe the relationship between the author and editor, to catch the majority of the problems.”
Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic, ran through the economics of hiring underpaid 20-year-olds to look up facts: “How much can one person employed at $35,000 a year fact-check—10,000 words a week?” said Mr. Entrekin. “That means they can do four 125,000-word books a year, so that adds $8,000 to $10,000 in costs to each book. If it’s going to sell three million copies, that’s no problem, but many books sell only 5,000 copies, which would be a burden.”
However, Mr. Entrekin continued, “this is a very important issue, and we as an industry need to make sure that we’re very clear about this, because there is a sort of erosion of truth, with the Internet and the new media and reality TV. And the authority that is conferred on a book that comes from Random House—one of most prestigious publishers in the English language—is a very precious thing, and it’s got to be guarded very carefully.”
When asked whether he felt that book publishers should accept the standards and transparency of someone like Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, Mr. Halpern of Ecco paused.
“I would hate to think that I would put a book out there that was a distortion of the truth, that caused people the kind of pain that this evidently caused people,” Mr. Halpern said. “Nobody’s in publishing to make money. You’re putting books out there because you’re on a kind of mission, because you believe you have a taste in literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, and you want to share that, and you want to publish books that change people’s lives. You do the best you can to not have this happen. Not for the embarrassment of it, but for the immorality of it.”
THE HUMILIATION THAT MS. TALESE SUFFERED on network television was felt viscerally by many of her colleagues. But surely Ms. Talese’s former protégé, the young, media-savvy Sean McDonald, was having the strongest stirrings of remorse, watching his old boss take lashings for a book that he acquired and edited?
Mr. McDonald has resisted explaining his role in the Frey mess (he didn’t return calls from The Observer). But it is believed in the industry that he and Mr. Frey are extremely close and that he bears some responsibility for Mr. Frey’s deceptions. (Ms. Talese said that she has had little contact with Mr. McDonald since the drama began.) So why hasn’t Mr. McDonald come forward?
Mr. McDonald and Mr. Frey are known to be buddies who socialize and watch sports together. According to a transcript of a panel discussion between the two of them on Mediabistro.com in Oct. 2005, Mr. Frey said: “We’re friends. We do a lot of stuff outside of publishing and writing and we talk about shit that has nothing to do with work and for me that has been a very important part of it because I trust a friend who’s giving me good advice, as opposed to a boss who’s giving me an order.”
The editor brought Mr. Frey with him from Doubleday to the Riverhead imprint at Penguin in 2003, where he published Mr. Frey’s next work, My Friend Leonard, and developed a buzzy reputation (an “editor-as-rock-star-type” profile of him was underway at New York magazine before the scandal broke). Leonard was published in hardback with Riverhead’s standard disclaimer notifying readers that identifying details had been altered.
However, the timing of Mr. McDonald’s next contract with his celebrity author raises questions.
On Jan. 5, the online newsletter Publishers Lunch reported that Mr. McDonald had signed Mr. Frey to two more books, including a novel. (The deal is thought to be a generous one, well into the seven figures.) Three days later, on Jan. 8, the Smoking Gun posted its lengthy exposé, the result of a six-week investigation, indicating that Mr. Frey had spoken with them several times since Dec. 1—well before his book deal with Riverhead was signed.
Whether Mr. Frey had shared this information with Mr. McDonald is unclear. Regarding Mr. Frey’s new two-book deal, a Riverhead spokesperson said: “The ground has shifted. It’s under discussion.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Frey’s agent, Ms. Evashevski of the Hollywood agency Brillstein-Grey, told Publishers Weekly that she never sent his first book out as a novel, as Mr. Frey has repeatedly maintained.
She also disclosed that she has dropped Mr. Frey as a client.
Ms. Evashevski, who mostly works with movie types, not authors—in Hollywood, not New York publishing—had this to say to PW’s Sara Nelson about why she wouldn’t stand behind Mr. Frey: “It became impossible for me to maintain a relationship once the trust had been broken.”
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