By the jaded standards of the publishing trade, it shouldn’t have been disturbing to learn that author James Frey may have fudged the truth in his best-selling addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
“For someone to style a book as a memoir and take liberties with strict factual accuracy of the account is not unusual,” said Jonathan Kirsch, an author and publishing attorney. “That’s the world we live in, and publishers tolerate it. They might even encourage it, because it makes the books juicier.”
But the opinion that mattered was Oprah’s.
As the news of Mr. Frey’s apparent fabrications—laid out in a sprawling report on the Smoking Gun Web site Jan. 8—spread, the professionals weren’t the ones who counted.
“This book will come and go, but the ripple effect could be much bigger if it causes Oprah to say, ‘I don’t want to get into this again,’” said literary agent Lynn Nesbit. “This would be incredibly damaging for the book industry.”
It was Mr. Frey’s memoir that marked Oprah Winfrey’s return to her role as a rainmaker in the world of modern literature. In 2002, the talk-show host had turned her terrifyingly influential on-air book club away from contemporary authors, choosing instead to goose the sales of classics like The Grapes of Wrath and Anna Karenina.
But Mr. Frey tempted Ms. Winfrey back with his ostensibly real-life tale—first published in 2003—of battling to overcome a life of addiction, degradation and wanton criminality.
During the original incarnation of Oprah’s Book Club, there was grumbling in publishing circles that Ms. Winfrey’s treatment of contemporary fiction was too mushy—that she concentrated on issues of personal growth, abuse and racism, dissecting novels as if they were nonfiction.
In 2001, Jonathan Franzen complained that Oprah’s selection of his book The Corrections would tarnish his reputation as a serious literary figure. Ms. Winfrey promptly dis-invited him, a move that reminded the tweedy editors that most people who buy books tend to do so at places like Wal-Mart—and that they often get their buying advice from people such as Ms. Winfrey herself.
But Mr. Frey was more than willing to promote his memoir on Ms. Winfrey’s terms, going on her show to inspire the viewers by discussing his own demons. His book shot back to the top of the Times best-seller list—with his follow-up memoir, My Friend Leonard, hot on its heels.
“There is something hopeful and interesting about the Oprah Book Club again,” said one New York editor. “No one really got excited about Grapes of Wrath when Oprah picked it. With this one—I saw two people on the subway this morning reading it. It kind of gets people excited and talking about a contemporary book. It’s a good thing, even if it’s Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone.”
Broader popularity has a price. Mr. Frey was already a literary celebrity; winning the sensitive hearts of the memoir-reading set, he had put himself on a Prozac Nation/Girl, Interrupted trajectory, with crowded readings, a fortune in the bank and a film deal in the works.
But it wasn’t until he reached Oprah levels of fame that the Smoking Gun decided, as recounted in its report, to include his picture in the site’s file of celebrity mug shots. And that led to the discovery that Mr. Frey’s career as a self-described drug-addled desperado—a “Criminal” with a capital C, in his usage—had no paper trail to back it up. In lieu of a crack-fueled car accident and brawl with cops, for instance, there was a lone open-container citation.
The publishing industry took it all with a resounding lack of outrage, especially as the news arrived in tandem with The New York Times’ declaration that emotionally fragile, semi-autobiographical feral-child novelist JT Leroy was a hoax.
“The entire memoir genre is rife with this,” one editor said.
“We live in a media culture in which the line between strict reporting of facts and invention is very blurry,” Mr. Kirsh said. “We’ve been in that media culture since In Cold Blood.”
Publishing figures seemed less than eager to discuss the potential impact of the Frey incident on their industry; in any standard book contract, it was repeatedly pointed out, the author warrants that what they’ve written is true. Publishers have never fact-checked, and only routinely look at material for cases of libel or invasion of privacy.
In a statement released on Jan. 10, Doubleday declared: “In publishing Mr. Frey, we decided A Million Little Pieces was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections. Recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers.”
But it wasn’t just the overall reading experience that drew Ms. Winfrey back into contemporary publishing. It was the belief that Mr. Frey was describing real life.
And if Ms. Winfrey were to turn against Mr. Frey, A Million Little Pieces could well become the Enron of the memoir boom.
In a letter to the Smoking Gun, posted on the Web site with the rest of the Frey report, Mr. Frey’s attorney warned the online reporters, “my client has lucrative book and movie deals in place, as well as having an expectation of prospective economic benefits. It is certainly foreseeable that your publication of a false Story about Mr. Frey—particularly one falsely attacking his credibility—would imperil both existing and anticipated economic benefits, resulting in substantial damages to my client.”
Last week it was announced that Mr. Frey’s editor, Sean McDonald at Riverhead, had signed the author to deliver two more books, one of which will be a novel.
“I’m looking forward to showing people that I can write fiction,” Mr. Frey told Publishers Weekly in October, “that I’m not just a guy who can write about himself.”
And Mr. Frey was preparing to take his case to the talk-show world. According to his Web site, the author was scheduled to go on Larry King for a full hour on Jan. 11.
—additional reporting by Gabriel Sherman