The James Frey flap: A memoirist's rant

154441__little_pieces_l[EDITOR'S NOTE: Sarah Saffian, an Entertainment Weekly senior editor and the author of her own memoir, Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found, shares her thoughts about James Frey's sit-down with Oprah Winfrey over fabrications in his A Million Little Pieces:]

I’m not quite sure why James Frey went on Oprah today. If you’re just going to say, I’m sorry, I made a mistake, and I have no explanation for doing what I did, why do press? But since he is doing press, he desperately needs a media consultant. His lack of charisma and inarticulateness just served to heighten his shame. He did mention, only once or twice (and sheepishly), that he had changed aspects of people in order to protect their privacy. This is a completely valid reason to alter details in a memoir; it is done regularly, with a note on the copyright page saying that names, identifying characteristics, etc. have been changed (I did this in my own memoir). A good defense that he barely used, probably because it wasn’t actually the (only) reason he made the changes (how does changing slitting one’s wrists to hanging oneself protect privacy?). But then what was the reason? Why was his story of addiction and recovery not compelling enough without these embellishments?

Publisher Nan Talese, on the other hand, was a worthwhile presence, particularly in helping to explain what exactly memoir is — distinct from autobiography, and certainly from journalism, subjective, by definition a book written from the author’s memory — to Oprah, who, while she had a point, was seeing things in an overly black-and-white way. And Talese’s Carter anecdote, when Roslyn said to Jimmy, ”You wrote your memoir, now I’m writing mine” was very apt. Two memoirs written by two different people about the same circumstances should be different. Oprah, meanwhile, criticized Talese for not heeding from the outset the "red flags" that Frey’s book might not have been all true — the root canal episode, for instance — but she herself hadn’t heeded them either, of course, when she first read and raved about the book, putting her stamp of approval on it.

On the other hand, the comment The New York Times‘ Frank Rich made (maybe the onlyuseful comment he made) about this being a "slippery slope" wasimportant. If Frey changed the length of time he was in jail and theway someone committed suicide, what else did he change? And in general,what falls on the side of what’s okay to change?

(An interesting side point: in Larry King’s own 1992 memoir, When You’re From Brooklyn, Everything Else is Tokyo, he claims to have been great friends with Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax while growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ‘40s. But Koufax always maintained that he’d actually never met King. Seems germane to mention while grilling a fellow memoirist about his veracity.)

All this negative publicity will still trigger even more sales of A Million Little Pieces,because folks want to read what everyone’s talking about, in spite ofthemselves. But then I believe that they’ll swear Frey off, and hisnext book, a novel, won’t sell nearly as well. Look at Stephen Glass’and Jayson Blair’s books after their controversies — both bombs. Whydo we want to read more of what Frey has to say, no matter how it’smarketed?

The larger danger is that memoir in general will be affected by this– the comparisons of the few small detail changes in the newtranslation of Elie Wiesel’s Night to this debacle arecompletely absurd, but unfortunately they’re out there. My fear is thatmemoir won’t be trusted as a genre anymore and that it’ll become evenmore misunderstood than ever.

Comments (199 total) Add your comment
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  • derrick

    Paragraph By Pargraph Summary
    1. Congrats on your own memoir, perhaps ill read it and forward it to the smoking gun lol..
    2.Yeah James Fry needs a serious PR guy.. He is getting a lot of publicity.. But its the horrible type. He seemed puzzled, at a loss for words, and generally in a “kill me now” kind of mood.
    3.Nan Talese, gave a good defense.. But it still bodes unwell with me that.. Publishers dont care about the authenticity of someone or their story.
    4.Good Point New york times stranger..
    5.I wont read this book i dont care how cool it seems to be when my friends or associates talk about it. He has definately soured my um.. mouth.
    5. So much for the much anticipated “Bill Clinton” memoir.. Didnt he push it back?.. Everyone will be ready to tear it to shreds…
    THANK GOD JK ROWLING MADE SURE HARRY POTTER WAS A FICTION BOOK AND NOT A MEMOIR.. LOL @ HER lying about harrys parents death(killed at the hands of lord voldemort) when in reality they just died while practicing spells to kill him with. HAHA THATD BE FUNNY!

  • jodi

    thanks for the perspective; that was interesting.

  • Bobbi

    I have no problem with a memoir relying on people’s memories and some of them being hazy and perhaps not accurate. But, this man totally made things up. That’s not a hazy memory…..that’s fiction. Why not call it that? If for some strange reason he didn’t want to do that, why not put some sort of disclaimer in the front of the book? Stupid if you ask me.

  • Shannon

    Does MILLIE VANILLI ring a bell? Didn’t everyone run over their records with steam rollers?

  • Pete

    Agree with your review, but given her emotional attachments to anyone with a problem, doesn’t this fiasco lessen the credibility of Oprah’s “book club”? Who wants to accept her review of ANY book?? Not me!

  • Mark the Spark

    Being duped is sadly part of the personna of America. Advertising, government, the media…there is little truth and the greater challange is to find it. We are what we have become. Demand the truth and choose your sources well.

  • MICHAEL

    If you read the book, what is compelling about it is the authors struggle with addiction – a fact not in dispute. The length of time he was in jail is somewhat trivial. What is being overlooked now is Oprah’s flip-flopping on whether or not the truth is important. She is just trying to echo the sentiments of her fans and hope nothing “sticks ” to her.

  • Christopher

    “Two memoirs written by two different people about the same circumstances should be different.”
    …but on the same planet, following (roughly) the same rules of temporal physics. Adding 80+ days to your day is not a trick of relativity, it’s a device for shamelessly selling a more interesting story than your memoirs truly are.
    Frey committed what any reasonable person would call FRAUD. And he laughed all the way to the bank. I hope in the coming weeks, as his movie deal falls through and people start demanding back money, he cries.

  • mary

    Why can Oprah get away with calling James Frey a liar while she sits their with her fake hair? That’s all I wanna know.

  • nelda

    I THINK OPRAY WAS THE REAL OPRAH WHEN SHE CALLED LARRY KING..THAT WAS OPRAH. THE OPRAH ON HER SHOW WAS THE OPRAH WHO DID NOT WANT TO APPEAR BAD IN THE EYES OF THOSE WHO HAVE MADE HER RICH. I DID NOT THINK IT WAS IN GOOD TASTE TO BASH HIM IN FRONT OF HER SHOW WITH HER AUDIENCE! OPRAH IS THE ONE WHO REALLY BLEW IT!

  • Sheila

    After reading the SG article, I will not read Frey’s book (and I had intended to buy it). I admit my opinions are based solely on the article. What is worse than adding 89 days to a one-day stay is that this long stay was relevant to the subsequent suicide of the friend. If only he hadn’t been in jail and could have possibly prevented it…… Well, if he wasn’t actually in jail at the time, why didn’t he do something? The probable snowball effect of his other lies is mind-boggling.

  • Bobbi

    What is the old addage? Believe half of what you see and none of what you read. I think the point of recovery from addiction and the difficulties in the journey come through the book. It was a good read regardless of the authenticity of every detail.

  • Charles

    He is just doing what all addicts do. Stretch the truth or lie call it what you will. They all do it and it just adds more credibility to his story and thats all it is…..a story about an addict who lies and recovers and lives. If more addicts survive because if it then it worked. I am far more worried about the addicts who will say ……”Well I am not that bad, I am OK!”

  • Chris

    Yes, he changed some things in his “memoir” but in my opinion, the true measure of a book is how it touches us. Oprah (who I am a big fan of but thought that she came off catty in the interview)talked in the beginning of the interview about the many letters she had gotten from people whose lives this book had changed. I think that that is more important than if it should have been portrayed as a “memoir” or “fiction”. It was a wonderful, touching book and it still is. The basis of the story is still true. James Fry battled through things that most of us can’t comprehend. If his memories are unclear, I can kind of see why.
    Oprah seemed more upset that she was “duped”.

  • dma69

    I would like to how changing one’s method of suicide is considered protecting one’s privacy. If he lied about something like that, how can we believe anything in his book? Thank God I didn’t waste my money on it.

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