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January 10, 2006

A Million Little Pieces of ... Advice

UPDATE: Okay, I totally take it back. After doing some more research, between bleary-eyed editings, my impression of what Jim Frey did was more than blur the edges of reality for dramatic effect. I see now that he wholly invented a very dramatic story and tried to pass it off as truth. You can read it all at http://www.thesmokinggun.com., as our respondents have noted. I think the clincher for me was getting the manuscript rejected 17 times as fiction. He could only sell it as nonfiction. Hmmm.

By the way - thanks for everyone's honest and passionate response about the need for truth. You've restored my faith!

Sarah

By Sarah

Bear with me, please. The revisions on The Cinderella Pact were due yesterday which means that I have stayed up all night trying to read the print out of what I've written while trying to keep in mind necessary details such as my name, how many children I have and whether or not I've showered in the past 24 hours. I know you understand.

When I haven't been thinking about revisions or the sorry state of my post-holiday refrigerator, I've been mulling over Jim Frey whose book, A Million Little Pieces, is being hacked into, well, a million little pieces. A Million Little Pieces - which I've skimmed but haven't read, admittedly - is about Frey's struggle with addiction and troubles with the law and ultimately sobriety.

It is also an Oprah book, a big time Oprah book. Oprah couldn't say enough about it, how "raw" and "real" it was, right down to Frey's description of a root canal without anesthesia. As we all know from the Marathon Man and Compromising Positions, dental work can be scary.

Aside from dubious dental details there a few other problems, such as whether Frey spent three months in jail or a night. I call this the Johnny Cash syndrome. Johnny Cash made a career out of turning a night in the tank into a stint at Folsom Prison, including a concert. I forgive him just like I forgive Jim Frey. In my opinion, truth is highly overrated.

This is my conclusion after more than 20 years in journalism and after growing up in a family of journalists who were congenitally the most inveterate liars on the planet. It is almost impossible to get at the real truth, especially when you're writing about your own experiences. Psychologists know this. So do trial lawyers who make their money and reputations on playing with our human truth frailty. Consider a cross examination of a witness: Did you see the man take the woman's purse? Yessir. What color coat was he wearing? Yellow. Are you certain it was yellow? I know it was yellow as well as I know my own mother. I present Exhibit A - the coat that is, actually, orange.

That Stephen Colbert's brilliant invented word "truthiness" was the word of 2005 is not surprising. WIthout stepping too much into politics, let me just say that we as citizens are becomming accustomed to measuring the "truthiness" of what our government tells us, instead of accepting as gospel what comes out of Washington. This is dangerous, I suppose, but so are fake journalists and, worse, real journalists who continue to labor under the protection of the First Amendment while undermining its core structure. I'm talking, of course, about the New York Times.

Okay. Done. Off my soapbox.

So is it really so awful that Jim Frey took his own experiences and with the grace of talented writing dramatized them? Sure, it's nonfiction. But it's nonfiction about himself. That's kind of mini nonfiction. It doesn't really count, does it? After all he's not claming Lincoln had a homosexual affair (which, according to one nonfiction account released a few years ago, he did.) He's just telling a tall tale. A fish story. And isn't that what entertaining writers do?

Or is it that Frey is suffering the blessing of being picked by Oprah. Considering the level of jealousy out there among frustrated writers who can't even imagine Frey's royalty statements, Frey's lucky to get off with just a bunch of bad publicity. Anyway, my bet is that this week's brouhaha will only spike his book sales. Either that, or Oprah will announce she's going back to dead guys.

To the revisions!...Stay warm!

Sarah

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Truthiness is a tricky subject to discuss with novelists. I'm coming up on my 26th year of professional writing, and that's a lifetime of reading, hearing & living non-fiction with an eye for how to use it in my imaginary world. By now, I only hear the details that work for me. The rest--the truth and the accuracy---that's out the window. (That's bad when I'm trying to remember what time our flight leaves Orlando.) It's a method of perception that works for me in my profession. The truth doesn't get in the way of my fiction. So I can understand when journalists get a little fuzzy on the details. It's wrong, I know. But I live it, I know it, I understand the temptation to use only what works. I trust the New York Times to get it right . . . maybe so I can get it wrong, huh? Is Frey in the business of reporting accurately? Or is his goal to tell a good story? And in this age of truthiness, does it matter to most Americans anymore?

Anyway, Jon Stewart is still my favorite "journalist." I think he basically takes the truth and stretches it to the point of hyperbole so we can get some perspective. And he's giving me a reason to watch the Oscars again.

Keep us posted on the revisions. We miss you at the water cooler!

I'm reminded of the story of outlaw country singer David Alan Coe, who reportedly once sued a journalist for libel for reporting that Coe had NOT actually served time for killing a man.

If that ain't country...

Well, gosh, according to today's NYT, Frey wrote the story as fiction, and he and his publisher waffled over whether to release it as fiction or non-fiction. They released it as non-fiction, and he didn't make one change.

People feel cheated when they read something and feel sympathy for (or empathy with) a writer, only to find that the writer was toying with them.

I am not a writer, but I understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and if he had embellished the story, then he probably should have noted that, as the NYT says is common.

But can you believe the NYT?....
The Jayson Blair scandal was the best. I loved the idea of a reporter supposedly being in the muckity muck and actually writing from his apartment in Queens, working from his laptop. You can bet that had a HUGE influence on this book I'm revising.
And I'm afraid I'm not familiar with non fiction where there is a notation that the truth has been embellished.
I am sorry that people feel cheated. But the way I look at it, three months or one night...if you as a reader derived the same experience, what does it matter?

I don't care, except as a subject in a fiction-non-fiction book, and I don't know if that disclaimer is in the book. I mean, I read Dating Dead Men, and I figured that some of the dates are based on Harley's personal experience, as Bubbles' newspaper experiences are based on you and your family's experiences. It's sort of fun trying to separate what is completely made up (meeting some mysterious guy in an elevator at a mental hospital; a friend with a musket, maybe) from what is only partly made up (a blind date with some jerk; a mysterious, unofficially unsolved murder in an upscale neighborhood, which I know sort of happened).

I disagree. There is no justifiable excuse for lying and fraud, but that's not even the biggest of his transgressions.

Frey coined the phrase "Hang On," which he says will help those who struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol. He says that addiction is NOT a disease, that cancer and Parkinsons are diseases, but addiction merely needs to be battled with discipline and a strong will. He speaks out againt AA and 12-step programs, and is now making another mint by giving speeches on the subject.

Frey and his publisher hoodwinked Oprah and everyone else when they claimed the book was "real." That's bad enough. But for Frey to be speaking to people who are suffering and looking for answers, when he is nothing more than some desperado badass wannabe with falsified street cred, who made up a whole bunch of stuff that NEVER happened and embelished more stuff that barely happened, and then he's standing up and saying "You can get over this. Just 'Hang On.'" That is so reprehensible it boggles my mind.

People take him seriously because his book was "non-fiction." They are getting Hang On tattooed on their body. This matters, what Frey did. It really matters. He's putting himself out there like he has answers to REAL problems. He is affecting the real LIVES of the very people he defrauded.

Quite frankly, I think that writers, more than anyone, should acknowledge just how dangerous Frey's actions were. There is power in the written word. Futher, as a fiction writer I take my job very seriously. I seek to find the truth in my fiction. I don't lie to my reader, even when I tell them a story. For Frey to lie like he did is insulting, to the public he stole from, to the addiction-riddled people he lies to, and to us, the lowly novel writers who take the time to craft stories with care and who have the balls to call them what they are: Fiction.

Well, Tracy, I stand corrected. That's certainly very enlightening. My question is this, was he ever an alcoholic/addict who "recovered" from his addiction?
I have a keen interest in this issue since my brother died of alcoholism at age 45. And let me tell you, that is a disease. There was no disagreement about that in the intensive care ward where all the medical intervention in the world couldn't save him.
Okay --- as soon as I'm done revising, I'll give Frey's book more attention. I did buy it - a month ago.
Thanks for the clarification!

Tracy, I agree with you.---Frey is wrong to stand at the head of a line of people willing to follow in his "example." (And surely Oprah is embarrassed to have championed him.)

But as writers of fiction, aren't we seeking the *emotional truth* by bending reality? We want to take our readers on a ride to make our points. I read a great article in The New Yorker last week. I'll dig it up, maybe blog about it later. But the gist was the people don't listen much to sentences that begin with "Thou shalt not." But they sit up straight and pay close attenion when the same message begins with, "Once upon a time." It's human nature to seek compelling, yet accessible stories that will teach us (and especially our kids) the lessons that we are spared learning the hard way in real life.

My point is that Americans don't care anymore if the label says "Non-Fiction" or "Fiction" or "Fat Free." We don't seem to need to make the distinction between reality and fantasy. I harken back to my sojourn at Disney World last week: People were looking for an experience that moved them, and if it was fake--well that seemed to be okay by everyone. People were satisfied---happy, even--with the truth as spun by those Imagineers (novelists of a different stripe) who could provide a synthetic catharsis. What a world. You're right to dial the wake-up call.

Wouldn't we like to be a fly on the wall if (when?) Mr. Frey has lunch with Tom Cruise to discuss the possible screenplay??

I read the whole thing on thesmokinggun.com. I know very well that a person's view of themselves and life story is likely to be an innacurate one, but this was really made up out of whole cloth. He wasn't a baaaaad man, just a drunken, drug-taking frat boy asshole, who had some minor run-ins with the law. (Open container kind if stuff.) Dime a dozen garden variety loser.

The really creepy stuff was about two girls he was in high school with who were killed in a train crash. He completely invented a relationship with one of the girls (using her real name), and wrote about how her parents treated him badly after the accident (his version left out the other girl and made inserted himself in the story - lying to cover for her going out with her boyfried - which was completely untrue, she went to the party with her friends). Her parents are still alive, and baffled that someone who didn't know their daughter would say these things about her and them.

I really don't have a problem with embellishment in memoirs, but when it overlaps with real people's lives (as it invariably does), the claim that it is all true is hurtful.

One of the problems with the Oprah-type shows is that they up the ante for what people think "bad" is. They also provide a narrative template for manipulative people who want sympathy from others.

I really hope Oprah does a show (or shows) on how and why people make up a victim mythology for themselves. Should a therapist do a background check on patients and confront them when they are not honest about their past?

Or maybe I should work this into the plot of my book, eh?

Hmmm. It gets curiouser and curiouser.

I just found out the 358 pages of what I thought was "clean text" that I was about to send off to my editor, is actually jammed packed with coding that I must right click my way to get through. Agggghhh!!!

Misbehaving frat boys who play on the tragedy of others. Okay, now I'm chucking his book in the fire.

It is bad when the people we depend on for our news and understanding of the world are untruthful. That to me horrible, but not something that I dwell on more then a few moments. The truthfulness of one man about his struggle with drugs, only means to me that maybe, just maybe , his words might stop someone else from picking the stuff up! Now, whether he spent one day or three months somewhere means only that his perception might be off. Drugs will do that to memories you know .Being raise in a family with seven alcoholics, I know how that can happen. Whether its a disease or not I dont know, a person makes a conscious choice to pick up that drink or that drug. What if this book could stop that person from making the same mistakes Frey did? Who is to say if the 12 step is the only way to go? Or any program for that matter.He states an opinion. Nothing says that others need to follow his way of getting clean.Its funny, books are written everyday about our government, our heroes, and rewriting our history and there is no shouting or beating of the chest.In this case, I am assuming that the problem is whether his book is fiction or nonfiction. LOL, Dan Brown wrote a fiction book and the world went crazy about the facts! The pope came out against it! This is a book, not the Bible. Enjoy it, learn from the frightening life this man did, or may have lived through and let it go. Living day to day, being the best person you can is more important then trying to figure out if this is gospel or not.The one thing I can say is that Frey has a mother who is proud of him. The smile on her face means more to him then whether he is believed or not.Also the fact that putting down the words probably helped him more then any meeting ever could have.
I am sorry for the soapbox ranting, I guess the truthfulness of those around me means more then the words of someone I dont know. My opinions only! SusanCo

I don't have all the answers. I only know that reading about what Frey did makes me feel tired. If he can do this and people just shrug and look away, what does that mean? Everything is just pointless when Liars Prosper and people don't care. I know I'm a relic (at 35!) but I really believe that honor and integrity and being authentic matters. I don't like it when people like Frey and the publishers who insist they'll "stand behind their author" get away with such horrific behavior.

To answer Sarah, I don't know if he really overcame addiction. He lied about everything else, so I doubt the veracity of whatever he says. Honestly, I don't care if he recovered or not. The point is that he's putting himself out there, like some sort of Self-rehabilitated Messiah, and he's just a fraud. A fraud who can barely write a coherent sentence, I am forced to add. The only reason his haphazard, crude, and repetitive style worked at all was because he was "not a writer." But that's just my petty, editorial aside.

And Nancy, truth in fiction, emotional or otherwise, is just that: truth. Maybe that's why it's so upsetting to me, that it's hard to suss out "truth" in this world. However, I just don't agree that the American people don't care about what a book says on its spine. I mean, I have seen readers get so upset with writers about the content of their fictional books. How many nasty letters do writers get because their novel contained a bigot or a rapist or a satan-worshiping pedophile? And that's fiction! So why did it upset the reader? Because it was written with truth, so much truth, that it seemed real. But this Frey dude gets to skate by with a "so I exaggerated" and people don't care?

Go to Amazon and see that his book is #1 in sales. I guess you're right.

I'll tell you, I lived through some of the most horrific things....things you wouldn't believe, things of which I never speak. Maybe that's a part of why this makes me go all bugshit when, usually, not much can raise my eyebrows. Frey, in addition to his other sins, also takes the power from the person who would write an authentic memoir of surviving destruction. He steals the thunder of anyone who might pen an honest, raw look at overcoming drug abuse and addiction. He makes it all so "that's been done." He diminishes BOOKS.

And got rich doing it.

Like I said, it makes me tired.

Susan - I guess truthfulness means a whole heck of a lot! And I have to say that alcoholics are notorious for screwing with the truth so if you grew up around them you might treasure it even more.
Okay - just found an Accept All Changes button. Boy,am I slow on the uptake. I may get this manuscript in yet!

Tracy, I want to read *your* book! You go, girl!

Sarah, have I mentioned that The Cinderella Pact is a fabulous title? I love it! Is this one scheduled for summer?

"also takes the power from the person who would write an authentic memoir of surviving destruction."

Very powerful, Tracy.

I just checked on the AOL board while waiting to hear back from my editor re this $#@&*coding. The attitude there is, this guy helped heal my family. So I don't careif it's true or fiction.

There's a lot of ends-justifies-the-means thinking going on out there, along with many, many hurting families who will grasp onto any hope.

Any thoughts about Frey's upcoming book contracts? If he's not a "writer" then how come Penguin just paid him major bucks for more?

Yeah, Tracy. It sounds like you've got a rich story there.

Fiction - A made up story or a true story with made up parts in it.

Non-Fiction - The truth.

Which catagory does this book belong in?

I mean, the LITTLE HOUSE books are classified as fiction. Why shouldn't this book be fiction. It sounds to me like the story would have been just as powerful if it had been released as a novel. So why wasn't it?

To me, this is just another sad sign that our society at all levels doesn't really care anymore. We have the government lying to us, and the news media lying to us about the government's lies. How are we supposed to know what is really going on any more?

And I think it scares me even more that a former journalist can conclude that "In my opinion, truth is highly overrated."

Mark

Mark - The thing is I highly rated the truth as a journalist. That's why it's such a waring job, battling constantly to determine what is real, what is not and, especially, fighting for access to information that, as a public, we not only pay for through our taxpayers, but to which we have a constitutional right. Which is why I got out of the business. I couldn't do truth justice. And which is why I write fiction which, as Nancy pointed out, sometimes has more of an "emotional" truth.

I have some very strong feelings about all of this, not the least of which is -- where've I been? This is the first I've heard of any of this.
Okay, long cleansing breath. For the moment, I'll just limit myself to: Abraham Lincoln was gay?!

Sarah,

I get more where you are coming from now. There are days I tire of trying to find the truth in the midst of all the lies as well, and I'm an accountant.

Of course, you don't want to get me started on the people who read a book clearly labeled fiction and conclude that the story behind the fiction is true and use a fictional book as a source in their non-fictional arguements. :)

Harley,

Of course Abraham Lincoln was gay. I think they've "proved" every major historical figure was gay at some point in the last 20 years. Except George Washington. Hmmm. Maybe I have the subject of a best seller on my hands. Look for my explosive revelation about the founder of our country later this year.

Mark

We love having you here Mark. I'd go with the GW thingy. Do you have "documents"?

Really, Harley, you think someone in Hollywood would have known that.

Whoa. Just finished reading the Smoking Gun article, which I highly reccommend, if for no other reason as an excellent example of people trying to get at the truth. Do newspapers even do this stuff anymore?
Also, on the Lincoln thing. It reminds me of one of my personal beliefs about historical exposes (can't get the accent over the 'e'); what I like to call the 'Truman in a tutu syndrome'. That is, if you wanted to write a book about Harry Truman, and all you had to say was that he was a good president forced by circumstances to make some difficult decisions, you would have to write it with tremendous skill and insight in order to get it published. And even then you'd have trouble getting publicity, because, who care's? But if you wrote a book claiming that, every Tuesday while he was in office, Harry Truman liked to dress up in a tutu and dance around the Oval Office, you can write any old crap and get booked on all kinds of talk shows, even if your only evidence is your grandmother's cousin who claims she saw him look in the window of a ballet-supply store one time. Or something like that.

Do I sound cynical? Maybe I'm a little bit cynical.

"Cares", dammit. No apostrophe. I suck.

Lincoln was gay? Truman wore tutus? I'm sitting here watching Rick Springfield singing a Neil Diamond song on Ellen---how's that for suureal? I read both of Frey's books. Even if his book is embellished, it did give me a better understanding towards addiction. He should have had a disclaimer IMO but I tend to believe honesty is relevant in my world, but then I'm old fashioned.
The press is not honest anymore in the sense that the reporter's or network's biases change the ultimate truth of the story. When I was taking communications theory at UCSD they predicted the state the media would attain and they were quite accurate. That does not stop me from believing honesty is important. I may be cynical but I don't expect total honesty from the "media" anymore.

Please read the article, if you haven't already. It's well-written and wonderfully sourced. It's also a good reminder that everything isn't online.

Why does it matter? Well, the grossly cynical manipulation of truth should always matter. It may have gotten us into a war, after all and increased our vulernability to terroists. (May, I said may! I don't want to debate politics on this lovely blog.) As every novelist here knows, the big problem in marketing a novel is that it's _not_ true. What's the hook? What's the pitch? Say it's true, and it's much easier to book media. After all, what got more attention -- Kathryn Harrison's fictionalized account of her affair with her father, or the memoir written several years later?

And here's something that really burned my toast. I was in a bookstore today (had to get the new Julian Barnes. Anything that Michiko hates that much goes straight into my TBR pile). Someone asked a staffer about the Frey thing and the staffer, obviously very uninformed, blew it off. In fact, he DEFAMED one of the dead girls, saying in essence: Oh, her mom's just complaining because she probably didn't come off very well in the book. He hadn't read the book, he hadn't read the article, but he was willing to jump to the crassest conclusion. That's the cost of a cynical society.

Do I think that every remembered bit of dialogue in The Liar's Club is true? No. But I think it's faithful to Mary Karr's memory of her childhood. What happened here appears to have been much more calculated.

Bottom line: When you slap "true" on a book, all the little tricky problems of plausibility fall away. The fictionalized memoir is neither fish now fowl; it's just foul.

Laura - what article is this? Are you talking about the NYT or the smoking gun, which is online?

Sarah, I'm referring to The Smoking Gun piece. It's a good piece of journalism.

They do make an interesting decision, which was new to me. While their discussions with Frey were off-the-record, they said they decided to go public with his remarks because he went public first. It's an interesting ethical decision, one I'm still mulling, but my knee-jerk reaction is that it's defensible in this case.

I don't know why this story is getting to me like this, but I can't get it off my mind (nice work, Sarah). The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that what we have here is your ordinary, overprivaledged American fratboy, who drank and messed around with drugs some in his youth and then wrote a novel about the badass he wished he was. But nobody wanted it, because that novel has been written a thousand times over, so he called it the truth and made himself over into a folk hero.

Of course, odds are that isn't the truth either, but hey, truthiness is in the eye of the beholder, right?

Laura - I noticed that too. These are very different days than when I was a journalist. Maybe for you, too. Blogs? Websites? Geesh.

Daisy - Sorry about the subject. It must be hitting a nerve because everyone's talking about it. Yes, the frat boy turning himself into a badass is the most annoying part. Read the police report filed on thesmokinggun.com. It's hysterical in light of his baddass claims. There he was, worried and fretting about being in trouble

Sarah- No need to apologize; I was trying to complement you picking something that got people talking. Didn't mean for it to come off as a criticism. (Anyway, I think I'm just cranky and obsessive because I'm coming down with the flu.)

We love having you here Mark. I'd go with the GW thingy. Do you have "documents"?

Documents. Rats! I knew there was something I was missing. Can you help me fake some? :)

And thanks. I love hanging out around here, too.

Mark

What scares the hell out of me is that a group of educated, well-informed people are actually having a discussion about whether or not the TRUTH is important. No offense intended - I've had the same discussions, but geez, has it really come to this?

Every one of us has had experiences with addicts. Truth is one of the most tragic victims of the using addict, and regaining the ability to find, hold and tell the truth is one of the biggest challenges in recovery.

To write something that is so tied to recovery - regardless of what method of recovery one recommends, and play fast and loose with the truth is unconscionable.

And there should be NOTHING unclear about what NON-fiction means. Either it's true - in which case it's non-fiction, or it is not, in which case it is fiction. I love the Daily Show and the Colbert Report as much as the next guy (in fact, probably more)- but no one is kidding anyone else about what they're doing there. But when the New York freakin' Times is held to the same standard as Comedy Central, everybody's in trouble.

I think that writers who call their fiction non-fiction break a trust with their readers. If the smokinggun.com allegations are correct, and Mr. Frey's book is fiction and he lied about it, I take that very seriously indeed. I wrote an autobiographical non-fiction book. I *know* how hard it is to tell the truth and let people see the ugly side of yourself as well as the good. The idea that any writer is taking advantage of what he presumes to be the cynical nature of a society that doesn't care about honesty, or what he believes to be the sheep mentality of a book-buying public, and laughing all the way to the bank at our expense, is abhorrent.
Alesia

Just finished a discussion with other lawyers (insert your own lawyer joke here) and we think the best way to punish this author -and the publisher, his co-conspirator - is to hit them in the wallet. I'm not just talking about not buying this book --

Oprah - you've got a prima facie case of fraud. Go get 'em!

Apparently, Oprah called into Larry King last night--he had Frey on--and basically stuck up for him. So much for her being a seeker of truth. Random House/Doubleday is offering refunds on the book, but only if readers purchased directly from them...which probably means two people. It'll be interesting to see the repercussions down the line from this case, if any. Maybe pubs will start putting disclaimers on memoirs, claiming, "This is possibly a work of fiction. Any and all characters, stories, anecdotes, what have you, contained within these pages is a figment of the author's imagination and/or only partially true."

Good thing I never did subscribe to Oprah's magazine. It's such a pain to cancel those things.

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