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January 27, 2006

Mr. Frey in the Principal's Office

By Sarah

There's not much to be certain of when it comes to Jim Frey and his A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fantasy memoir, but this much I know is true: that Jim has been in this position many, many times before. Jim is quite accustomed to being a naughty boy. Not a bad boy. There's a difference. Being a bad boy takes some courage.

There he was between Oprah, playing the part of school headmistress with her noble goals and high standards in jeopardy, and his upper crust editor Nan A. Talese, playing the role as upper crust mom. After Oprah gritted her teeth and walked Jim through his many lies (2 hours in jail, not 87 days), Mom was called into the office and Jim sat between them, his white T-shirt peeking out from under his preppy blue Oxford cloth shirt, sweat breaking out under his baby curls, hands between his knees. Nan did the Mom thing of expressing her concern and, at the same time, noting that she, too, had once suffered dentistry without Novocaine so of course she'd trusted her precious little boy. Jim nodded and I so wanted to slap him.

Yet another case of a privileged boy blowing the most golden of opportunities.

I could sympathize with Oprah (I'm sure this makes her feel better) as I, too, had made the mistake on the Lipstick Chronicles of initially excusing a memoir writer for not writing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Then people like Kathy Sweeney and Mark and Laura Lippman bitch slapped me, a former journalist, into deep, deep shame. The truth, the REAL truth, matters. Period. End of question. They had a take no prisoners approach to lies and they were right. God bless them.

But, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out on Oprah yesterday, we got a bigggg problem when it comes to buying, literally buying, lies in this country. Politics aside (there are certain people I'd definitely like Oprah to similarly grill on stage). I mean, look at Frey's #s on Amazon (the only public sales barometer at my fingertips). Last I checked A MILLION LITTLE PIECES was at #5. No wonder Frey was able to calmly sip his water and barely, just barely, look contrite. I don't think I once heard him say he was sorry with any sincerity - granted, a hard emotion for him to muster considering his background.

As with any Oprah experience, a lesson needed to be learned. And while I voted for "give back all the money, Jim," Oprah wanted Frey to acknowledge that his continued lying showed that, indeed, he was not on the road to recovery. And that his appearance on her show was the first step in what would hopefully be a productive process.

Gag.

If anything, I sided with the Washington Post columnist who wondered why a corporation as big as Doubleday couldn't shell out $30,000 to hire a fact checker who would have determined in, oh, a half hour that Frey was full of bull. Like Oprah said, it there's no fact checking, then anyone can walk in to Nan Talese's office and produce a memoir, calling it real. Where's the responsibility? Where indeed.

The thing is, I just know there's another book in it for Frey. I mean, he's written about addiction and the guy he met in jail. His life crises had been exploited. He was out of material. Now he's got fresh meat, how it feels to humiliate yourself in front of millions of people. That might even sell better than dentistry without Novocaine.

Puhleese,

Sarah

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Comments

You know, the litmus test for truth is not whether or not someone had novacaine during dental work. Oprah was pretty fixated on that and it's a rather minor detail. The jail thing is where I think the real dishonesty comes in.

And, just as a point of interest, in Eastern Europe they traditionally do not use novacaine or anything else in dentistry and actually even some medical procedures. No wonder they drink so much vodka.

But here's the thing, if you read up on writing creative nonfiction (i.e. memoirs) the 'experts' will talk about embellishing and 'condensing' characters and events for artistic effect. Perhaps Frey read those articles.

Frey is going to force the industry to redefine the entire creative nonfiction genre, which should be interesting to watch.

The editor didn't mount a terribly capable defense of her house's business practices. I suspect they'll be interviewing fact checkers in the near future and really they should. Even if the contract says the author is liable for their work, when a writer is caught lying, the publisher gets egg on their face too.

I also have heard rumblings that Frey had marketed his book as a novel and that it was the publisher who pushed it as a memoir. In that case, is he liable for the fall out? I don't think so.

M

I'm glad to hear you bring up the creative non-fiction thing, Michelle. There's a "movement" or at least a part of a department at the University of Pittsburgh devoted to it. They have an annual conference. (Who doesn't?) I don't undertand where the lines are drawn between reality and fantasy and who does the drawing. Guess I should attend next year, hm?

Here's an article: http://www.fortwayne.com/mld/newssentinel/13621301.htm

My final impression of yesterday's Oprah was concern that Mr. Frey might go out and hang himself. Everybody else had their outrage to keep them afloat. But he looked totaled. Stupid, mind you. (Couldn't he have spent some of his advance on a media coach to help him explain himself or apologize with sincerity?) But also emotionally wrecked.

Betcha somebody's working on a way to sue him.

Nancy, there IS a lawsuit:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2002760247_frey25m.html

Readers suing for "lost time" reading the book! That's just priceless. But maybe the ridiculousness of the suit will also push publishers into doing more fact checking.

That was my biggest problem with this whole thing. Frey said he couldn't remember a lot of stuff because he was so wasted, so he relied on police and court records. Things that he didn't have to make up. But he did anyway. That left him wide open to scrutiny, because those are things people can check. I give a lot of credit to thesmokinggun.com for pursuing this and forcing people to think about it.

Boy, of all the days for me to go to martial arts instead of watching Oprah . . .

I saw a snippet of the show yesterday, where Nan Talese was saying, "Well, I had root canal without Novocaine, so why wouldn't I have believed he had two root canals without Novocaine?" And I sat, shaking my head, wondering why no one asked this dude any questions beforehand. He claimed to have had 100s of documents detailing his tales; yet no one asked to see them and fact-check? Incredible. I'm miffed at Oprah, too, for plugging this guy so big-time, defending him once the accusations started (and there was proof he was lying), and changing her tune once her readers starting emailing and writing her letters saying, "What happened, Ms. O? You used to be about the truth and now you're defending a liar with five-alarm fire pants?" I've been emailing with my editor, and I said, "Will publishers now put disclaimers like Surgeon General's warnings on all nonfiction?" She said St. Martin's is already doing that with Augusten Burroughs' next book. I think some of the TV mentality is rubbing off on books. People want to believe it if it's in print (particularly if presented as nonfiction); while on TV, anything goes and facts aren't of utmost importance. Entertainment is the key there. Maybe some lines are starting to blur, and this was the first litmus test for that.

Oh, and Happy Birthday, Mozart!

I think Oprah's defense is that she asked his publisher point blank before endorsing him about whether it was true or not. And Talese didn't hesitate by saying yes. It wasn't until 8 days after Oprah's endorsement that someone from his treatment center called her producers and said, uh, about that book....
Nancy, how can you buy his look that he was about to shoot himself? He made an extremely immature quip of the same to Oprah, apparently, back stage. Come on.
I like the idea of lawsuits for time lost. This could start a trend, starting with Microsoft and trying to figure out how to format Word to do mailing lists....

But Oprah has a whole frigging staff of fact-checkers, producers and assistant producers to look into things before she endorses them. I doubt she counts on the word of one person, ever. So I don't buy this, "I was totally duped." She could've checked it out if she'd wanted to. I think she just wanted to believe it was true.

I fear Sarah is right about Frey and another book. Although, I'd like to hope that, like some of those TV preachers who got caught with their hands in cookie jars of various types, once his credibility is gone, maybe his market is gone too.

Shame on the publisher - from start to finish. They ought to recall the damn book - it's like the Pinto - unsafe at any speed. Like Ford, they did the cost-benefit analysis and decided to keep printing it - so the only way to modify that behavior is to make the cost of labeling fabrication as non-fiction so prohbitive that the benefit from book sales is outweighed.

So bring on the lawsuits - as I mentioned earlier - this is any easy fraud case to plead.

Cynical? You bet. Is it any wonder why?

Okay, the most embarrassing moment of that show (Susan - I Tivo'd it, maybe I can send you a tape) was when the geek from the Poynter Institute delivered his prepared opening line about this being in his memoir and how Oprah Winfrey sent Halle Berry to pick him up at the airport.
What? Is this some black women thing?
The camera wasn't on Oprah's face, but I could tell she was damn cool to that ....

Sarah, that is too, too weird! Man, if there's one thing I learn all the time it's that there are so many odd people out there who haven't a clue. It's amazing what some will do to "get a life." I think the Book Tarts need to write a collective "memoir," that will be a lot like our novels...basically fiction but with bits and pieces of our real lives woven in.

Truthiness is next to Godiness. That's all I have to say.

Charles - that's Truth with a Capital "C" for Colbert - I love that show!

By the time I checked into this discussion, Sarah had already sorted things out for herself, so I was just delivering generic bitch-slaps.

That said . . . Oprah Winfrey did something that none of my (mostly male) editors could bring themselves to do when confronted with pretty damning evidence that there was a serial fabricator on the loose. (This was pre-Jayson Blair, at two different newspapers.) She admitted she was wrong. She said she was embarrassed. She said she had been duped. Last night, some cable channel provided an overview of apologies, but almost all of them took that weird straddle of "I'm sorry if you experienced my misconduct as painful." Oprah didn't do that.

As it's been reported in many places, Frey has a tattoo that reads FTBSITTTD, or something like that. (F*** the Bull**** It's Time to Throw Down). Oprah proved who was entitled to that tattoo and it wasn't the silly little frat boy who made up a badass self and called out Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace.

Now if just a few more people could simply say "I was wrong" and demand answers from those who duped them. Perhaps Frey's new publishing house, which signed him to a contract for two novels. Talk about buying a pig in a poke.

When Oprah was asking him about the difference in jail time, she kept talking, citing her dismay at the way he lied. I wish she would have simply asked him to explain how lying about that jail time was in any way a memoir, and forced him to justify himself -- waiting in silence if necessary to humiliate him. The jail time was the most egregious lie -- it's the very validation of what he supposedly went through, and when it goes, everything goes with it. There's no memoir-type reason to blatently fabricate that aspect.

She didn't come out and say she was taking back her Oprah endorsement. I assumed she would, but someone said not necessarily, since she didn't say so publicly on the show. Anyone know?

Just FYI on creative non-fic:

http://www.gu.edu.au/school/art/text/april01/steinberg.htm

Giving it a name makes it legit? Hm.
Thanks to Carla for the link.

Yeah, Laura, I agree that it was good of Oprah to apologize and admit her mistake, but don't you think she had to? I mean, her career has been built on truthfulness. If her enormous number of viewers started doubting her now, what would she have left? Her reputation is probably her biggest asset.

Just rec'd an email from a guy friend who wants to be bitch slapped by Laura, too. Eek.

I don't know, Susan, Oprah's got some pretty big assets.
As for getting bitch slapped by Laura, I would pass. It hurts.

'liar in five-alarm fire pants'- ha!

I've gotta say, I pleased to see how this went down. It's been bugging the hell out of me how people (including Oprah, up til now)keep making excuses for Mr. Frey, talking about things like 'emotional truth' which, to my mind, sounds like another way to say 'fun lies'. (Is two hours in jail the emotional equivalent of three months? Is hearing about two girls from your high school getting killed by a train emotionally the same as the girl who died being your best friend and everybody blames you for it and, oh yeah, there was only one? Because, factually, those things are not true.)

But, Sarah, I'm not so sure that this is going to do much to drive sales of his next book. People bought this one first because they thought it was true, then to find out what all the fuss is about. But unless they fall in love with his writing (not likely, based on the samples I've read) there won't be any compelling reason to buy anything else he comes up with in the future.

Sure, he could get a good book out of this experience. But who would believe it?

Given the current mania for "authentic feeling" over messy fact, I think Oprah could have ridden it out if she wanted to. Her big mistake was thinking that a liar ever takes a day off. I've known pathological liars and they lie about everything, all the time. She initially accepted the "it's only 2 percent of the book" excuse from Frey.

As for "creative nonfiction" -- it's a rotten term. Narrative nonfiction is better.

And I'm still worried about this bitch-slapping stuff. I love all the Lipstick women, as my presence here attests. (It's one of the few places I post.) I wake up thinking. If I could, I'd write a song, a la the old Mickey Mouse show, for every day of the week.

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah. I was gonna make a crack about Oprah's "biggest assets," but I refrained. You are so bad! (Which is why you're so fun to hang with.) As for bitch-slapping by Laura...oh, gosh, y'all got me to thinking that such an item could raise a lot of money at literacy auctions. I think she should offer it up at Bouchercon. I'll bet it'd get more bids than a character name in Harlan Coben's next book.

Everytime I see all the press this episode is getting, I turn to my wife and say, why doesn't the media ever go after lying politicians like this?

The media's priorities are pretty screwed up.

I also told my wife that I think I should call my editor and beg him to change my book to a "memoir."

Lying politicians do a much better job of covering their assets.

I just e-mailed my agent that I was bummed, because there went my plan to market the Bobbie Faye book as totally being the truth of my life. I think the public would totally buy that I changed two sons into a five-year-old niece. And I blew up a toaster once. That's the same thing as an oil rig, right?


(Rob, if a politician didn't lie, I think that would actually be the news, not the other way around. Sad that this is what we expect.)

Some of us would say that Oprah is a mensch. That's what I thought when I saw that she gave a real apology and tried to rip the guy.

Lawsuits for wasted time would not be what a mensch would do. Many people who post here live in glass houses on that "I-wasted-my-time-reading-a-book" thing, no?

I read that post just now, and it sounds nastier than I meant. I mean that everyone has had someone who doesn't like what they wrote.

About future books and being in the Oprah club, this just in from PW lunch:

"In any case, Anchor has opted not reprint the book with the Oprah Book Club seal. “We decided even before the show ran yesterday that it wouldn’t be on the book,” said Anchor publicity director Russell Perreault. “As soon she had moved on to Night, we decided to drop it,” he said."

Also, his contract with Riverhead is under review. Yipes! Hope he didn't go out and buy that big-screen TV already.

Laura, there are some writers who would love to be bitch slapped by you, tho most of them operate out of a shrink-wrapped bus parked near the Romantic Times convention. Honestly, you'll have to quit with these staid mystery conferences and have some fun in Elora's Cave.

I think that's the name. Just thinking about it makes me wanna take a shower.

Sarah, lucky for you, I believe the Ellora's Cave bus comes equipped with a shower. You should see the soap on a rope! Oh, baby! Um, not that I've been there or anything. Really. (I'm just, as Oprah likes to say, "pulling a Frey"--okay, she didn't say it, but it sounds believable, doesn't it? Yeah, yeah, I know, you're thinking, "Shouldn't you be off-line writing a book?" And you'd be right.)

I seriously dislike Oprah and won't watch her. Yeah, yeah, yeah, she's done a lot of good. In fact, she at one time made a serious ($25,000) donation to New Beginnings, the shelter for battered women where I've volunteered for years, but I CANNOT watch her and WILL not watch her tv show. She does lots of good but she totally has to be sure her name's on it big time. My feeling is that if you seriously want to be the best philanthropist, do it with a little less trumpeting.
But why I REALLY dislike Oprah? She's a shh...er crappy interviewer. BAck when she was still doing more interviewing, pre-book discussion, pre giveaways. I know she's supposed to be just splendid blah blah, but the ONE and only time I ever sat down to watch her show was way back. Her guest was Greg Louganis, Olympic diver, who'd recently had a book out about his life, so he was doing the book tour. Louganis is a soft-spoken and hesitant man. He THINKS before he answers questions. I watched him take in her uestion and begin to answer. And SHE COULD NOT WAIT. She could not shut up, and began answering FOR him because he took too long. Louganis did not need her prompting; it was clear that he was developing his reply but she simply could not bear it, and butted in over and over. This is not good interviewing. This is ego. Good interviewers can't just ask questions; they have to LISTEN to and for the answers. She was not willing to do that for her guest. And i ended up hearing too much about Oprah and not enough about Greg Louganis. I never watched her show again.

Get back to work, Susan.
Hold on - that can apply to me too!
Enough of the blog!

Frank McCourt was much more in-your-face when challenged about his memoir, ANGELA'S ASHES: "Those who want absolute fact should stick to the National Geographic." A memoir, he went on, is an "impression" of your life that gives you a "certain amount of leeway."

The devil's in the details, I suppose. What kind of leeway and how much is acceptable in a memoir? And is what's acceptable to writers and publishers also acceptable to readers?

Here's the entire McCourt article from 2001:

http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000002D136.htm

I’ve tried to understand the pull of Oprah - I first caught her schtick when she was the co-host of a Baltimore TV show, and she was sort of funny back then, but now she just grates or gushes. Ick. Also, isn’t there’s something wrong with people who look to television hosts for their reading lists? Especially since Oprah’s tastes are so predictable (always a soap opera spin.) Frey’s punishment should be that he’s forced to read all of the selections in Oprah’s book club.

Oh - and Frey’s publisher is offering to refund the $$ of any unsatisfied (i.e. duped) buyers.

Refund the money as long as you bought if off the Anchor Books, randomhouse.com, website.
Also, they haven't changed their profile of him and how great he is.
Anyway, I think you can ask for a refund on any book you buy from anyplace. In a show of faith, Penguin slapped a "Satisfaction Guaranteed or your money back" on Bubbles A Broad. It was so...Payless!

Susan sez: "As for bitch-slapping by Laura...oh, gosh, y'all got me to thinking that such an item could raise a lot of money at literacy auctions. I think she should offer it up at Bouchercon. "

You could make more with spankings.

I'm just sayin'.

Sounds like Boucheron is going to be like that AVN convention in Vegas last week. I'm sure it will be fun to read about, even if I will need a bath afterwards.

Spanking, indeed.

I could have watched Oprah yesterday. I've been home sick for three days with some bug that just refuses to die. Of course, the fact that I can't stand the woman would have made me tune out again anyway.

Fey's numbers after all this came out make me sick. Once again, we're rewarding bad behavior. Of course, why am I surprised after Jason Blair was fired and got a book deal in the same month.

Sarah, I wasn't trying to bitch slap you, honest. And I was quite impressed with how quickly you changed your tune when you started looking into it yourself. In the end, you actually gained stature in my eyes.

Mark

I just had lunch with a friend who tald a fact checking tale that was amazing. Her daughter's wedding announcement sent to the NYTimes was thoroughly checked. They called her paper to verify mom's job and called the church to verify the priest who was to marry them. The New York Times then called the bride to be to tell her that another priest would do the honors as the one she named had been sent to rehab and they were going with the new name given to them by the church. Yikes.......all this for a wedding announcement in the New York Times...........kinda makes you wonder.

Mary Alice----who slept thru my last root canal. Mightly good drugs tho' my dentist said it was a first!

Mary Alice, when we experienced the NY Times wedding page fact checker, we agreed our homeland would be safer if she changed jobs. The fact checker called me twice, my daughter *and* her fiance twice, all 4 of their colleges (they're in grad school) as well as the judge and the hotel! And the fact checker lives in St. Paul, by the way, not NYC.

Forget Homeland Security - this woman should be running that newspaper!

Maybe she can find out the policy on sitting on stories...

Frankly, I am sick of people writing about their rehab, recovery and redemption stories. Tons of movie stars have written about their recovery from drug addiction and are applauded for their rehabilitation. No one applauds me or the rest of us because we choose not to get involved with drugs and pass the cost of rehab to taxpayers. No one applauds us for keeping on the straight and narrow.
Then they write a book about recovery and redemption and look to us to bankroll their future by buying their book. It stinks.
It seems people like Oprah only want to look at the downtrodden. Downtrodden by their own choices and lack of values and then raise them to role-model status.
So our youth can say, OK I can do what I want then get rehab and then get recovered and then get redeemend and then be a role-model and then sell a book and then I am financially secure. Is this the new American Dream?
Ann Marie

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