So James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, is a big lying liar? The Smoking Gun says so, and their evidence rings more true than the book did. Frey’s lawyer is threatening suit, but Smoking Gun editor William Bastone isn’t worried … presumably because the best defence against libel is truth.
Frey apparently not only embellished, but fabricated details of his sordid criminal past – lies that call into question what else in the supposedly non-fiction book, which contained none of the usual disclaimers about altered characters and situations, was invented for dramatic purposes.
The line between fiction and non-fiction is always blurry. Memoir writers invent dialogue and tweak or misremember situations. But Frey went so far across that blurry line, that even the blurriness is blurry in the distance.
Because Oprah Winfrey relaunched her book club with Frey’s memoir as her choice, helping it become the second most popular book of 2005 (Harry Potter was first), she is accused of being duped. But the primary dupe was the publisher, and Random House’s Doubleday division was even complicit in the deception, either through negligence or manipulation of the truth.
I was one of the duped, too, on a much smaller scale. After I wrote a silly little piece about my aversion to Oprah but happiness that she was restarting her book club, the audiobook publisher of A Million Little Pieces contacted me to do a review of the abridged audiobook version. I did, and liked it, though I was taken more by the lyrical staccato style than the story. It was compelling for a look at a world I couldn’t imagine – but, apparently, Frey could. It had the air of being too outrageous to be fiction. I could not have taken it seriously as a novel.
In fiction, our willing suspension of disbelief is often a fragile thing, and it is more important that something rings true than that it is or could be true. But when a publisher labels something non-fiction, there is an assumption that we can suspend our suspension of disbelief and buy into the story as at least a close approximation of reality.
That assumption has been called into question before, and it will be called into question again, and publishers hungry for a piece of the sensational memoir market are either turning a blind eye to fact checking, or are encouraging authors to stretch the boundaries of truth beyond credibility. Why? Because we’ll buy it, literally and figuratively. But by labelling A Million Little Pieces non-fiction, Doubleday went beyond selling a book for people to enjoy. They sold a man to be touted as an inspiration of what it is possible to overcome, sold him to people struggling with addiction, and there should be some responsibility for truth in advertising with that kind of product.
The unvarnished truth about Frey overcoming his addictions, written in his distinctive style, should have been compelling enough, but it would have been competing with countless similar books out there, and would have been blown out of the water by Augusten Burrough’s Dry, for one. Readers crave bigger, better, badder. Combine an author desperate for publication with a publisher desperate to satisfy that craving and you’ve got A Million Little Pieces, and JT Leroy, and who knows how many others.
Some readers and reviewers wondered about A Million Little Pieces‘ veracity before the recent revelations, but to accuse someone of fraud without proof should be as big a sin as the fraud itself. Smoking Gun found the proof. Oprah could have. Doubleday should have.