Thursday , May 23 2024
When is a novel not a novel? When the author says it isn't?

Oprah + James Frey = Elie Wiesel?

To: The Mainstream News Media
CC: Oprah, James Frey
From: A Newspaper Reader
Re: The Worm Turns

Wow! What an interesting week this has already turned out to be for the written word. Last week many in the news media pontificated on James Frey’s honesty issues and what it means when accuracy takes second fiddle to telling a good story.

Now it seems the New York Times, among others, are having their own problems with labeling truth and fiction and knowing which goes where.

Frey, in case you have been living in a cave, is the guy whose book was originally offered to publishers as a novel but was later published as a memoir. He swore it was true and with the help of being an Oprah book club pick, the book topped the best seller lists.

Only thing is, it wasn’t true. Now, this is not the first time by far that a memoir has had accuracy issues. Many have disclaimers about how there may be some mistakes due to the subjective nature of memory and writing about your life.

And then there are wags like Dave Eggers who found his own solution to the problem when writing his memoir, telling readers if they don’t like parts of it they can just pretend those are the fictional bits.

Only Frey stuck to his story that it was true up until the Smoking Gun website caught him in his lies and he responded by threatening lawsuits and releasing off-the-record interviews and then accusing the site of ethical dishonesty which is a bit like George Bush calling himself Robin Hood.

Frey was then pressed on the issue by Larry King. (And how sad is it that Larry King, who delivers more softballs than, well, Oprah, is the one who got Frey to really admit his lies?) That is when Frey made the comments which I had fun with last week when he told King “he changed totaled less than 5 percent of the book’s content, “within the realm of what’s appropriate for a memoir.” This after it had become clear that Frey may not have spent time in the jail after all nor done other important events in the book either.

It made me wonder aloud what other important details in memoirs also fit into this 5 percent I call “the Frey area.”

I watched the story develop over the weekend as everyone from New York Times book critics, to magazine hacks, to everyone in between gave their opinions on the matter.

Personally I was growing more interested in the other big memoir story — that writer JT LeRoy was not a 25 year old former child prostitute but a 40 year old woman — that was not getting nearly as much media play.

I was beginning to wonder if there was a bit of piling going on from reporters tired of having readers wonder if their “stories” are all accurate and happy to change the topic after the screw up — which again was not entirely their fault — on the mining coverage story.

And then today came an interesting set of stories. I am not sure whether other readers noticed it or not, but I am sure of the facts, as this article also suggests. Oprah Winfrey could have done something easy – like admit she had accidentally led readers astray with her Frey pick, instead of defending him on the King show. She could have picked one of many great fiction writers and stayed out of the ethical morass she’s taken her readers and the publishing world into.

Instead she announced her next book: Night by Elie Wiesel, 77. The editorial review on Amazon puts it this way: “Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel’s wrenching attempt to find meaning in the horror of the Holocaust is technically a novel, but it’s based so closely on his own experiences in Birkenau, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald that it’s generally — and not inaccurately — read as an autobiography.”

That paragraph is of the sort that can cause conniptions right now, especially at a time when readers are berating writers to just get the damn facts right. So it was that this book, which has been referred to by the New York Times and in college literature classes as a novel is, according to Wiesel, not a novel.

Thus Your Constant Reader – aka me – had a double take today. I read the story by the Associated Press about Winfrey’s new pick, an article that ran in many newspapers today. The article referred to Night as a novel. Oh, I recall thinking, “Good move, Oprah. Pick a memoir labeled a novel instead of a novel labeled as a memoir.”

Then I read today’s New York Times which contained a lovely quotation nugget from Wiesel himself, which made me go back to re-read the Associated Press story to see if my cold medication had been replaced with crack or something that could explain my confusion. But no, I read it again and it stated quite definitively that Night is a novel, which just made Wiesel’s comments all the more interesting: “But it is not a novel at all. I know the difference. I make a distinction between what I lived through and what I imagined others to have lived through,” he told the Times.

Oprah, for her part, had this to say, according to a Reuters piece:
“She acknowledged Wiesel may have used some literary license but insisted that Night is still a memoir.

“Although some facts vary slightly from his own personal and familial history, Night should be considered an autobiography,” Winfrey’s Web site said.”

Listen. Can you hear it? If you pick up a book right now and listen hard enough you can hear the people sticking the Oprah endorsement sticker on Wiesel’s book turn as one to their bosses to ask the million dollar question of the week: “Um, do we stick this book on the non-fiction shelf or the fiction shelf?”

Stay tuned for the answer to that question, as well as who gets the last say — the author? the publicist? Oprah? — on what is and is not a novel.

In the meantime, don’t believe anything you read, especially if it has an Oprah sticker on it.

Your constant reader

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

Check Also

Lucas DeBargue at National Sawdust (photo credit: Jill Steinberg)

Music Review: Lucas Debargue – ‘Fauré: Complete Music for Solo Piano’

This four-CD set isa journey through a brilliant and ever-elastic musical mind, and a huge achievement for the pianist.