Friday, January 27, 2006

The Truth As You See It

"A lie hides the truth. A story tries to find it."

-Paula Fox

As I watched the Oprah Winfrey show today, I couldn't help but wonder how a situtation, such as what was being discussed could possibly occur. That situation being, someone getting away with not only getting a book published that was represented as one man's personal memoir, but that was in fact duplicitous fiction. The really odd part is that the lies may not have even been unearthed had the book, "A Million Little Pieces," by author James Frey, not been featured by Ms. Winfrey, for her monthly book club last fall.

As the author sat, facing Oprah one-on-one, it was apparent that he had been caught, and caught good. But still he displayed, at least to it seemed me, that he really doesn't understand why someone would feel lied to about the truthfulness of his "memoir."

As the conversation flowed between Winfrey and Frey, and fact after fact of the book fell apart, the emotions were evident. Winfrey was sad, angry and embarrassed, while Frey seemed embarrassed, defensive at times and at the same time steadfast in his opinion that he had lived through these times and a degree. I couldn't help but wonder, in that he had some kind of story to tell, why didn't he try to get his work published as fiction? Well, he did and was turned down by several major publishing houses. Well then, why didn't he just put a disclaimer in the front of the book that indicated that he had fictionalized at least a portion of the book in the name of protecting the innocent? This is a common practice among authors particularly of true crime stories. And how could something so profound as the advice and situations contained in this book go unchecked by the publisher and fact checkers at Doubleday?

Also appearing on Thursday's Oprah Winfrey show, was the very publisher of this book, Nan Talese, who admitted that no fact checking had actually been done on the book. Apparently this has become a common practice in publishing, because there isn't enough time to check the factuality of every book being published. There isn't enough time? Sigh. I always believed that this was a certain process, if for nothing else, then to prevent plagiarism. Sometimes I wonder if we don't need a reality check every seven years, or so, so everyone can catch up to things, after they change. I was always lead to believe that books...especially books that claim to be non-fiction or self-help in nature, would be checked and rechecked for clarity and accuracy. Diet books, How To succeed In Business, How To Please A Lover, How to Survive Divorce, How To Train Your Hamster To Read Shakespeare, How To Get Your Groove Back, How To Write A Book...and so on.

I have bought one or two of those types of books in my lifetime, as well as other non-fiction books and biographies. I have got a lot from many of them, while others were not as useful to me. It happens. But another odd dynamic to this controversy is that apparently many people who purchased James Frey's book, got a great deal out of it. They liked it. It inspired them. They felt that if this man could overcome such tragedies as spending 3 months in jail, to enduring the suicide of a dear friend...then there was hope that any of us could face the challenges of life.

All this reminds me of the Milli Vanilli scandal several years ago. In that case it was disclosed, after the artists won Grammy Awards, that they weren't actually the one doing the singing on their albums. The public was outraged and their careers as singers was over, but one question always bugged me a little bit. If you bought their albums, did you enjoy the music you purchased or didn't you? I listened to several interviews with fans who demanded their money back and who, after the story came out, decided that they no longer appreciated the music that was attributed to the duplicitous singers.

The difference in the two cases is this. Milli Vanilli was billed as the artistry behind the sound. James Frey was billed AS the sound. He was the talent, the strength, the hope, the pain, the promise , he was the whole package. When you hear a piece of music on the radio, even before you know anything about the singer, don't you usually either feel inspired or not? Now, Milli Vanilli lied, they admitted as such, and suddenly the public no longer enjoyed the music. I don't know, I don't think that would make me suddenly dislike the music, I may not think much of the performer, but the music would still be ok. In the case of the book,"A Million Little Pieces," I can understand a little better folks are wanting to discard the book and ask for a refund. It is much more then a case of not knowing what you have actually purchased, it is a case of lying for profit, while not really caring how it may affect another. It's about giving false hope to folks who need something to cling to for direction. It's about knowing you are taking advantage of people who have nothing but trust to go on. Trust in you, and trust in the publishing house who chose to put your words out there...over someone else's work.

Sigh. Doubleday has offered a refund to those who purchased the book through their mail order house. Refunds can be sought for those who purchased the book at a retailer, by returning the book to where it was purchased. As for remaining copies still in stores, Doubleday is sending an author's note insert to be placed in the books which are still on the shelves. All subsequent copies of the book will have the author's note included in the future printing of the book. It will still be classified as a "memoir," despite the revelations of it's truthfulness. Milli Vanilli albums can still be purchased at So tell me, do you think the book by James Frey, "A Million Little Pieces," be pulled from the shelves? Would you demand a refund? Do you believe it should be a common practice for publishing houses to not fact check a book for accuracy and truth?

"Breezy Contemplation II" By Blue Sorsdahl Phrase


DesLily said...

I saw the program too.. Oprah doesn't like being lied to.. and no one really does. In her case it effects millions who watch and believe in her.
But as they say, even bad press is still press... he will wind up a rich man anyway now. How sad is that?!

would i demand a refund? Probably not.. i never return anything lol.. but i would like the book re-catagorized People read real stories for their own person reasons.. if i were the publisher i'd certainly fix what is broken.

btw.. fiction and fantasy are more then just hard to get published anymore, at least by a new author.. they say they aren't accepting new authors because they are flooded with them.. just an fyi lol..

Delcano said...

I, long ago lost the innocent belief that truth in publications was verified by publishers about the same time I discovered that my government would lie to me about the side effects of medications and that big business would lie to me about their products while govt.agencies nodded apparent approval. This is not to say I became pessimistic but I hold a "reserve clause" in the back of my mind to accept later exposed new facts. Thats the only way I have learned to handle it. I would so love to believe truth is always staring me in the face but experience has taught me it is not.
Good article, Carly. Glad you stopped by.
Be blessed

Karen Funk Blocher said...

As I understand it, you're lucky to get more than a simple copy edit on most books these days, let alone fact checking. Heck, look at the political books at any large bookstore. Do you really think that the right wing and left week books on the same subjects both stick perfectly to the facts? And those probably get more scrutiny than a memoir by a nobody. He was there; he should know what happened or didn't happen. And if he gets it wrong,who's gonna know or care? That was probably Fredy's attitude and the publisher's, I'm gussing, and it's not entirely unjustified.

On the other hand, you're right. This guy lied outright, and didn't take into account the possibility that readers would be hurt to learn the truth after getting emotionally in vested in the story. I wouldn't ask for a refund myself, but then again I wouldn't have bought the book in the first place.

Remember when the teen magazines used to say that the Monkees didn't play their own instruments or do all their own singing? That always used to upset me, but I still loved The Monkees. All these years later, I still think there was a lot of great music there - whether or not they were all expert musicians from day one.