Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Bookplanet: Oprah and truth

So Oprah apologized on her show for her phonecall to the Larry King show, when she backed the author of "A Million Little Lies."

1. Live on 'Oprah,' a Memoirist Is Kicked Out of the Book Club – by EDWARD WYATT

In an extraordinary reversal of her defense of the author whose memoir she catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists, Oprah Winfrey rebuked James Frey, the author of "A Million Little Pieces," on her television show yesterday for lying about his past and portraying the book as a truthful account of his life.

"I feel duped," Ms. Winfrey told Mr. Frey. "But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers."

She added: "I sat on this stage back in September and I asked you, you know, lots of questions, and what you conveyed to me and, I think, to millions of other people was that that was all true."

In the three months after Ms. Winfrey chose "A Million Little Pieces" as part of her television book club, more than two million copies were sold, making it the fastest-selling book in the club's 10-year history. Alternately appearing to fight back tears and displaying vivid anger at the author and his publisher, Nan A. Talese, who heads an imprint of Random House's Doubleday division, Ms. Winfrey stared straight at Mr. Frey and asked, "Why would you lie?"

"I made a mistake," Mr. Frey (pronounced fry) replied, adding that he had developed a tough-guy image of himself as a "coping mechanism" to help address his alcohol and drug addiction. "And when I was writing the book," he said, "instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image."

It was a stunning bit of drama that had people throughout the publishing industry glued to their television sets yesterday afternoon.

The confrontation on Ms. Winfrey's show was the culmination of events that began with a report on Jan. 8 by The Smoking Gun, an investigative Web site, that found multiple discrepancies between Mr. Frey's life and his account in the book. Among the site's findings were that Mr. Frey had spent only a few hours in jail, not nearly three months as he had written.

On Jan. 11, Mr. Frey appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" and, while acknowledging that he had fabricated some parts of his account, defended its overall message. "I still stand by my book. I still stand by the fact that it's my story. It's a truthful retelling of the story," he said. In a last-minute call to Mr. King's show, Ms. Winfrey defended the book as the "essential truth" of his life and said the controversy was "much ado about nothing."

But yesterday Ms. Winfrey apologized to her audience for that call. "I regret that phone call," she said. "I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter. And I am deeply sorry about that, because that is not what I believe." She added, "To everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right."

She then confronted Mr. Frey about his fabrications, leading him to admit that in addition to exaggerating the amount of time he had spent in jail, he had lied about how his girlfriend had died; about the details of a foray outside a rehabilitation center; and about his claim that he had received a root canal without anesthesia because the center prohibited the use of Novocaine.

"I think most of what they wrote was pretty accurate, absolutely," Mr. Frey said yesterday of the Smoking Gun report.

Ms. Winfrey also acknowledged that she had received an early warning that parts of "A Million Little Pieces" were fictionalized from a former counselor at the center where the book takes place. Eight days after she picked the book in September, a former counselor at Hazelden, the Minnesota treatment center now identified as the one where Mr. Frey stayed, contacted her producers and told them that many parts of the book were untrue.

Ms. Winfrey said that she had had her producers ask the publisher about the allegations, but that they were reassured the book was accurate. She had harsh words during the broadcast for the publisher, Ms. Talese, who said that neither she nor anyone at Doubleday had investigated the accuracy of Mr. Frey's book. She said the company first learned that parts of the book had been made up when The Smoking Gun published its report, nearly two years after the memoir was first published.

"An author brings his book in and says that it is true, it is accurate, it is his own," Ms. Talese said. "I thought, as a publisher, this is James's memory of the hell he went through and I believed it."

But Ms. Winfrey pointed out that her producers had asked about reports of the book's truth in September, after the Hazelden counselor raised doubts, and that they were reassured by Random House.

"We asked if you, your company, stood behind James's book as a work of nonfiction at the time, and they said absolutely," Ms. Winfrey said. "And they were also asked if their legal department had checked out the book, and they said yes. So in a press release sent out for the book in 2004 by your company, the book was described as brutally honest and an altering look at — at addiction. So how can you say that if you haven't checked it to be sure?"

Ms. Talese replied that while the Random House legal department checks nonfiction books to make sure that no one is defamed or libeled, it does not check the truth of the assertions made in a book.

Ms. Winfrey replied, "Well, that needs to change."

In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, Random House's Doubleday and Anchor Books divisions, which published the book in hardcover and paperback respectively, said they were delaying the printing and shipping of any more copies of "A Million Little Pieces" to include statements from both the publisher and the author noting that "a number of facts have been altered and incidents embellished."

Mr. Frey's second book, "My Friend Leonard," published by Penguin's Riverhead Books, has also been a best seller. It includes a disclaimer that some names and details have been altered, but makes no mention that some events — like the opening anecdote, which takes place during a jail term that it is now clear Mr. Frey never served — are complete fiction.

In a statement, Penguin said it was considering what action to take regarding its book. About a contract it recently signed for two more books from Mr. Frey, the company said: "The ground has shifted. It's under discussion."

Mr. Frey has previously said he offered "A Million Little Pieces" to publishers first as a work of fiction, then as a memoir. But he has also said that in changing the book's designation from fiction to nonfiction, he did not change anything in it.

One former publisher said he believed that the publishing industry would have to change its practices at the behest of its biggest patron, Ms. Winfrey. Laurence J. Kirshbaum, who recently retired as the chief executive of the Time Warner Book Group and who now runs his own literary agency, said in an interview yesterday that "there is no question what she said will have a far-reaching impact on our business."

"Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market," Mr. Kirshbaum said. "Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation."

Mr. Frey had previously claimed that he had documents supporting his story. In an interview in December with The New York Times, Mr. Frey said that he had provided more than 400 pages of medical records and other documentation for his book both to his publisher and to Ms. Winfrey's producers. Among the records, he said, was proof of his claim that he received a root canal without anesthesia.

Asked yesterday by Ms. Winfrey about the dental episode, he replied, "I wrote it from memory," a statement that elicited gasps from Ms. Winfrey's audience. He added, "I honestly have no idea" whether or not he received Novocaine or any other painkiller.

The more Mr. Frey revealed, the more heated his confrontation with Ms. Winfrey became. "Since that time, I've struggled with the idea of it — " he began to say in reference to his root canal, only to be cut off by Ms. Winfrey.

"No," she said, "the lie of it. That's a lie. It's not an idea, James, that's a lie."

2. NY Times editorial: On Oprah's Couch

No debate about the meaning of memoirs and memory will clear the air around James Frey, the author of "A Million Little Pieces," and his publisher, Nan Talese of Doubleday. But what happened yesterday on Oprah Winfrey's couch came close. In a remarkable moment of television, Ms. Winfrey did what we have so often waited for public figures to do: she admitted openly that she had made a mistake in supporting Mr. Frey. Then she did her best to force him, and Ms. Talese, to admit the extent of his deception and the publisher's failure.

As Mr. Frey, looking suitably confused and miserable, responded to Ms. Winfrey's cross-examination, it became clear that he'd consistently thought of the people in his book as characters and altered the lives of almost every one. It also became clear that the written account of his sufferings had a clarity that his actual memories — as he tried to recreate them under the serenely furious eye of Ms. Winfrey — did not. Now he has a story of true suffering to tell.

Ms. Talese was speaking, in a sense, for all of publishing, and her defense revealed the enormous gap in the editing of nonfiction books. She spoke as a reader might — about the effect the book had on her, and about how true it seemed. She did not sound like an editor who was willing to stand behind the accuracy of a manuscript she had marketed as fact.

One expects the language of soft psychology from Ms. Winfrey. That is what we got, instead, from Ms. Talese. Ms. Winfrey gave the audience, including us, what it was hoping for: a demand to hear the truth.

3. Ms. Winfrey Takes a Guest to the Televised Woodshed -- by VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN

It was indeed amazing television. James Frey — the truculent tough guy who used to compare himself to Hemingway — now sat like a boy in detention, gloomily taking his licks from the nation's headmistress until he seemed to whimper. Sure, Mr. Frey was supposed to have been humbled already, brought low by the grievous sins he chronicled in "A Million Little Pieces," his best-selling creative nonfiction memoir novel of drug addiction. Oh, but that book's phony "hitting bottom" was nothing compared to the chastening — the emasculation, really — that he received yesterday on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Just like back in the days when her guests were abusers and sexual deviants, Ms. Winfrey came for vengeance — and vengeance on behalf of the poor, the voiceless and the women above all, who get conned and defrauded and violated by men who think they're so bad. But because Ms. Winfrey never sounds just one note, she turned in an uncanny performance, modulating her aggression with such finesse that she seemed to be the penitent one, and not the one with the whip hand.

She had promoted Mr. Frey's discredited book in her all-powerful book club; now he had embarrassed her. But the mistake, to hear her tell it, was Ms. Winfrey's own: she had defended Mr. Frey, most notably on "Larry King Live," and in so doing "left the impression that the truth does not matter." Having come clean herself, she felt free to savage Mr. Frey, hammering him with questions and heaving deep sighs of fury until he stammered with cartoonish diffidence: "I — I — I —."

As other guests appeared to get a bite of Ms. Winfrey's kill, they could hardly mute the glee they were taking in doing Mr. Frey in. The show had quoted many journalists — including Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich of The New York Times — and several did seem to be piling on. Some had been critical of Ms. Winfrey for initially supporting Mr. Frey. Now her change of heart received praise.

The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen saccharinely addressed Ms. Winfrey. "I just want to take off — tip my hat to you," he said. "The year is very new, but I still name you Mensch of the Year, for standing up and saying you were wrong. Takes a lot of courage."

Applauding Ms. Winfrey for courage on her own show — it was almost as though Mr. Cohen was hoping to win the teacher's-pet status that Mr. Frey was being forced to forfeit. And as it became clear that Ms. Winfrey was turning on her protégé ("I feel really duped," "You betrayed millions of readers," "Why would you lie?"), there did seem to be an opening in her esteem. The crowd in her Chicago studio booed Mr. Frey early in the hour; maybe, it seemed, one of the other guests could claim the Dr. Phil role, and play the good guy.

But Ms. Winfrey seemed sick of the lot of them. She made quick work of Nan Talese, Mr. Frey's publisher, who hemmed and hawed as badly as her author did. Ms. Winfrey then refused Mr. Cohen's flattery and sat impatiently by while Roy Peter Clark, of the Poynter Institute, tried to jolly her with dumb jokes.

The house was going to win this time. The conversation would end only when Ms. Winfrey felt sure that absolution was hers to bestow. Her magnanimity was over, and this time she wasn't going to wave her wand and excuse all sins, as she had when she called in to "Larry King Live."

Finally, Ms. Winfrey turned to Mr. Frey, who had stayed silent for much of the program, as if fighting tears. She pressed him, and he conceded he had been lying.

And then he uttered the only words that — while they sent the final shards of his Hemingway-style bravado up in smoke — could parole him in Oprah's world. "If I come out of this experience with anything," he said, "it's being a better person and learning from my mistakes and making sure that I don't repeat them."

Ms. Winfrey looked pleased. "Thank you for having me," Mr. Frey said.

I DON'T KNOW about Oprah. It was good she apologized for a mistake -- something quite rare in American public life -- but did she have to make such a big to-do about it? And isn't it quite gutsy for Mr. Frey to pop up again and face the music? He could've refused to be hauled over the coals, or told everybody to go and fuck themselves, and still sold books.


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