Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Dear Oprah: Truth Still Matters

   I don't want to make too much of this James Frey case, and get all hysterical and high-horsey and sanctimonious. But any ethical person would find the whole thing to be a harbinger of the end of Western Civilization.

   As you know by now, the web site The Smoking Gun exposed a number of fabrications in James Frey's memoir of drug addiction and recovery, "A Million Little Pieces." And you may have read the commentary on such sites as mediabistro, and Slate, and Gawker. According to TSG, Frey systematically exaggerated, distorted and invented events -- including a claim that he crashed into a cop car, triggered a riot and spent several months in jail -- in order to seem like a desperado, a drug-addicted criminal who has managed to find redemption.

    What gets my goat and rankles my goiter, resulting in extreme umbrage, is that neither Doubleday, his publisher, nor Oprah Winfrey, who championed his book, seems to be perturbed by the concept of a "non-fiction" book being full of made-up stuff. Frey went on Larry King and said that a memoir doesn't have to be true -- and Oprah Winfrey called into the show to back him up.


   Frey: "A memoir literally means my story, a memoir is a subjective retelling of events.... I don't think it's necessarily appropriate to say I've conned anyone. The book is 432 pages long. The total page count of disputed events is 18, which is less than five percent of the total book. You know, that falls comfortably within the realm of what's appropriate for a memoir...."

   Winfrey: "I am disappointed by this controversy surrounding 'A Million Little Pieces,' because I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work....If it says memoir, I know that -- that maybe the names and dates and the times have been compressed, because that's what a memoir is. And I feel about 'A Million Little Pieces' that although some of the facts have been questioned -- and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me."

   The problem is, inventing a jail stint isn't the same thing as compressing events. Most reasonable people would call that fiction, or, less politely, a lie.

   We have enough hoaxes in American life. (Sanctimony Alert.) There are too many people who are happy to manipulate facts for some political or financial agenda. Americans need to take a stand and say the Truth Still Matters. (Or is this some antiquated MSM fetish, like "objective journalism"?)

    Slates Meghan O'Rourke sees a broader cultural trend in Oprah's comment: "Her message summed up the reigning ethos, in which the once-opposed cultural vocabularies of therapeutic authenticity and postmodern subjectivity fuse: If a book moves you, it's true."

    This isn't just a question of a label on a book. Frey originally shopped it as fiction. But by the time it was published, as non-fiction, Frey had decided to tell people that everything in the book is true. Here's Frey on The Today Show: "I didn't invent anything. Everything I wrote about happened." Here's Frey talking to Oprah: "I think I wrote about the events in the book truly and honestly and accurately." Here's Frey in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "All the events depicted in the book checked out as factually accurate."

    Pants on fire!!!

    NPR's Lynn Neary had an excellent report this morning in which a number of other memoirists took issue with the notion that making stuff up is no big deal. It's reassuring. Listen to it and maybe you'll agree that Western Civilization can yet be saved.

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 13, 2006; 11:38 AM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Joe Biden Asks a Question
Next: Strategic Pudge Reserve


I studied the genre of "creative non-fiction" quite a bit in college, and I do also take a little umbrage at Frey's claims. I would say that if you make things up, you cannot claim it as truth. What is particularly disturbing, though, is that I have a few friends up here who work with at-risk youth, and are drug and substance abuse coucilors, and just a couple of weeks ago one friend in particular was gushing to everyone how wonderful the book was and how she was recommending it to clients, as part of their therapy. This is the more grievous error, I think, not simply that the book's genre was mislabeled.

Posted by: LP | January 13, 2006 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Ah Ummmm....Frey exposed as a liar....Maybe he should start posting on this BLOG with the rest of his kind.

I have a stomach ache...Must need to take a mean Democrat.

This BLOG Stinks!!!!!!!

Posted by: The Real Lonemule | January 13, 2006 12:57 PM | Report abuse

This brouhaha Joel mentions is about as good as a young sex offender passing himself off as the fifth "Duke of Cleveland," a hoax uncovered by student journalists:

Student reporters at a Minnesota high school exposed a prospective transfer who said he was a member of the British royal family as a fraud, a 22-year-old adult, and a registered sex offender.

When a prospective transfer student claimed he was Caspian James Chrichton Stuart IV, fifth Duke of Cleveland, and a member of the British royal family, he sparked the interest of the Stillwater Area High School newspaper staff. But when student reporters began investigating, they discovered the "student's" picture on a list for registered sex offenders.

As Joel writes:
The problem is, inventing a jail stint [or inventing a royal title or connection] isn't the same thing as compressing events. Most reasonable people would call that fiction [or delusion], or, less politely, a lie.

Posted by: Loomis | January 13, 2006 1:02 PM | Report abuse

The Sick Lion and the Ass
by Jonathan Swift

A lion sunk by time's decay,
Too feeble grown to hunt his prey,
Observed his fatal hour draw nigh:
He drooped and laid him down to die.
There came by chance a savage boar,
Who trembled oft to hear him roar,
But when he saw him thus distressed
He tore and gored his royal breast.
A bull came next (ungen'rous foe),
Rejoiced to find him fall'n so low,
And with his horny-armed head
He aimed at once to strike him dead, -
He strikes, he wounds, he shocks in vain,
The lion still conceals his pain.
At length a base inglorious ass,
Who saw so many insults pass,
Came up and kicked him in the side:
'Twas this that raised the lion's pride.
He roused, and thus he spoke at length,
For indignation gave him strength:
Thou sorry, stupid, sluggish creature,
Disgrace and shame and scorn of nature!
You saw how well I could dispense
With blows from beasts of consequence!
They dignified the wounds they gave;
For none complain who feel the brave.
But you, the lowest of all brutes,
How ill your face with courage suits!
What dullness in thy looks appears!
I'd rather far (by heav'n 'tis true)
Expire by these than live by you:
A kick from thee is double death -
I curse thee with my dying breath!

The Moral

Rebukes are easy from our betters,
From men of quality and letters;
But when low dunces will affront,
What man alive can stand the brunt?

Posted by: Loomis | January 13, 2006 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Slates Meghan O'Rourke sees a broader cultural trend in Oprah's comment: "Her message summed up the reigning ethos, in which the once-opposed cultural vocabularies of therapeutic authenticity and postmodern subjectivity fuse: If a book moves you, it's true."

This is the old philosophy of pragmatism. A thing is true if believing it true has good effects and bad if believing it has bad effects.

Posted by: anandine | January 13, 2006 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Brava, Linda! Thanks for le mot just...

Posted by: slyness | January 13, 2006 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Maybe someone should ask Nan Talese why she encouraged Frey to package this moving little story as a memoir, rather than fiction, as he orginally intended. Why would publishers value lies packaged as fact over "larger truth" incorporated in fiction? As Carolyn See points out in her excellent WaPo review of the Hemingway/Hoechner letters, fiction, too, can lead us astray. But why not put it on the right shelf?

Posted by: CJ | January 13, 2006 1:26 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Anonymous | January 13, 2006 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Hey, it's Friday the 13th!

Instead of a single Kit, we're having "Pack of Lies Week".

Jack Abramoff, Dr. Hwang, Frey, Joe Biden, SaMule Alito, and some others...

All of this has some of us asking oursleves: Is there a lie that I can tell that's going to make me rich and powerful, too?


Posted by: bc | January 13, 2006 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I hope everyone is proud of me for not dropping the WMD bomb into this blog item. That took HUGE restraint.

I'm sure somehow out there has written the following words: "Why should we expect our memoirists to avoid manipulating the truth when our own president manipulated the truth about WMD???"

I think there are circumstances in which it is polite to be less than fully candid about, for example, someone's hat. You wouldn't say to someone, "Your hat reminds me of roadkill." But I do have a problem with dissembling about someone's hat as a means of making money. You know, being a professional Hideous Hat Complimenter. Lying for money just ain't right.

Posted by: Achenbach | January 13, 2006 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, bc, but I've joined Triskaidekaphobics Anonymous.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | January 13, 2006 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Oprah's defense of James Frey sets a terrible example for young people who are interested in becoming "writers." It is a shame that a woman with so much influence over young people, who has inspired a great reading movement, to support James Frey's laziness and lack of imagination.

Let's call this for what it is and leave out all the big analytical words: Frey didn't have that great of a story, so he cooked one up to make himself look like cool. It's the same thing middle schoolers do when they try to get sympathy from their peers or parents.

Frey is a joke and his book is pure piffle, much like the foundation upon which Oprah has created her celebrity.

Posted by: Oprah-Shmoprah | January 13, 2006 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Oprah is an idiot! What kind of person is a fan of hers? All she cares about is "where's ma muney".

Posted by: Joseph | January 13, 2006 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Hey Joel, will the American Idol Kits start again next week?

Posted by: jw | January 13, 2006 1:45 PM | Report abuse

It's hard to say this without sounding smug, but a non-fiction book ought to not have fiction in it that is pawned off as non-fiction. It really is that simple.

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 13, 2006 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Not to defend Oprah (because I wouldn't be caught dead doing so...), but it's clear she had no other choice BUT to defend Frey. If she came out and said she'd been duped like the rest of us, then her credibility would be shot and her "book club" shtick would immediately come to a crashing end. Not to mention being exposed for her complicity in this money-for-nuthin' scam...

Posted by: Zippy | January 13, 2006 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Joel. Joel, Joel, you don't even -- you're glib. You don't even know what a Memoir is. If you start talking about non-fiction, you have to evaluate and read the research papers on how they came up with these theories, Joel, okay? That's what I've done. Then you go and you say where's the editorial test? Where's the editor that says how much truth you're supposed to have?

Sorry, I just watched this video again, and it never gets old:

Posted by: jw | January 13, 2006 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Yeah Joel I was suprised that you didn't some how work in a swipe at the president in your original blog, but you just couldn't resist.

Posted by: LB | January 13, 2006 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Just jealous

Posted by: xax | January 13, 2006 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Aww, poor k-guy, I thought you were suffering from paraskavedekatriaphobia (also known as paraskevidekatriaphobia or friggatriskaidekaphobia).

Posted by: Loomis | January 13, 2006 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Whatever happened to the world where Pat Conroy and Harper Lee resided? A world where a story, inspired by autobiographical events, could be made into fiction and have not only literary weight but also commercial success?

Why couldn't Frey's book "grab" a publisher before he "made" it a memoir? Why should anyone trust a memoir to be accurate when it comes to dialogue, moment-to-moment events from decades past, etc.? The whole category is ludicrous, and it does an insult to a long history of brilliant fiction writers.

Posted by: bf | January 13, 2006 2:00 PM | Report abuse

"dropping the WMD bomb" - ha!

I think people appreciate difficult truths, when presented honestly and respectfully; to wit: "With all due respect, I honestly think your chapeau resembles a certain flatcat I once observed."

Who would rather hear "I am a professional Hat Complimenter. If you would fill it with money, and let me consider it privately for some time, and further let me pass it around to some other Persons of Quality likewise interested in hats, I will tell one and all what a wonderful cat - er, *hat* - you have, and return it to you, so that you may promenade far and wide, with all to feel graced by the presence of you and Your Wonderful Hat."

Who indeed?


Posted by: bc | January 13, 2006 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Good point with Pat Conroy. His memoirs weren't deminished because they were fictionalized. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Can you ever really even give a factually correct account of personal experience? People tend to alter fact based on their own perception. Pat Conroy obviously understood that, and therefore wrote about how he felt, not about what neccessarily really happened, and that meant using his imagination.

Posted by: jw | January 13, 2006 2:05 PM | Report abuse

frey's mom is putrid. she practically danced on larry king's desk and did a jug when oprah called in and gave her son a get out jail pass. she was pathetic.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 13, 2006 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I fall squarely (on my face all too often, but never mind) on the side of "Facts matter." "Truth" can indeed be malleable, depending on perspective, but verifiable facts are something different. Without the verifiable facts, Frey's much-vaunted "redemption" lacks much of a basis. It becomes much more a case of, "I changed my mind about continuning to do stupid stuff (apart from letting a publisher convince me to change genres)."

Posted by: Scottynuke | January 13, 2006 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I'm thinking about memoiric fiction here, or at least where an author uses himself and/or events and people in his life as the basis for a fictional story.

Vonnegut's "Slaugherhouse-Five", Phillip K Dick's "Valis" come to mind offhand, but there's lots more.

Who's got some favorites to share?


Posted by: bc | January 13, 2006 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Good questions about TDC (that are now permalinked), but let's pick it apart later, say, closer to May 19. (There *is* a body of review/criticism from a feminine perspective.) Winchester or Diamond, both great choices; I too have been tempted by "Collapse."

But I want to give you these tidbits from Roger Ebert's review of today's movie opening of "Tristan and Isolde" to bring our discussion of moments ago to a close (?).

The movie is better than the commercials would lead you to believe--and better, perhaps, than the studio expected, which may be why it was on the shelf for more than a year. Distributors content with the mediocre grow alarmed, sometimes, by originality and artistry: Is this movie too good for the demographic we're targeting? ...

By removing elements of magic and [Wagner's] operatic excess from the story, the brothers Scott focus on what is, underneath, a story as tragic (and less contrived) as the one cited in the ads, "Romeo and Juliet."

Posted by: Loomis | January 13, 2006 2:17 PM | Report abuse

SCC's: "?" and "Slaughterhouse-Five".

Damn me. Damn, damn, damn.


Posted by: bc | January 13, 2006 2:17 PM | Report abuse

The fact that James Frey exaggerated pieces of his memoir - note, not an autobiography - does not change the spirit or meaning of his book. These small "lies," if you wish to call them that, do not change the fact that he was an "alcoholic, a drug addict, and a Criminal," as he wrote in his book. I am guessing most of you have not read this fantastically gripping book, which is all at once horrifying and enlightening. In the end, the message is the same and the emotions involved don't change - who really cares whether he hit a police officer? That fact or fiction does not change his addictions, his struggles, or his successes.
As for Oprah? Can someone remind me why we need her blessing? The book was still #1 on some lists this week, even before she gave her forgiveness.

Posted by: Me | January 13, 2006 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Not to be old-fashioned, bc, but Louisa May Alcott pioneered the genre with Little Women.

Posted by: slyness | January 13, 2006 2:20 PM | Report abuse

And Frey will sell gazillions more books now because of this.

We've all certainly embellished the truth when telling a story, but I don't think I've ever said I triggered a riot or spent time in jail. Of course, I could be wrong... [keeping the door open here].

Posted by: TBG | January 13, 2006 2:21 PM | Report abuse

bc--as mentioned above, Pat Conroy's "Lords of Discipline" and "The Great Santini" are both excellent examples of memoiric fiction.

Posted by: jw | January 13, 2006 2:21 PM | Report abuse

slyness: and Laura Ingles Wilder too!

Posted by: jw | January 13, 2006 2:25 PM | Report abuse

So, what you are saying is that this Frey book is literary "reality show"?

Posted by: DCFan | January 13, 2006 2:34 PM | Report abuse

jw, did you read Wilder? I read them all but would consider them chick lit.

Will be interesting to see how Frey is viewed over the long term. I hope he is soon forgotten...

I remember writing a paper on Mac Campbell being the Transcental man in Intro to American Lit and the prof, a Hemingway guy, being distainful. But now there's an Alcott scholar on the English faculty at my alma mater, and he's even a man!

Posted by: slyness | January 13, 2006 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Slyness, no, but both my sisters were obsessed with everything to do with Little House on the Prairie so I couldn't avoid that plucky Laura Ingalls, or Michael Landon for that matter.

Posted by: jw | January 13, 2006 2:42 PM | Report abuse

When I invented National Just Read More Novels Month two weeks ago, I specifically excluded memoirs citing _Memoirs of a Geisha_ as fiction and _Angela'a Ashes_ as not. _Slaughterhouse Five_ is clearly fiction. Even though Vonnegut appears as a character, there is no Billy Pilgrim and not a planet Tralfamadore (that I know of). Pat Conroy's dad died just recently to the shock and amazement of readers who had assumed the Great Santini had bought the farm long ago. Clearly fiction with autobiographical elements.

Meta-fiction and New Journalism deliberately blurred styles and genres and today people don't understand the difference.

My mother was convinced _The Name of The Rose_ was true because of the silly preface detailing all the "scholarship" in the book. Too many people are willing to believe the nonsense in _The DaVinci Code_ because it sounds true. To this day, middle school students get the impression that _Go Ask Alice_ is a true story. Oprah isn't helping the case of Literacy or Truth with her rationalizing.

Here's the link to NaJuReMoNoMo:

Posted by: yellojkt | January 13, 2006 2:46 PM | Report abuse

"Go Ask Alice" ISN'T a memoir?

So I laid off the acid for NOTHING?

Posted by: proxl | January 13, 2006 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Don't click on this link if you haven't read the book:

Posted by: omnigood | January 13, 2006 3:32 PM | Report abuse

I can't help thinking about the movie "Smile" about an ersatz Miss Teen America contest. There is an inspiring story about a dancer with a wooden foot told by the choreographer. When the host inquires about it, the choreographer informs him that it is in fact, a blatant falsehood (I am paraphrasing a bit... ) Naturally, this doesn't keep the host from repeating it during the contest as fact. Of course this movie was a satire. Back when satire was not a redundant term.

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 13, 2006 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Is it just me, or is JA starting to sound like Jimmy Stewart in a Frank Capra movie?

Posted by: ot | January 13, 2006 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Dear "Me": No one is saying that Frey can't write, or that his book isn't gripping, or that he's not a recovering addict. It's just that some of us don't like being lied to. A lot of us still play by certain rules, and would never even CONSIDER for a minute inventing something from whole cloth and then pretending it was true (all for commercial purposes). If someone wants to say that a story is a lightly fictionalized account of real events, that's fine, but Frey didn't say that. He said it was all true, as best he can remember. So he FORGOT that he didn't spend 3 months in jail? (I can see how you could forget spending 3 months in jail, but now how you could forget NOT spending 3 months in jail.) Did he really beat up a priest who lunged for his crotch or is that just another invention? Why put any of your valuable trust in anything this guy writes? Whether it's fact or fiction matters to the overwhelming majority of readers and writers, is my guess. Why not come over to our side? It's a good place!

JW, thanks for that clip. Last night I downloaded the Cal-Stanford 1982 finish (Stanford band game) and we really ought to post that on the blog, too.

bc, Slaughterhouse-Five is such a great, great book, thanks for mentioning it. Speaking of novels and memoirs, my friend Martha Sherrill's "The Ruins of California," previously mentioned here, is a "novel" that has many of the attributes of a memoir. But for various literary and personal reasons she obviously needed to change certain events, names, etc., and so did the right thing and called it a novel. That's playing by the rules.

Posted by: Achenbach | January 13, 2006 3:38 PM | Report abuse

If JA's JS, then Curmudgeon's Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Posted by: Scottynuke | January 13, 2006 3:39 PM | Report abuse

ot, it's Scold Week on the Achenblog. I don't know what happened to me.

Posted by: Achenbach | January 13, 2006 3:39 PM | Report abuse

jw, on previous boodle posted one-line review of Winchester's earthquake book (two thumbs south)

Posted by: Achenbach | January 13, 2006 3:43 PM | Report abuse

By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
Fri Jan 13

NEW YORK - Future hardcover and paperback editions of James Frey's disputed memoir of addiction, "A Million Little Pieces," will include a brief author's note that refers to the content of the book, his publisher said Thursday.

Doubleday spokeswoman Alison Rich declined to offer details about the note or to comment on why it was being added. She would not say if the note was an acknowledgment often found in memoirs -- but not in "A Million Little Pieces" -- that names and events had been altered.

Frey has been under close scrutiny since The Smoking Gun, an investigative Web site (, posted a story last Sunday alleging the author had substantially fabricated his criminal record and other aspects of his past.

Frey has acknowledged to The Smoking Gun that he embellished parts of the book and he said so again Wednesday night on "Larry King Live," stating that alterations were common for memoirs and defending "the essential truth" of "A Million Little Pieces."

"The book is about drug addiction and alcoholism," he said. "The emotional truth is there."

Frey's book was first published in 2003 and became a sensation last fall after Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. On Wednesday night, Winfrey made a surprise phone call to King's show and supported Frey.

"If you're an addict whose life has been moved by this story and you feel that what James went through was able ... to help you hold on a little bit longer, and you connected to that, that is real. That is real," she said. "And it's ... irrelevant discussing, you know, what happened or did not happen to the police."

Sales have remained high for "A Million Little Pieces," which on Wednesday night topped the best s

Posted by: Bayou Self | January 13, 2006 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Joel is becoming a curmudgeon, not THE curmudgeon, just A curmudgeon.

"Back in our day, scientists were noble mental giants that pursued the great truths of universe and didn't ever lie, cheat, or plagarize."

"When I was a kid, Moby Dick was passed off as a memoir about this guy's fishing trip."

"I remember when politicians were statesmen that only thought of the good of the nation before taking bribes from any railroad trusts."

"Supreme Court nominees used to outline all the ways they would respect States' Rights and uphold the established precedents like Plessy vs Ferguson."

All quotes bonifide true with minor editing for clarity, meaning, and intent. Some events have been compressed or combined for dramatic effect. Names have been changed to protect me from the NSA, NKVD, CIFA, AARP, and CWA (Newspaper Guild division).

Posted by: yellojkt | January 13, 2006 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Bush LIED about spying on Americans without a warrant - he's been at it since BEFORE 9/11..

so perhaps you can see why I really don't care about some guy who lies and builds himself up in his memoir

Posted by: Bush LIED/ Spied Before 9/11, too | January 13, 2006 3:59 PM | Report abuse

This is sure to be an unpopular claim, but the same standards of truth do not apply to all genres. We do not expect novels adhere to the same standards as memoirs, but by the same token, we do not expect memoirs to adhere to the same standards as peer-reviewed microbiology journal literature.

As long as there have been memoirs, there have been distortions. Anyone expecting someone to be completely honest about his/her own life needs a lesson in human nature.

Tempest in a teapot.

Posted by: voiceofreason | January 13, 2006 4:05 PM | Report abuse

To Bush LIED,

You can be outraged about Bush's larger lies and still be angered by the "smaller" ones by people like Frey. It isn't an either/or thing. It is the tolerance of smaller lies in all walks of life that leads, over time, to the acceptance of the bigger lies.

I don't like being duped by anyone, any time.

Posted by: kw | January 13, 2006 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Having been out a while, I just looked at yesterday's posts and today's. Wow. We are of control, but free and easy, even breezy, aren't we? Interesting change of pace.

And so many new people, most notably Lonemule. Thank goodness there is no one here to kick his ass and torment him with grammatical gigs.

It's time for him to meet the fabled, unitary "'loper."

Posted by: melvin/a | January 13, 2006 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Yes, truth matters. Fight the good fight, Joel.

Posted by: Historian | January 13, 2006 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Just heard on the radio of the results of a "call in" poll and 66% of respondents thought Frey was in the wrong. Unscientific, but what people in the midwest are feeling at the moment.


Posted by: boondocklurker | January 13, 2006 4:40 PM | Report abuse

My boss just showed me the calendar his wife gave him: beautiful pictures of porches around the country. The perfect calendar for Joel and I think now the official calendar of the Kit and Kaboodle.

Speaking of porches... time for a BPH, don't you think? Maybe early February?

Posted by: TBG | January 13, 2006 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Since we're on the subject of People Behaving Dishonestly, here's an interesting article about our young man, Farris Hassan and his even-more-interesting father(courtesty of Poynteronline):

Posted by: CowTown | January 13, 2006 4:59 PM | Report abuse

I had the day off and missed the blog because I was spending Quality Time with my family. Imagine that. But I had to weigh in briefly on the memoir/novel question (the question above, could we think of good ones like Slaughterhouse-Five).

One of my favorites is Burmese Days by George Orwell. Orwell really served in Burma in the British civil service or whatever its called (the raj?) He learned some important truths there. He shared those truths by writing a novel about a British civil servant in Burma. It's based on his experiences, but it's fiction.

Another great one is Martin Eden by Jack London. In his biography of London, A Sailor on Horseback, Irving Stone used Martin Eden as if it were original source material about London's life, to my ENDLESS irritation. Again, it is based on personal experience, but it is fiction.

I guess Frey's book, on its own, is not criminal or immoral; it's Frey's subsequent claims and behavior that merit criticism. So I say, judge the book on its own merits, and judge Frey separately. Plenty of great art has been created by deeply flawed human beings.

Posted by: Reader | January 13, 2006 5:09 PM | Report abuse

"Slates Meghan O'Rourke sees a broader cultural trend in Oprah's comment: 'Her message summed up the reigning ethos, in which the once-opposed cultural vocabularies of therapeutic authenticity and postmodern subjectivity fuse: If a book moves you, it's true.'"

Of course this is right. Isn't that how religion operates?

Posted by: Gilman Chatsworth | January 13, 2006 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Mr. Achenbach. Please help keep this story alive.

Posted by: Thanks | January 13, 2006 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Good entry, Joel! I'm glad there are more people in the media challenging the position of Frey, Oprah, etc. Yes, memoirs are not "perfect, objective statements of complete fact", but turning 3 hours in jail into 3 years in prison is not an exercise in "subjective truth" or a statement of the author's memory -- it is a lie. Seth Mnookin's piece in Slate ( also provides a good analysis (from an ex-addict, no less) why the lies are important.

Posted by: MC | January 13, 2006 6:07 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with voiceofreason's "Tempest in a teapot" decree.

I read this book after Christmas and 1) didn't know it was an Oprah book; 2) didn't actually buy it- someone gave it to me; and 3) couldn't put it down. I stayed on the elliptical trainer for like an hour and a half one day, reading. Then I spent the next few days running parts of it through my head- it had staying power.

Now that I know it is not 100% true, do I feel deceived? I think what I feel is gullible. After all, the guy was an "Alcoholic, a Drug Addict, and a Criminal." Not the most reliable source, eh? I mean, how much could one really remember of events while under the influence of so many mind-altering substances?

It was a good book, and I'm glad I read it. The media frenzy will only dilute its impact. I don't think it will help sell more books.

Posted by: Pixel | January 13, 2006 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Oprah is to blame for Frey'smashing success. Someone probably already noted that Frey shopped the manuscript as a novel at first, then billed it as a memoir to get published. And the rest is history.

The TSG is a loft of hacks - where's the byline on the big expose? Too scared to get their own little blogosphobic hides investigated?

Since when is Slate in the business of erecting new schools of criticism - namely, Carvell or whats his douche creating something that must be called New Addictionism and putting it on the plane of Feminism and postmodernism? The thrust of his "linked by JA" article has the precision of a recovered waterlogged blunderbuss - which tackles the high-faluttin moralisms of 12 Step programs, but this time, only applies it to a BOOK, whose author once did the 12 steps.

I laugh at the blurring of truth and falsity in writing. And anyone who thinks this is SCANDALOUS - regardless of advertising - then you either take yourself too seriously or just happen to weigh the theoretical possibility of your own stupidity more often than the actual mediocrity and overstimulation of your cloistered brains. Scandalized by lies? Redefine your genres and knock the kinks outta that urban intellectual software.

Posted by: Washing Dauphin Cajun | January 13, 2006 6:24 PM | Report abuse

If Frey wrote a book about Oprah that had some sensationalized untrue 5% about her jail time, I wonder how she would feel about it then. Just wondering.

Posted by: Oh Oh Oprah | January 13, 2006 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Dint ya hear? Frey has agreed to write Oprah's biography. She overcame her battle with weight-loss and now tips the scale at 90 lbs.

Posted by: Washing Dauphin Cajun | January 13, 2006 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Jeepers this Blog is getting nasty. Perhaps we should emulate those fine people of Seattle as described in today's Post. It is my understanding that they have not lost their civility even though are preparing for some manner of highly competitive professional athletic contest.

I need to get out more.

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 13, 2006 7:21 PM | Report abuse

I think typepad is eating pronouns. That's my story and sticking to it.

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 13, 2006 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Well, well,, after she has become an iinfluential billionaire, people are putting vast amounts of energy into hating Oprah Winfrey. So what, she disagrees with you. Get over it. Even celebrity bilionaires are entitled to an opinion, especially when they have proven themselves as incredibly smart and compassionate human beings time and again as Ms. Winfrey has.

Posted by: Global | January 13, 2006 7:53 PM | Report abuse

"incredibly smart"??? Oprah Winfrey??? On what planet?

And Global, being no doubt incredibly smart yourself, you surely realize that this discussion isn't about "hating" Oprah (nobody here gives her that much emotional energy, I'm sure). Instead, it's about the steady erosion of respect for truth in this society.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 13, 2006 7:59 PM | Report abuse

All Oprah did for me was give me a Pontiac.

Then Oprah gave me Dr. Phil - the snake oil salesman - then I gave her the bird.

Posted by: Washing Dauphin Cajun | January 13, 2006 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Just one more time--because it will help me laugh myself to sleep--please say, in your patented way:

" This Blog STINKS!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Posted by: To the Lonemule | January 13, 2006 9:29 PM | Report abuse

To the Lonemule - if it stank That be yer upper lip, perineum sniffer.

JA is a self-conscious dilletante with high brow humor - his weblog brings similar such larvae into the vaseline.

The blog does not stink even though the self- congratulating brood ain't good at much more that whiffing tails, being white, and paying taxes without representation.

Sammy Alito and Sammy Sosa sleep in this holiday Monday. JA will link to himself.

Posted by: Washing Dauphin Cajun | January 13, 2006 10:39 PM | Report abuse

RD, I read that article and it made me chuckle:
I don't agree with what Jonathan Raban calls "the deep authoritarianism of the liberal mind", but most of what the article cites is true, as I can attest as a longtime (though not native) Seattleite. I rarely honk my horn, only if I think someone is going to hit me. If I need to wake up someone at a light, I just give it a light, polite tap. I voted against the smoking ban. I don't jaywalk - mainly because it's dangerous, but also because they will ticket you - although, in the rain, at a crosswalk, with no traffic, I will cross - must be my East Coast roots.

And I have no interest in all...I'd root for the Skins, but I shudder at the Kits and Kaboodles if that happens!

Posted by: mostlylurking | January 13, 2006 10:55 PM | Report abuse

This is the funniest movie review I've read lately - putting it on my list:
Love Albert Brooks - Broadcast News is one of my favorites. Sad to see how true its take on broadcast journalism has become.

Posted by: mostlylurking | January 13, 2006 10:59 PM | Report abuse

Seattle crushes Washington. The Seahawks' receiver Jurevicious hurls his dead infant's ecto plasm in the face masks of Washington's slow secondary.

Joe Gibbs is an old fart in need of an explanation how timeouts and challenges work. Here's a head coach who inhaled enough NASCAR gasoline that he knows when to ask a coke-addled Doug Smith for a gameplan. Good luck, losers. Wilbon's vagina is growing from his south side forehead.

Posted by: Washing Dauphin Cajun | January 14, 2006 12:40 AM | Report abuse

It is always interesting to look at what in our society provokes an in-depth analysis. I find this particular example quite exemplary.

America, as a nation, loves to say it reads books. We are a literate nation. For example, America has the most highly-educated workforce, when you take college education into account (simply for public education, we're seventeenth- much worse than Japan, Germany, and France).

And yet, fewer than half of American adults read-- and the number has been declining. So while we consider ourselves well-educated and well-informed, we as a nation don't quite live up to our self-perception. (My statistics are from, if anyone is interested).

So it is interesting to consider how much significance James Frey's memoirs have had on the American mindset. This fudging of his own memoirs has cultivated repercussions that do have consequences.

It's wonderful that so many people have found this shuffling of the boundaries of the genre of memoir controversial. What that means is that yes, perhaps America (and its consciousness, the media) does hold some internal affection towards literature.

To look at it from another perspective, Winfrey and the publishing company, in their turn, acted in a way which they felt would harm them the least. Winfrey had two choices- to apologize for her choice of books, or to stand by it. If she apologized, she would be hurting the credibility of her Book Club (which very well could have have commercial consequences). If she did exactly what she did, she might meet outrage, but there was less of a chance that her move would hurt her success. It wouldn't be fair to say that Winfrey's move was the most just, but it certainly was rational.

I wish that Frey, in his turn, would have marketed his novel less as a memoir, but more as a fictional story disguised as a memoir. Perhaps that wouldn't have to be obviously done, but it would have been much more ethical.

Posted by: zeno | January 14, 2006 2:08 AM | Report abuse

why is it that so many famous books have as themes: murder, war and poverty?

"Crime and Punishment"
"The Great Gatsby"
"Angela's Ashes"

happiness doesn't sell?

Posted by: ot | January 14, 2006 3:13 AM | Report abuse

Linda Loo: Thanks for the poem about the lion.

I think that people are reading books more than they did a few years ago. Certainly the Harry Potter series has sparked an interest in adults as well as children. People usually read the books before they see the movies. In reverse, C. S. Lewis may see some increase in readership because of the "Narnia Chronicles." Our community libraries -yes we have lots out in the bookdocks - are very busy. A service club I belong to promotes literacy by giving "picture books" and info to parents of newborns. These are just a few examples, but when I visit with friends they are always talking about the books they are reading or have just read. Maybe it's just that you don't have to hide in the closet anymore if you read books.

There are great adventure stories like the Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers which aren't autobiographical or memoirs but which take place in real times and places like Napoleonic France and the history of the time is part of the story. One might consider them to be "true," even though they are fiction, since one can visit the places where the action occurs - e.g. the fortress on the island off Marseille. There are many great stories like these examples. (Hemingway's war stories come to mind.)

Go Bears!


Posted by: boondocklurker | January 14, 2006 3:52 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: kk | January 14, 2006 4:08 AM | Report abuse

I just finished reading Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man". "Angela's Ashes", I experienced in an intense way by first reading the book and then listening to the audiobook with my daughter--we later saw the movie together as well. My thoughts this morning: there is no way that every incident in McCourt's books actually happened. He is a gifted storyteller. He would never allow scientific fact to interfere with plot development. That's how he won the prizes, by creating a memoir that reads like fiction. I don't think he would swear to the accuracy of the stories, either, because blarney is an honored Irish tradition.

Another example: when I lived in Key West, I was acquainted with Captain Tony, of "Captain Tony's Saloon" fame. He ran for mayor in the same race that my husband ran for city commission (they were both defeated that time). The Captain has thousands of stories; they are all entertaining and some of them may even be true. Once when he was introducing my husband to someone he told them, "Tocci and I go way back--he'll tell you about it." This was in essence, a license to make up any story he wanted; Tony was saying he wouldn't dispute any tale Tocci invented. Now, if Tony published his memoirs, I have no doubt he would go on television talk shows and swear that every word is true. And as much as I believe that honesty is the best policy, I can't find it in myself to say it would be wrong for Tony to do that.

Thanks, Joel, for bringing this subject up, and for being on the side of righteousness, so I can be over here on the devil's advocate side.

Posted by: Reader | January 14, 2006 6:30 AM | Report abuse

I said I was not going to comment, I lied, forgive me.

A lie is lie, is a lie, is a lie.............

It doesn't matter if it from the President or a writer of books, a lie is never the correct action or the good action, and it doesn't matter who's lying. I believe it to be so sad that a country of intelligent and hard working people are in an uproar about an author and a book of lies, and not the lies that are fostered every day from those in charge that literally kill people and forever change their lives. We have so lost it, and gotten away from her true design that even seeing it in others we can't seem to get back to what is good and true, and most of all, loving. As for Oprah, she is more than likely a product of our society, and trying to walk between what I'm sure is a difficult situation. Joel, I'm sure you of all people can relate to that.

Posted by: Cassandra S | January 14, 2006 6:38 AM | Report abuse

I haven't read Frey's book and probably won't now. I have read a few O W has recommended and liked them.

I understand Frey to be about addiction and redemption. My mentors in AA tell me honesty is a paramount virtue, defining rigorous honesty as absence of the intent to deceive. Some real recovering alcoholics have real stories that will curl your toenails and inspire other recovering alcoholics. Real recovery includes honesty as rigorous as possible. Frey may have an interesting anecdote, but I'll stick with real recovery. His ain't it.

Posted by: Larry | January 14, 2006 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Wow Larry, what a powerful and unique interpretation. You are one of the few people who have considered what this says about Frey as an addict. From that perspective, the whole thing seems more tragic than exploitive. And for what it's worth - good luck!

Posted by: RD Padouk | January 14, 2006 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I haven't read the Frey book, or seen him talk it about before the controversy, but I did see him on Larry King Live the other night. I guess his mistake was exaggerating events which could be easily checked, and I have to wonder why. It seems to me it should have been disclosed from the beginning or marketed as fiction.

On Frank McCourt - I remember hearing him tell a story about how his mother would come to his brother Malachy's play (based on his life), stand up and shout, "Lies, it's all lies!" At least I think that's what the story was - my memory being faulty, and given that it's Frank McCourt, who might be embellishing, as Reader says...

Posted by: mostlylurking | January 14, 2006 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Aboard M/S Massdam, at St. Kitts--

So many kits, so little time! So much controversy! Mon, I got de hurry up. You all be needin'n de Calypso song, make you happy now, not sad and angry at de Oprah person.

Here de little Calypso song I like to call de Jack Abramoff Song, and it go a little sometin' like dis:

Ney-o, Ney-o
Indictment come and dey send me home
Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney-o
Indictment come, and dey send me home

Cheat de tribes with exorbitant fees
(Indictment come and dey send me home)
Golf in de Scotland wit de VIPs
(Indictment come and dey send me home)

Come Mister Lobby Man, lobby, you piranha
(Indictment come and dey send me home)
Come Mister Lobby Man, lobby, you piranha
(Indictment come and dey send me home)
6 bills, 7 bills, 8 bills pass
Appropriations give me de gas
6 bills, 7 bills 8 bills pass
Appropriations give me de gas

Ney, is a Ney-o
(Indictment come and dey send me home)
Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney-o
(Indictment come and dey send me home)

Now Tom Delay, he not in control-a
(Indictment come and dey send me home)
Him like me, a sneaky black tarantula
(Indictment come and dey send me home)

It's 6 bills, 7 bills, 8 bills pass
Appropriations give me de gas
6 bills, 7 bills 8 bills pass
Appropriations give me de gas
Ney, is a Ney-o
(Indictment come and dey send me home)
Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney-o
(Indictment come and dey send me home)

Come Mister Lobby Man, lobby, you piranha
(Indictment come and dey send me home)
Come Mister Lobby Man, lobby, you piranha
(Indictment come and dey send me home)

Ney-o, Ney-o
Indictment come and dey send me home
Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney, is a Ney-o
(Indictment come and dey send me home)

Gotta go check de Redskins score! By for now, kids.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | January 14, 2006 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Aboard M/S Maasdam (spelled correctly this time) about 1/3 of the way to San Juan--

Finally got around to reading the kit above, and catchinmg up with events. Jeez, the number of people who not only can't distinguish between facts, truth, etc., and lies, distortions, half truths AND DON'T REALLY CARE (sorry for the all-caps, but they were necessary) is staggering. Joel's right, Oprah was wrong. Period. And it ain't even a close one," which is even more disconcerting.

I'm not surprised Frey may have lied--there's a lot of that going around. But the bigger mistake--and in the long run the bigger loss to credibility-- was Oprah's. She's the one taking the hit. Frey was nothing before the book, and he'll be nothing three weeks from now. But it will take Oprah years to recover.

Must now go and mourn the Redskins' loss. Fortunately, this ship has a number of bars, and at this hour they're all open.

Oh, saw the movie "Proof" in the ship's theater. Not a bad little movie--and an interesting cautionary tale for those who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality--like some of the 'lopers on today's boodle. Sorry to see Lonemule hasn't taken his meds yet today.

Posted by: Curmudgeon | January 14, 2006 9:13 PM | Report abuse

Good song, Mudge. Believe me, I could not be sadder about the Redskins' loss. My only hope is that the next game is Sunday, because I have to be in downtown Seattle next Saturday afternoon.

A thousand apologies.

Posted by: mostlylurking | January 14, 2006 10:51 PM | Report abuse


"our true design........

"that even seeing our lack in others.........

A case of typing too fast or mouth moving faster than the thought?

Posted by: Cassandra S | January 15, 2006 7:43 AM | Report abuse

My boss just showed me the calendar his wife gave him: beautiful pictures of porches around the country. The perfect calendar for Joel and I think now the official calendar of the Kit and Kaboodle.

Posted by: bobby | January 15, 2006 8:44 AM | Report abuse

There are different kinds.

Dumas, Dickens were seen as flashy, crude and Dickens especially was seen as writing against his class...

Oftentimes "toeing the line" is seen as having class, when it is actually in support of a conspiracy.

Washington DC and surrounding areas has the highest number of college degrees than any similar area in the United States. When I was there in the 80's it's average household income was higher than any similar sized area in the United States. Fairfax's was almost three times what the rest of the US was making for a family of four...

The point is, if you're only talking to people in DC or in your class, it's not possible to accurately gauge what it means that the United States is losing ground in education....the effects are more easily seen in "quality of life," "what flies," and what people are aware of. DC is also much more international than the heartland or southern states...more morally open to self examination....

blah blah blah, just wanted to say that I was shocked in my across the country driving a few years ago, that most of the land outside of DC was peopled by the same kind that were out there years ago....only meaner.

Canada has more guns than we do per capita and about 1/10 the murder rate.

Posted by: regarding literacy... | January 15, 2006 1:39 PM | Report abuse

pretty good movie. Both Michael Moore movies are a lot more truth than fiction. Anyone that has ever done government contracting or worked in Saudi could tell you that...anyone who knows the royals....

what's annoying is that no one minds if you steal a stick of gum occaisionally, but don't take mine....or my future...

IF Chief Seattle had uttered thosse words about the future belonging to the children and the land belonging to itself well....

we should all be cryin a little....

we might have to repass childe labor laws at the rate we're going now.....maybe child laborers are making your tennis shoes in thailand....I know their servicing your sex junkets, which are illegal if you're a british or australian citizen....but not the yanks....maybe that's why they call them yanks....they're always yanking it away from other people.

Posted by: Bowling for Columbine is actually a | January 15, 2006 7:19 PM | Report abuse

American in Siam, where are you?

Posted by: mostlylurking | January 15, 2006 9:57 PM | Report abuse

In the straw patch
Straw patch
You call yer men
whose antigen

Suffocates the wayward few
whose slippery pew
knocks girls to knees
whose pleas

Knead the dough
in my pocket through
that rich bitch laughter
whose dumbass daughter

Ain't mine - that ruckus
flatter and ducats
rhyme with West Side
Sunny side up cried

Died sour and sexy
like bulletproof plexy
shiny glass lodged
whose trustfund dodged

The reckoning jesting
In the means speckling
that spattered Blood
whose biblical flood

Unravels and travels
the distant marvels
and a justice clogged
with veiled women hogged

By the pharoah
whose arrow
sought the dastard
the gangly bastard

Whose final gambles
displaced his shambles
the Royal death rattle
confession barked of prattle

Philip Sidney and Master P
slap Womyn in the the V
whose dainty lines give relief
to a solemn shampooed queef.

Posted by: Champ Bailey | January 15, 2006 10:32 PM | Report abuse

quelled the proof s o f masterly
brutes show

freedome rings a different sing
removing frills of resistance for shauligh shants

self inflicted behoovements getting some impro


Posted by: asp pergent quints of blessing.... | January 16, 2006 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: michael roloff | January 16, 2006 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Some friends in AA want to throw balloons filled with liquor at James Frey's apartment. His book disparages AA, an organization that saves millions of people. Please send me your thoughts at

It's an important distinction that readers know it's partially fiction. Since police records have proven it, Frey should be a little less defensive and a little more apologetic. When your mistake is caught, just admit it. Otherwise, watch out for flying water balloons. Many people know where Frey lives in New York.

Posted by: | January 18, 2006 10:42 AM | Report abuse

So if ten guys from AA throw balloons filled with liquor at James Frey's apartment, what would happen?

Statistics indicate that five of them would actually show up at Frey's. The other five would relapse and disappear thanks to a balloon full of Mad Dog or whatever.

Then four of the remaining five Frey malefactors would get arrested - two of whom would go to jail for the rest of their lives after violating 3 Strikes for assault and vandalism.

The one lucky escapee would write an inventory of lies later to be marketed as a memoir...

Dude - you shouldn't invoke AA just cuz a couple of drunks you know in a basement somewhere have unsettled resentments against a hack like Frey.

Posted by: Bill Wilson | January 18, 2006 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I live in 57775 Las Vegas, Nevada. Have you been here before?

Posted by: Ein Lo Sechel | September 15, 2006 4:57 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company