Feb 5 2006

James Frey and Lying

Unless you don’t watch TV, don’t read the newspaper, and don’t watch Oprah (or you live under a rock), you have probably heard something about the James Frey / Oprah memoir lying thing.  A few days after the rumors of this initially broke – and before Frey publicly admitted he was lying about some of the events in his books, I wrote that James Frey Should Not Be Hung Out To Dry.

Things went round and round, eventually resulting in a public admission by Frey to Oprah that he had lied about details on the characters in his book.  Oprah really fried Frey, resulting in an interesting emotional backlash against Oprah on my blog.  Somehow the string “James Frey Email” brought up the book review I wrote on Frey’s second book My Friend Leonard on the first page of the corresponding Google search – a week later I had 60+ comments on this post, the vast majority of them defending (and praising Frey) while simultaneously bashing Oprah.

In this midst of this, I got a question from a reader of this blog that asked “I wonder if you still stick by James Frey after his interview and admissions today on Oprah?”

I’ve taken a week to ponder this.  Lying is something that I do not condone in any way, but this wasn’t an obvious “yes or no” for me.  I found (and continue to find – even with the new information) Frey’s books to be remarkable.  I believe I would have felt this way if they were presented as “sort of a memoir with a bunch of stuff changed to make them more powerful” and still would have felt this way if they were presented as “fiction.”  Frey’s immediate response (which turned out to be a lie) to assertions that he had stretched the truth bothered me, but as I thought about the books and the author, I realized this behavior was likely self-referential and was symptomatic of the underlying issues that Frey had in the first place.  So – I thought about this some more, especially what the difference is between memoir and fiction.

I then read a brilliant opinion piece in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligence titled “Press corps should take lessons from Oprah” which – when commenting on Bush’s State of The Union Address – finished with “If Bush had put all this in a book, Oprah would have called him and his publisher on the carpet. But Bush has only the Washington press corps and the enfeebled Democrats to answer to. As long as he sticks to speeches, he’s free to leave the truth in a million little pieces.”

After thinking about it for a while, I continue to think A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard are brilliant books.  Frey was wrong when he lied, but I believe that was part of his underlying pathology as a person and not simply a nefarious plot constructed by him and his publisher, Nan Talese, although his literary manager Kassie Evashevski seems to be really struggling with things.

The more unfortunate thing is the amount of time Oprah has spent on this, versus actually addressing lying as an underlying issue in our society.  Jon Stewart is doing a brilliantly entertaining job of highlighting lies told daily (primarily by our government), but the public discourse on “lying” seems to be focused on an addict who has written two magnificent and poignant books instead of on the pervasive deceit of many people in powerful positions in our society.