Friday, August 3, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies, and Books That Pose as True

There's been a lively discussion on the IWW's WRITING list regarding editor Nan Talese's refusal to accept any responsibility for the Frey-lied-in-his memoir debacle.

You can find more information here ...

Nan A. Talese was with Frey on that show. At a session of a nonfiction writers' conference in Dallas on Saturday, she accused Winfrey of "fiercely bad manners" and said she would have done nothing differently in how she handled Frey's manuscript.

"I'm afraid I'm unapologetic of the whole thing. And the only person who should be apologetic is Oprah Winfrey," Talese said, according to The Dallas Morning News.

And through other sources like this interesting TIME article ...

At a literary convention in Texas last weekend, after a speech by novelist Joyce Carol Oates on the nature of truth in memoirs, Talese took the opportunity to go after the queen of television. In an earlier discussion at the convention, Talese had already called Oprah's slap-down of Frey on television "mean and self-serving" and described it as an ambush. At the Oates event, she was even more outspoken, and her remarks were captured by C-SPAN cameras. The show may air as early as this weekend.

Wayne Scheer, a long-time IWW member and a well-published writer, had an interesting take on the affair, one which he found himself defending.

Since we're into rationalizing I thought I'd take an unpopular position and support Frey. I don't mind that his story wasn't all factual. The scene in jail, for instance, has him hitting bottom, and is good for the story.

What do I care if it didn't really happen that way? Frey isn't important enough as a person for me to care about the facts of his life. I'm more interested in his story, which, like most of our stories, needed a little embellishment.

Historians tell us that Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography isn't totally true, either. So what? He was creating an image of a new man, an American, and the story worked.

Thoreau collapsed over two years of time into one year, some of it spent back in Concord, to create a good story.

Now if Frey had never been a drug addict, or if Franklin had never created a successful life from his own ingenuity and if Thoreau had never been to the woods, I would have felt cheated. But they experienced the things they wrote about, mostly, while also prettying up the loose ends. Personally, I'm glad they did. As I see it, autobiography is an imaginative retelling of one's life. The author selects details and omits others, even creates neat transitions where they don't exist in reality. That's what makes it art. Otherwise, you just have a factual diary.

I know Frey's book was marketed as true, and we want to be able to believe what we read and are told. But, personally, I learned better than that when I was a small child. Didn't we all?

Back a million years ago when I was in college, there was a phrase commonly used, "the autobiographical novel." I like that because it reminds us that it's true but not necessarily factual, real people and events are used but fictionalized to protect the innocent and, more importantly, to make a better story. Jack Kerouac's road novels come to mind.

So I'm glad Frey made things up in order to create a better story. And please let's not confuse art with politics. Politicians have no right to play loose with the truth unless they're writing their campaign biographies, and if anyone believes they are absolutely factual let them buy bridges in Brooklyn.

As for Oprah, I'm sure she is smart enough to know the difference between a good story and a factual diary. Who, then, is the bigger fraud, Frey or Oprah?

That's enough rationalizing for me. I have creative nonfiction to write.
Wayne is right, to some degree. George Washington didn't, after all, chop down a cherry tree. And when we speak of our own experiences, we can sometimes paint a picture that might be later identified as a fake.

But, in spite of recognizing no one involved in this contretemps needs my approval, I do think Oprah needed to bring Frey and Talese on stage, even under elusive pretenses, and offer them a comeuppance. Oprah is an industry, a franchise, an employer of many, and with a reputation to preserve. As CEO she needs to keep Oprah, Inc. viable.

"Selfish is good," said Gordon Gecko, although the line was changed because "Greed is good" is sharper and alliterative. As a populist and a cynic about wealth and those who accumulate it, I don't necessarily think "selfish" works to the public good, but I do understand Ms Winfrey selfishly wanting to slap one up-side the head of a liar.

To me, given our knowledge that the book was first shopped around as a novel and rejected, Nan Talese is the primary villain in this sad saga. She took chicken feces and marketed it as chicken salad. Knowingly. The question no one has ask she-who-deceived is this: had an associate editor perpetrated this fraud, would he still be employed?

Frey is not innocent, but he resembles most the snotty-nosed awkward kid who couldn't out-run the police after the windows were broken. He was promised candy from the window, and he got it, but the police found him. Luckily, he didn't go to jail. He simply received a good paddling, and in public.

As Wayne so accurately notes, more or less, there are lies, damn lies, and books that proclaim to tell the truth.

I believe in truths rather than truth. Relativism? No. I think of truth as quarkian, ever shifting, constantly changing according to the nature, position, and attitude of the observer.

And, apparently as is evident, Nan Talese is bulletproof. When heavy hitters like Joyce Carol Oates equivocate, we understand the only thing Talese may suffer is a few whispers behind her back.
In response to emailed questions from TIME, Oates clarified her stance, saying, "the tradition of personal memoir has always been highly 'fictionalized' — colored with an individual's own 'emotional truth' — and that the James Frey memoir would seem to be in this category. It would seem that Oprah Winfrey was judging the memory from a more literal perspective, but this makes sense since the great majority of her readers would expect memoirs and autobiographies to be 'true.'" She says that she has never read Frey's book and that she chooses to write fiction because memoirs today "strain credulity." The novelist added, "This is an ethical issue which can be debated passionately and with convincing arguments on both sides. In the end, Oprah Winfrey had to defend her own ethical standards of truth on her television program, which was courageous of her; and Nan Talese had to defend her standards as a longtime revered editor, which was courageous of her."

Oh, my. Courageous.

Pardon me. I need to check Orwell's Newspeak dictionary.

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