When The Truth Isn't The Truth

We really need to be honest about this . . .

. . . about a writer who wasn't really honest.

By now you've heard the embarrassing tale of one James Frey, whose literary career was boosted into hyper-drive when his book, A Million Little Pieces, became the first non-fiction book in Oprah's book club. The book is a memoir detailing James' life of drug and alcohol abuse that led to prison time; somehow he was able to overcome all this and reclaim his life. Pieces became a best-seller despite the fact that the book is full of fabrications by Frey. This wouldn't be such a big deal but the book was presented as nonfiction. "Nonfiction," for those unfamiliar with the term, means "literature that is not fictional." And, going further, "fiction" is "something invented by the imagination." So since parts of the book were invented by Frey's imagination, that would disqualify it as nonfiction.

But many people are giving Frey a free pass. They say that the fabrications aren't hurting anyone and, since the story is so inspirational, we should let it slide. Oprah herself said that since "hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been changed by this book" it was no big deal. She also said Frey "stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today, and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves."

Oprah has spoken. The issue should be settled. But we will press on.

This is a case of people underestimating the seriousness of the subject. Even Frey himself doesn't seem to get it. On Larry King the other night he said the following:

"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."

Eighteen pages. No big deal. I might be able to go with that, but it wasn't as if he messed with minor events. He added years of prison to his life. That goes beyond a little stretching the truth. The manipulated material that Frey injected into the story gave the tale its power. This is indeed a big deal. If James Cameron's love story version of Titanic were actually true I might've cried at the end. Instead I laughed.

I'm not naive enough to think that Frey is the first person to ever fabricate the truth in a memoir. But the high-profile nature of this case cannot be ignored. If we turn our eyes to this we are giving permission for future writers looking for a payday to make up stories of inspiration and pawn it off as reality.

Laura Vanderkam in USA Today summed up the issue well,

"A newspaper story of a kid with a learning disability who overcomes rough odds to go to college inspires us to try harder in our lives in a way that fiction‚— where we can manipulate the outcomes to make success certain‚— can't. The outcome is never certain in non-fiction. Stories in this genre show we can be the architects of our existence. The good Frey might do for addicts with his books is outweighed by the damage he has done to future authors' abilities to convince readers of stories that will change their lives."

Everyone thinks it's about holding Frey to an unreasonable standard. We can't think too small here. It has nothing to do with him. It's actually about all those people whose lives were changed by his book. A book based on lies.

We need to hold people accountible to tell the truth. If you own the book, I'd suggest trying to return it for a refund. That would be a statement.