Here on Fishbowl we use Seth Mnookin as the go-to guy on matters of transparency in journalism and scrupulous fact-checking, and also the word “Mnookin” makes us giggle. But his writing is certainly not limited to those subjects, nor is has his experience been. Which is why he’s uniquely qualified to write about James Frey : yes, he knows about accuracy and journalistic standards, but he also happens to know about being a junkie.
Coming from that experience, says Mnookin, he could already tell that Frey was fudging something fierce, especially based on the “stock characters” cramming the book, starting with the “world-weary anti-hero” and continuing with the small-minded people who didn’t understand him. Says Mnook:
If a novelist wrote a book run through with these kind of straight-from-Central-Casting chestnuts, he’d be politely told to try again…as Frey says he was, by 17 different publishers, before, Frey says, Doubleday’s Nan Talese said she’d publish his novel if he recast it as a memoir.
Yikes. Burn on Oprah, and a point for Gay Talese.
Mnookin looks at Frey’s fabrications through the lens of his own brutal experience, which definitely provides some insight, but his main point is less about Frey’s motivations than the consequences of his actions: letting a false picture of addiction be held up as the truth, to the detriment of people who really need the help (and the people who would help them). This, of course, is “why his fakery matters”:
Unfortunately, because A Million Little Pieces — one of the best selling books about drug addiction ever written — has been trumpeted as an unflinching, real-life look into the world of a drug addict, it has helped to shape people’s notions about drug abuse… Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior.
The truth matters, and so does the truth about the truth.