Weekend Freywatch: Another Take on Oprah

By Neal Comment


So I just got through watching Thursday’s evisceration of James Frey, and kudos to Oprah for being willing to admit she was wrong. If only all the experts she rounded up to assist in Frey’s pillorization were on as solid footing. Case in point: Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute may claim to know a thing or twenty about the rules for writing snappy prose, but I’m not inclined to trust his judgment about how the publishing industry should negotiate the relationship between memoir and truth. A rating system for accuracy in narrative nonfiction? If he wants to blow Poynter money on creating a Consumer Reports-like division of ace researchers to analyze nonfiction books, fine, but to suggest that James Frey is the pebble which, when tossed in the pond, leads to waves of Holocaust denial crashing upon our shores unless the industry rises up to meet the crisis is not only irresponsible but frankly somewhat hysterical.

Especially considering that Clark is the same guy who urges nonfiction writers to be “storytellers” who “strive for the mythic, symbolic, and poetic” as they “take advantage of narrative opportunities” and “write endings to create closure.” One thing he doesn’t tell them to do is maintain strict adherence to historical materialist reality. Maybe that’s because he’s trying to reach out to both fiction and nonfiction writers, although if that’s the case, the line “you want to write stories, not articles” seems inordinately skewed to one end of the spectrum. Or maybe Clark just assumed that, even as he was urging storytellers to be as creative as possible, they didn’t need reminding not to make stuff up. The key point here, though, is that James Frey followed Clark’s advice as stated perfectly in A Million Little Pieces, so for Clark to rush himself to Oprah’s studio to join in the condemnation of Frey struck me as somewhat opportunistic.

Because who wouldn’t, after all, hasten to be a part of what Frank Rich rightly pegged as “amazing television”? Heck, some of the folks who couldn’t finagle an invite onto Oprah were happy to settle for reading the tea-leaves on Scarborough Country. For example, Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly (to which, I’ll disclose, I contribute to regularly, which has continued the occasional friendly contact between us) commented, “I don’t think that publishers are going to stop publishing memoirs and I also don’t think that publishers are going to stop changing their idea of a memoir as one person’s history. A memoir is not journalism. However, a memoir cannot hold bald-faced lies in it.” It’s a subtle variation on her original PW editorial, where she made the point that by writing “a compelling portrait of an addict’s life complete with all its deceptions and grandiosity,” Frey “gave the readers what they want…[H]e didn’t write front-page newspaper profiles of people he’d never talked to—and he never claimed that Pieces was supposed to be All the Presidents’ Men.” Which I have to admit resonates, because with every nonfiction writer or journalist that’s come out to attack Frey for lying, I’ve been waiting and waiting for somebody to just come out and say, “Look, you got your $15 worth of story, didn’t you? Quit yer bellyaching.”

Meanwhile, Charlotte Abbott’s (ditto previous disclosure) post-Oprah roundup for PW Daily raises a significant point: Sean McDonald is quite possibly the luckiest editor in publishing right now, as Nan Talese continues to take all the public knocks for signing off on the book McDonald brought to her house. And because all the focus has been on Pieces, McDonald’s role in further enabling Frey’s “coping mechanism” by acquiring My Friend Leonard hasn’t come up for much public rumination, either (especially since the public seems to have pretty much decided that there wasn’t much question about its falseness).

But there’s always room for levity in this story, and here’s the latest amusing blip: Melissa Macron checks out the back cover of Nic Kelman’s Girl and discovers blurbs from both Frey (“a beautiful, beautiful book”) and JT LeRoy (“the craft I crave that comes along at just the right time and takes my breath away”)…and she’s willing to give that book away to some lucky reader.