Friday, January 27, 2006

white heat

So this is the kind of dork I am: I don't even know how to turn on the TV set. The last time I watched it with much regularity was back in the sixties when I was a kid and "Bewitched" was my favorite show. There were no remotes, no secret codes, no attached VCRs, DVD players, and Playstations to confuse the issue. You pressed the on button, and voila.

But even a dork has to watch TV every once in a while, which I did yesterday at 4 p.m. That's right. I tuned in to see Oprah's public excoriation of the memoirist, James Frey. It was literary news, I told my teenage son, as he set me up with the remote. But really, I was just taking my seat in the amphitheatre like everyone else. It's not a pretty thing to admit, but something about watching Oprah just makes me want to confess.

A lot has and will be said about the ethics involved: Frey's, the publishing industry, Oprah's and perhaps even the readers' own. But what really interested me was the psychology that was enacted on the show. Truthfully, I think that Frey's fans would have forgiven him anything but weakness. But I wondered how many who cheered on his badass persona through 400+ pages of macho posturing could accept the vulnerable, stammering man who sat opposite Oprah yesterday.

In many ways, I wanted to see the character "James Frey" jump up, and throw off the microphone, refusing to take any more bullshit, and stomp off the stage. That character would have continued to lie with angry flair about the incident at the dentist. (Medical records are confidential, right?) He would have pointed an irate finger at Oprah when she brought up Lily, and told her not to DARE question his veracity on this painful, personal issue.

He would have bluffed and raged like James Cagney or like the book's version of James Frey, maybe even kicking a table or two to prove his point. He wouldn't have just sat back and taken it; he would have attacked back: How honest was Oprah in inviting him on the show only to ambush him? How honest were the reality shows her network produced, or the news programs they presented every night at 6:30? If he lied, wasn't he a product of his culture, a response to what readers clearly wanted?

Would he have been right? Probably not--badasses usually aren't. But rectitude wasn't what people admired in Frey's "character"; toughness was. A lot of people would have seen through his bluster, but many more wouldn't have cared. The "essential truth" of the story would have remained intact--who readers believed Frey to be. As it was, even that crumbled.

One can only hope that at least one aspect of the memoir is true; and that Frey has reserves of strength and character to deal with the aftermath.


Stephanie said...

I don't deal with electronics much either. I can work the computer. I think that's enough.

I wish I'd seen Frey on Oprah. It's interesting to see this story evolve.

Anonymous said...

I caught bits of the show late last night, when I couldn't sleep (it runs again after midnight), and as I drifted in and out of that weird not-quite-asleep state, I never once heard him speak either, while everyone else around him was talking about him. I haven't read the book, and I don't know much about the controversy, but I, too, wanted him to jump up and scream ... then, I thought, that his silence was a strange show of power, almost like that of a puppetteer (sp?).

Years ago, I wrote an essay about the literary self being the last frontier, or that California of literary trends, as I watched many people around me give up reading fiction for self-help books an memoirs ... so I am not that surprised by this turn of litery events.

rdl said...

What alot of hoopla. I guess frankly i don't.... I guess maybe he shoulda gone the Kerouac route - fiction memoir - with license to embellish.

rdl said...

I meant his and oprays hoopla, not yrs. of course. great post as usual.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I didn't see the show either and I have no interest in the book, but you've helped fill in what I need to know: the deep falseness of the man and of the whole phenomenon surrounding him.

Zhoen said...

From what I hear, it was deemed an improbable fiction. So he tried it as fact, and they overlooked the crapiness to sell it as true story.

Fact does not equal true does not equal good.

Patry Francis said...

Stephanie: It's funny how much we can learn when we're motivated.

maria: I would love to read your essay on the literary self as the last frontier...It's so topical; maybe you should post it. Or direct me to it elsewhere?

r: I guess he couldn't have published it as fiction. And though I well understand the hunger for publication, the guy obviously went too far.

richard: I, too, was offended by Frey's disrespect for truth. But watching him on Opray, it seemed like he had become a scapegoat for all of our travesties against it.

zhoen: I wonder who suggested he change his marketing plan. His agent maybe?

MB said...

I think you raise an interesting question at the end of your post, about his true character, the real Frey... and I wonder if he'll write another "memoir" based on this story — the saga of "the frustrated tough guy trying to make good despite the odds and screwing it up" continues?

Anonymous said...

Over here in the UK, I haven't seen anything about this J.Frey business so I don't know what everybody in the US is talking about. Or maybe I missed it, if it was in the press here?
I do know who Oprah is though.
Heh heh.

MB said...

Natalie, Frey published a book as a memoir which turned out to be largely fiction. It's on the bestseller list. If you are interested, there's a detailed article about it here. The flap basically is over the lie of his claim that it's a memoir when the content is unfactual.

Anonymous said...

Talk shows and reality shows... such a strange phenomenon to dramatize everything - literally everything. I'm afraid that Oprah and her colleagues (talk show hosts and reality tv producers) have taught a whole generation how to do it. At best, it feels small-minded and boring. At its worst, it seems cruel - a sort of predatory game.

I could definitely be wrong about this (and I certainly appreciate your summary of the Oprah/Frey issue). My teenage daughters definitely think I'm wrong!

Of course the truth is that I can't figure out the tv remote either.

Crockhead said...

Another brilliant post. I've read a lot about the Frey flap, but your post is completely original and hits the mark dead center. You're absolutely right about how the "Frey" of the book would have reacted versus how the real Frey, the one who only spent a couple of hours instead of months in jail reacted on the Winfrey show.

Anonymous said...

I think Frey is toast, and he deserves it. I think his editor/publisher is worse. She at least should have known better. She did her best to pass the buck and I thought she came off looking like a weasel.

She claimed she didn't check Frey's story because she believes what an author tells her? Oh, puh-leeze.

As one columnist on the program pointed out, for a $25-30,000 salary the publisher could have hired a fact checker who would caught Frey's fraud in half an hour.

Oprah had the guts (and the PR savvy, too) to stand up in front of millions of people and say, "I was wrong."

It's refreshing in this age when the buck never stops anywhere, nobody will admit anything, and it's always somebody else's fault.

But not this time. One of the world's richest and most famous TV personalities admitted she'd been conned and pinned Frey to the wall. I think his 15 minutes of fame have expired.

I've been reading opinions and editorials and blogs about this for two days. Maybe the publishing industry will sit up and take notice that a lot of us know the difference between "essential truth" and real truth.

There's no such thing as "truthiness." You can't "round off" the truth. Either it's true or it's not.

Sorry -- didn't mean to get on a soapbox! Thanks for opening this up to discussion.

Anonymous said...

Still, it wasn't a bad story. I think good stories are frequently embellished. I didn't read the book looking for help, I read it looking for a story that would move me. When some bible scholars talk about what's written there they suggest that in order for stories to be true, they don't actually have to be about things that really happened.

Sky said...

I think this is quite complex. I loved this post.

I, who have always loved Oprah, still wonder at her personal motivation for this show. I wonder if she would she have considered airing this show had no one screamed at her about her call to the Larry King show or her continued support of Frey. How much of this show was a concern for the truth or a concern for calming down her public? Did she really change her opinion and genuinely feel sorry or was this a race into damage control?

As you pointed out, were she and her producers honest with Frey when he was scheduled to do this show? This begs the question: Is dishonesty sometimes OK, and other times not?

Ego driven agendas are difficult to assess. "Truth" which, of course, is never absolute is not always a front runner when hidden agendas are present.

The issue which concerns me is this: Frey initially presented his book to the publishing houses as fiction. After discussion with his publisher they agreed to move forward with it as a memoir which brought an understood "non-fiction" public identity to it. Why then was everyone so surprised when it turned out to contain chunks of fiction? There had to be some reason he was pushing it originally as fiction. It switched to "memoir" in order for the publishing house to find a home for it, I understood.

Yes, Frey misrepresented fiction as fact, even after he was quizzed specifically, and YES it is a bad, bad thing he did when he lied. Sadly, there was NO reason at that point to lie!

The fact remains that memoir and non-fiction are NOT the same by publishing standards, and any issues related to what kinds of facts are fictionalized in memoirs should be dealt with prior to publishing.

The good which will come out of this fiasco is that publishing house rules will change, editors and their staff will edit AND fact-find and verify, and the public will now understand the difference in non-fiction and memoir. I just hope good memoirs don't get lost in this shuffle, however, when memory is the only trail to follow and some editor cannot verify a fascinating moment in life.

Anonymous said...

These are excellent, important questions in your post. I didn't see the interview, nor have I read his book. I'm interested in writing memoir and have read Tristine Rainer's book, Your Life as Story, which is about applying concepts of fictional writing to autobiography (plot, character, etc.) - to move autobiography from linear reportage of a life (which can be boring) toward having components that rivet as in fiction.

Rainer does talk about fictionalizing some things, such as small details in describing a setting, which a person honestly cannot remember X years after the fact. But as for concocting such large myths, the book is silent.

What bothers me about Oprah (aside from the fact that she's a self-made product with an ego so big she names her magazine after herself and is on the cover of every one), is that she at first defended Frey on the Larry King show. And then she had to "eat crow." Admittedly she did this on her show, facing the world. But why the 180 degree turn? Because she's savvy enough to know that she'll lose money if she doesn't. That's disingenuous. She maybe truly felt betrayed, but the most honest response would have been NOT to defend Frey in the first place.

As for Frey, I feel for him. He tried to sell his book as a novel first, so maybe his original intention in writing it was as a first novel. There were no takers, so he followed the advice of his agent. The agent and everyone else who knew this and published the book anyway are culpable. I don't like, either, that Oprah excoriated him in front of millions.

What I feel most sad about for Frey is that there is something in him that drove him to embellish his story, portraying him as a badass -- someone he really fundamentally isn't. What's sad is the need for this, how it indicates a lack of good health (mentally and spiritually).

I used to counsel teenagers who told the most horrific tales about their homes. At first I'd get hung up on whether the stories were true. Then I realized that regardless of their veracity, there was a pain, a need, at the source. I tried to focus on defining that need and helping to heal it. Wondering whether the story is true distracts from that effort. I don't condone lying, but I try to understand what prompts it.

Perhaps all future published memoir ought to contain a statement at the beginning saying: "This is a fictionalized story of my life. Not all of it is true, but the overall message and theme are. I choose to keep veiled those elements that are fictionalized because knowing which is which isn't fundamental to the overall meaning of the book." I'd still read such a book, if it was well-written.

Cate said...

I've read a lot of commentaries about the Frey situation, but yours resonates with me the most. I think that you're absolutely right about the weakness. I don't agree with what he did, but I found myself enraged at the humilation he was subjecting himself to. More angry at Oprah for dishing it out or more angry at Frey for taking it, I do not know.

And I love what Pat B. said about the publisher looking like a weasel.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

chosha said...

It couldn't have happened, if he hadn't lied. If the consequences leave him stuttering in an attempt to justify, so be it.

Anonymous said...


We don't even own a television. I haven't lived with one for 30+ years, but I've been following the Frey story because of my interest in books, literature,and publishing, and I've read plenty of voices now. I agree with amishlaw that this is a completely original view you've presented. Thanks.


Patry Francis said...

Wow! What unique, thoughtful comments.

mb: What a fascinating idea. If he did, it would make for a far more gripping read than the first.

natalie: You may be better off, though I must admit, I've been consumed with it.

becca: I love the compassion in your take on this. Predatory it was in a sense, but as pat b. says, someone had to take a stand about the increasingly fuzzy stuff that passes for truth these days.

amishlaw: Thanks for your comment. Really, I think the contrast between the way Frey was treated when he presented the tough persona (showered with accolades, adoring fans, and oh yes money) and the way they reacted when he revealed his weakness was a fascinating study in our human/animal nature.

pat b: Thanks for your excellent summation. You are so right: I don't think anyone involved comes out looking too well in this.

popeye: As a reader, I, too, look for a story that moves me. Frey's abilities as a storyteller are not in question. But what's wrong with calling it fiction? Obviously, the publishers didn't believe the story could stand on its own.

Sky: Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. You bring up a lot of good points. The collision of "ego driven agendas" during that show left me reeling. It also appeared that Frey had real difficulties with telling the truth--even when he didn't have to lie. For instance, I wasn't convinced by his impromptu revelation that Lily had slit her wrists. He looked more like a "people pleaser" trying to give Oprah what she wanted.

kathryn: Great point about looking for the WHY behind the lies Frey told. As someone on the show pointed out, the ability to be honest with yourself and others is an essential component of recovery. Frey appeared far from that--even at the end of the show when he was pronouncing himself a better man for having fessed up. In the end, this was all about integrity: the integrity of a writer, and the people who pitched him, published him and promoted him.

Cate: You said it perfectly. Great to see you here, btw.

Chosha: It looks as if the man lied so flagrantly and so often, he almost wanted to be exposed.

Susan: No TV for 30 years? Now for me, that would be a good subject for a memoir--or at least a guest blog. How living without the ubiquitous blaring presence altered your lives. Do you talk to each other more? Read more? Are you happily oblivious to some of the trivia that obsesses the rest of the world? Or does it find its way in anyway?

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you. It seems to be that Frey was only giving the people what they ask for. Our culture diesn't want the "truth" but it wants to think it does. As long as the writer makes his stories believable (perhaps Frey's biggest mistake) people won't question it. It is sad but also inevitable in a culture where the line between fiction and nonfiction is becoming so blurred.

Anonymous said...

What a sorry mess. I must admit to feeling a bit of sympathy for Frey and a lot of disappointment with Oprah.