Truth, lies and bestsellers

Published January 22, 2006

"Live your life from truth and you will survive everything, everything, I believe, even death. You will survive everything if you can live your life from the point of view of truth."

- Oprah Winfrey, graduation address to Wellesley College, 1997

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Like many admirers, I had a tough time reconciling the words above - and the spirit behind them - with the speaker's continued support of James Frey.

Frey, the author of the blockbuster memoir A Million Little Pieces, has faced a deluge of media attention amid revelations by TheSmokingGun.com that the writer likely lied about the extensive criminal career he outlines in his book.

Winfrey had featured the book in October on her talk show's tremendously popular book club, guaranteeing huge sales. Last week, amid an outpouring of I-told-you-sos from long-skeptical critics, Winfrey defended her choice.

"If you're an addict whose life has been moved by this story and you feel that what James went through was able to - to help you hold on a little bit longer, and you connected to that, that is real," said Winfrey, who defended the so-called "emotional truth" of Frey's book while blaming its publisher for mislabeling it. "And it's - it's irrelevant discussing, you know, what - what happened or did not happen to the police."

Readers were initially spellbound by Frey's vivid accounts of his raging addiction and recovery, including waking up on an airplane covered in blood and vomit, spending three months in jail and provoking a confrontation with police that resulted in multiple felony charges.

According to the TheSmokingGun.com, a six-week investigation showed Frey's actual crimes brought only fines and traffic tickets for charges like driving under the influence, with no significant jail time.

TheSmokingGun.com editor, William Bastone, assumed Winfrey was doing what any good CEO would do in damage control mode: protect her franchise.

"She has to either still vouch for it or say, "We recommended a book full of bunk, and not only was my staff asleep at the wheel, but I was too,"' said Bastone, noting that no other major news organization thought to check Frey's account against police and court records.

"The only stuff we looked at were incidents for which there are a paper trail ... (and) everything we looked up was full of lies," Bastone said. "(Winfrey said) the belief this book is changing the lives of people trumps the fact that maybe the story is a fake. You would expect somebody in her position would take the ethical stand."

But I think Winfrey, ever an astute judge of the public mind, isn't just covering her assets here. She may know a truth that is painful for critics and journalists to acknowledge.

As long as most fans of the book want to believe it is true, they will accept the slimmest of explanations to preserve its entertainment value.

"Even though the public will tell you they want truth in memoirs, what the publishing industry's research tells them is that they want something they can believe is true, yet is first an interesting story," Jayson Blair - the New York Times reporter fired for plagiarizing, and whose own memoir was criticized for inaccuracies - told the Los Angeles Times.

It's the same sort of odd public bargain audiences have made with reality TV.

Almost from the genre's start, viewers knew the wild antics displayed on shows such as Survivor, The Bachelor and American Idol were not the unvarnished truth. But the thrill of watching Richard Hatch or Simon Cowell in action made many of us accept the fiction.

Reality TV producers have a host of tricky techniques: having participants re-enact juicy moments the cameras missed, plying subjects with alcohol to lower inhibitions and staging events with the precision of a military march.

The same skepticism arises when considering a literary trend identified by Washington Monthly as the "nobody memoir." Exemplified by Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, these books captivate readers by describing remarkable tales of personal suffering and survival that are tough to verify because the authors were unknown before publication.

It's a strange dynamic, given the derision heaped on journalists such as Stephen Glass or Blair when their made-up tales became public.

But when popular authors such as Augusten Burroughs admit their widely read memoirs contain fictionalized accounts, the old saw about never letting facts get in the way of a good story never seems more fitting. For example, despite being sued by the family that raised him, which feels it was badly portrayed in his childhood memoir Running with Scissors, Burroughs has seen the tome turned into a highly anticipated movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Annette Benning.

The Frey/Pieces fracas has revealed uncomfortable truths: Publishers vet books for legal problems more than factual accuracy, and the "memoir" label or lack of a disclaimer doesn't necessarily mean a nonfiction book is mostly true.

(Pieces' publisher, Doubleday, has said it supports Frey but will include a yet-undisclosed author's note on the accuracy issue in future printings.)

But the most depressing lesson for this critic, given that Pieces remains atop many bestseller lists - it was knocked to second place last week on Amazon.com's list by Winfrey's newest book club selection, Elie Wiesel's controversial Holocaust memoir, Night - is that the book-buying public may not care.

Just as long as they get a good story.

"Truth allows you to live every day with integrity. Everything you do and say shows the world who you really are. Let it be the truth."

- Winfrey, from a column for O magazine.

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/