Monday, January 09, 2006

A Literary Dilemma

I work with a lot of people who read. It's not difficult in this world to find people who read. A lot of the world is comprised of literate people. The people I work with are also big fans of Oprah.

Now when it comes to the literary world it's really no surprise that the biggest, most powerful book club around is the Oprah Book Club. Oprah Winfrey has a seeming Midas touch when it comes to driving her favorite books to the top of the bestsellers lists. Why? Because Oprah is a powerful, powerful force to be reckoned with.

That being said, I'll admit that I bought James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and have been reading it because a large number of the people I work with have either read it or are in the midst of reading it. They all seem to be amazed by the book and Frey's tale of redemption. For those of you not in-the-know about A Million Little Pieces, it's a recount of Frey's six-week stay in rehab after years of drug abuse. It's an uplifting tale of going to the edge and managing to turn one's self around before it's ultimately too late. Mind you, I haven't finished reading it (I'm creeping up on page 120 or so).

I was very leary of buying any book with the Oprah Book Club sticker on it partly because she tend to choose very "safe" literature for her club and partly because I really don't want to contribute to Oprah's seemingly ever-ballooning ego. But now that I've had the book for a few weeks now timing is proving to sometimes be a funny thing.

Click here.

As part of my regular internet rituals I was visiting and came across a link to a Smoking Gun article about A Million Little Pieces. The article, which is the link I provided with the "Click here" goes into detail about how Frey's book, while being touted as a brutally honest, gripping piece of nonfiction, is, in fact, fictionalized in a number of areas at the very least. Accounts of court cases and arrests that happened involved Frey could not be found by the people at The Smoking Gun. What they also found odd was how many of the real life characters who helped Frey on his road to recovery were either all dead or could not be found.

Which leads me to the whole dilemma of the matter.

Since it appears as though this could in fact be an elaborate ruse for money on Frey's part should I stop reading the book?

What's odd is that if the book had been marketed as a piece of fiction I would probably say that it's a pretty decent piece of fiction so far. It's writing is pretty gritty and he does some pretty cool things with the language like eliminating quotation marks and not breaking the dialogue up with too many "he said" or "she said" type insertions.

It's just unfortunate that the whole marketing ploy behind the book is that it's 100% real. It's all about its credibility, which would seem to be a veneer now that I've read the TSG piece on it.

There are other books I could start reading right now instead of A Million Little Pieces. The question is, should I?


Gravel said...

I think that there is an unspoken caveat with regards to any piece of writing that is deemed "autobiographical". That is, a bit of fictionalization/embellishment is, to a degree, "standard practice". The lines between fiction/non-fiction can get blurred quite easily.

Besides that, what makes "The Smoking Gun" an authoritative source?

Michael said...

I understand the bit about embellishments, but some of the embellishments that Frey makes are huge. The next book I'm planning on reading is largely autobiographical, "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius", and it's author, Dave Eggers, goes so far as to include a preface which explains which parts he fictionalizes and which parts may be slightly different from how they actually occurred due to the inaccuracy of human memory. I appreciate stuff like that. The stuff that The Smoking Gun attacks are kind of big, stuff that would be kind of hard to forget, like how Frey claims he was wanted in three states on a variety of charges and how he got a reduced sentence for assaulting a police officer, and felony DUI among other things, when the prosecutors in the case don't have any record of there ever being such charges. It's true that one should be skeptical of TSG's authority in the matter, but it's easier to believe some of their claims as opposed to his. I don't know.

Gravel said...

He does seem to have pushed the envelope a fair amount - beyond the boundary of what most writers would consider an appropriate amount of bullshit.

TSG's expose is well documented and backed up. They have done their homework.

I guess the most troubling thing is his insistence that the book is true when, as it looks right now, it might not be.

I don't know. Its a tough call. If the book is bullshit, does that diminish it, strictly from a literary standpoint?

Michael said...

From a literary standpoint I think the book is well-written. Certainly I have read better books, but this one is pretty good. The narrative is pretty gripping and he does a good job of building up his setting with his language.

I do have to say, though, that if most of what's in the book is fabricated and he did, in fact, con Oprah, it's pretty cool because I love to see celebrities of Oprah's stature get egg on their faces. I hope that if this is all just a hoax that it does go public so that we get to see Oprah eat humble pie for the public. That would make it all worth it.

Adam said...

All "nonfiction," or at least "creative nonfiction" is at least somewhat fictional. Names are changed to protect the guilty; multiple people are combined into a single composite character so as to better tell the story; all creative nonfiction is fictional to a degree. As long as the "emotional truth" is not altered, I'm okay with calling something nonfiction, even where parts of it are fictionalized.

Gravel said...

Point taken, but this guy has touted his book as 100% true. He's pimped it on TV, radio, and on the net. He's gone out of his way to pump up the veracity of his work. If it weren't for Oprah putting her stamp of approval on the thing, the guy would be nowhere. Now he's a semi-famous author (soon to be forgotten, i suspect) largely because of the purported accuracy of the book.

To me, that seems a little different than your standard embellishment a-la Bukowski or Henry Miller.

Anonymous said...

The one thing about this book if it's fiction or not. It is helping people who have drug problems to realize they need help. The people are actually realizing they aren't the only ones out there going through what they are and getting help. It's nice to read something and know someone else has felt the same way that I have and gone and gotten the help they needed.

gravel said...

Wow. Did you hear that the publisher is offering refunds to those who bought the book? Holy shit...I've never heard of that before...

Michael said...

It's a fucking interesting story if you ask me. I'm really glad this happened because it's good to start some intellectual dialogues. I can sympathize with Frey because while it's true that many, many writers lie about themselves when it comes to memoirs and such he was rather unfortunate to get called on it and when it turns out that the lies were big. On the other hand, he did kind of have it coming for allowing himself to be put in the spotlight and to have stood behind the book without disclaiming its discrepencies from the real world.

I really don't care for how Frey is choosing to handle the situation, though. Instead of coming clean he's now threatening to sue The Smoking Gun. Since TSG is owned by CourtTV, which is, in turn, owned by Time Warner, it's a pretty safe bet that there are going to be some strong lawyers stepping up to bat for them. I'd say just shrink away quietly and let the controversy keep selling your book.