There were so many interesting dynamics at play at the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey showdown.
First of all, it was hardly a showdown. Oprah was noticeable upset with Frey, saying she was disappointed and angry. "I feel duped," she said. But Frey could barely talk on the show. He stuttered out half sentences that he tried to pass off as explanations. Until the very end, he skirted around the question of whether he lied or just fudged facts.
Frey also explained that he saw the people in his book as “characters” who were distinct from their real-life counterparts. He changed substantial aspects of everyone he wrote about so as to disguise their identities, he said. That included making himself a much meaner and tougher character.
"In order to get through the experience of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was, and it helped me cope," said Frey. "And when I was writing the book, instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image."
Frey did acknowledge that he only spent a few days in jail instead of the three months he claimed in the book. He said he did have a girlfriend Lillie who committed suicide, but that she slit her wrists rather than hung herself in her jail cell only hours before Frey was due to arrive for a visit. Frey said he didn’t see Lillie in a timely fashion because he had to go to North Carolina to pack up his apartment.
Oprah tried to be a tough questioner but she kept backing off.
The other interesting dynamic was seeing Nan Talese kowtow to Oprah. Talese is one of the most powerful people in publishing. She really pushed this book. A few years ago she told 1000 reporters at the Neiman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Boston about Frey’s book. This was before it was published. She called it astonishing and said she read it in one sitting and bought it on the spot. During Oprah, Talese talked about Frey’s authentic voice and how she trusted that voice. Talese seemed to reject the notion that a publisher should fact check anything since “the voice” tells so much.
The subtext of this, of course, is that publishers love Oprah’s book club and Talese, on behalf of Doubleday, definitely seemed interested in repairing her relationship with Oprah. It can mean huge profits. (Please note the book is still selling well). Talese needed to tread a line between defending the publisher’s decision to publish A Million Little Pieces and acknowledging that Oprah had a right to be pissed.
The journalists of the program seemed incredulous at Frey’s actions, since they know that if they or any other reporter made such up such dreck, they would be caught immediately.
I have not read this book. Seeing James Frey squirm on the couch next to Oprah made me pity him. I worry about him. Oprah even said he had made a joke about whether or not there was a gun backstage. Can you imagine selling 2.5 million books and then having the whole world turn on you?
Of course, it wouldn’t be Oprah without redemption. At the end of the show she talked to Frey about how telling the truth was an important step towards his recovery. (Poynter institute guru Roy Peter Clark had suggested this earlier) Only then did Frey acknowledge he lied. It was in the context of Oprah’s forgiveness. He now has her blessing for admitting his mistakes and moving on.
It will be interesting to see what is next. Random House has announced it will include an author's note explaining there are exaggerations in the next printing. Frey has a two-book fiction deal with Riverhead.
His name is mud, but you've got to admit one thing, the guy can write.