The James Frey flap: A memoirist's rant
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarah Saffian, an Entertainment Weekly senior editor and the author of her own memoir, Ithaka: A Daughter’s Memoir of Being Found, shares her thoughts about James Frey’s sit-down with Oprah Winfrey over fabrications in his A Million Little Pieces:]
I’m not quite sure why James Frey went on Oprah today. If you’re just going to say, I’m sorry, I made a mistake, and I have no explanation for doing what I did, why do press? But since he is doing press, he desperately needs a media consultant. His lack of charisma and inarticulateness just served to heighten his shame. He did mention, only once or twice (and sheepishly), that he had changed aspects of people in order to protect their privacy. This is a completely valid reason to alter details in a memoir; it is done regularly, with a note on the copyright page saying that names, identifying characteristics, etc. have been changed (I did this in my own memoir). A good defense that he barely used, probably because it wasn’t actually the (only) reason he made the changes (how does changing slitting one’s wrists to hanging oneself protect privacy?). But then what was the reason? Why was his story of addiction and recovery not compelling enough without these embellishments?
Publisher Nan Talese, on the other hand, was a worthwhile presence, particularly in helping to explain what exactly memoir is — distinct from autobiography, and certainly from journalism, subjective, by definition a book written from the author’s memory — to Oprah, who, while she had a point, was seeing things in an overly black-and-white way. And Talese’s Carter anecdote, when Roslyn said to Jimmy, ”You wrote your memoir, now I’m writing mine” was very apt. Two memoirs written by two different people about the same circumstances should be different. Oprah, meanwhile, criticized Talese for not heeding from the outset the “red flags” that Frey’s book might not have been all true — the root canal episode, for instance — but she herself hadn’t heeded them either, of course, when she first read and raved about the book, putting her stamp of approval on it.
On the other hand, the comment The New York Times‘ Frank Rich made (maybe the onlyuseful comment he made) about this being a “slippery slope” wasimportant. If Frey changed the length of time he was in jail and theway someone committed suicide, what else did he change? And in general,what falls on the side of what’s okay to change?
(An interesting side point: in Larry King’s own 1992 memoir, When You’re From Brooklyn, Everything Else is Tokyo, he claims to have been great friends with Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax while growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ‘40s. But Koufax always maintained that he’d actually never met King. Seems germane to mention while grilling a fellow memoirist about his veracity.)
All this negative publicity will still trigger even more sales of A Million Little Pieces,because folks want to read what everyone’s talking about, in spite ofthemselves. But then I believe that they’ll swear Frey off, and hisnext book, a novel, won’t sell nearly as well. Look at Stephen Glass’and Jayson Blair’s books after their controversies — both bombs. Whydo we want to read more of what Frey has to say, no matter how it’smarketed?
The larger danger is that memoir in general will be affected by this– the comparisons of the few small detail changes in the newtranslation of Elie Wiesel’s Night to this debacle arecompletely absurd, but unfortunately they’re out there. My fear is thatmemoir won’t be trusted as a genre anymore and that it’ll become evenmore misunderstood than ever.