James Frey's ''Oprah'' debacle -- The controversial author is taken to task by the talk show host

By Ken Tucker
Updated February 03, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

James Frey’s ”Oprah” debacle

Three quick thoughts on the Oprah Winfrey-James Frey fracas. As a friend said, ”It’s Not Pop Culture, It’s Culture!”: 1 Oprah Winfrey undermines the good work she does in promoting reading on her show by clinging to the belief that fiction, nonfiction, or memoir should be useful and uplifting rather than simply good works of art. It began to be funny (except that she was so serious about it) when Winfrey started saying over and over that the first time she read it, she’d found it ”unbelievable” that Frey had done the things in A Million Little Pieces. Oprah, if you felt that way, then why didn’t you not only doubt Frey’s veracity but think to yourself, ”This guy isn’t convincing me; he’s not a very good writer”? 2 I read about 30 pages of Frey’s book when it was first published and stopped. It was just too full of the hard-boiled, macho ethos that always prevents me from buying into this kind of work. By contrast, Winfrey is sincerely invested in making a difference in people’s lives — which is admirable when she’s grappling with real victims and consulting with real doctors. But when it comes to books, simple rules of literary criticism, not sociological imperatives, should be applied: Does this hold up as a work of the imagination or of documented history? In the case of memoir, is this an account of humanity that we can ”believe” — i.e., can we recognize the fundamental truth of the author’s actions? By this measure, Frey fails, utterly. We — a million little Oprahs, we are — should all be asking such questions no matter what we’re reading. So: No, I’d never do what Humbert Humbert does in Lolita, or what those two punks did in In Cold Blood, yet I can be swept along, moved, but not ”healed.” Healing — the reader’s self-improvement — is irrelevant to real artists. Vladimir Nabokov and Truman Capote are artists, and Frey is not. (On the subject of healing and truth, go to the back page of this issue and read Stephen King, who’s got that angle nailed.) 3 What’s up with the blue, open-collared work-shirt getup that Mr. Multi-Millionaire Pieces affected on Larry King and Oprah? It’s subtext, friends, it’s deconstruction: The clothes communicate the message, ”I am a humble guy brought low, sitting among the powerful media elite; please have mercy on me.” Sorry: Not until you fork over the deeds to your Million Little Pieces-bought houses, Jimbo.