Thursday, January 12, 2006

Giving James Frey and Nan Talese An English Lesson

Bobbing and Weaving As "A Million Little Pieces" Falls Apart

Now that James Frey came clean to Larry King, America's Father Confessor, about making up some details of his life, you'd think his publisher, Nan Talese, and his number-one fan Oprah Winfrey would be finger-pointing and washing their collective hands of the man who took the fiction part of nonfiction when writing "A Million Little Pieces" a little too literally.
Instead, they are in denial.
"Although some of the facts have been questioned," Winfrey put it delicately during a phone call to "Larry King Live" on CNN, "the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me..."
Which is about what you would expect her to say, given how effusive her praise has been for Frey and the millions of copies of his book her rave review helped sell.
But ever since revealed that Frey wasn't quite the lowlife and scoundrel he made himself out to be, calling into question his tale of redemption, Frey and his allies have been in furious spin mode, none more so than Talese.
Today's New York Times has both sides of the debate she and her husband Gay Talese have been having about exactly what is nonfiction. Gay Talese, who rode to fame as a reporter and author dealing with facts, said simply: "Nonfiction takes no liberty with facts, and it should not."
To which in her own self-interest, Nan Talese replied: "Nonfiction is not a single monolithic category as defined by the bestseller list."
Oh, really?
How about, instead, we simply consult a dictionary or two? The Random House College Dictionary defines nonfiction as "the branch of literature comprising works of prose dealing with or offering facts or theory." Merriam-Webster's online edition put it more succinctly: "literature that is not fictional."
It doesn't get any less ambiguous than that. Still, Nan Talese is busy burrowing herself in what every gray area she can find, by lamely arguing that by virtue of "A Million Little Pieces" being a memoir, it shouldn't be held to the same standards as a history or biography.
Back to the dictionary for you, Nan, where Merriam-Webster labels a memoir "a narrative composed from personal experience," while Random House says it's a "record of facts or events or events in connection with a particular subject ... as known to the writer...."
A little wiggle room, perhaps?
Frey told King what he changed represented less than 5 percent of what's in his book, which he somehow thinks is "within the realm of what's appropriate for a memoir."
Talese jumped on that bandwagon in the Times, where she said a memoir is "not absolute fact. It how one remembers what happened."
Sorry, no wiggle room.
A memoir may not be absolute fact, Nan, but the assumption is that it's one's interpretation of the facts. We can all view an event differently, but at least it's something that happened. In this case, Frey admitted to fabricating important details that made the book so compelling, such as spending three months in prison.
For someone who made her mark as a skilled wordsmith, you'd think she'd know better. But since she has her own imprint at Doubleday, and there's big money to be made from Frey's misfortune -- or his fanciful version of it -- she'll look the other way. It's her version of "it depends what is is."
In the end, "A Million Little Pieces" might be a good read, but it is most decidedly not a memoir, no matter how much Nan Talese at her myopic worst wants us to believe otherwise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Given her intelligence and sophistication, why would Nan Talese take so illogical a position in defense of Frey's deception? By trying to salvage this mistake of book, she is relinquishing credibility.