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The Chicago Frey Massacre

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So I’m sure everyone saw James Frey on Oprah, except me. I have it recorded so I’m going to watch it over the weekend before I’ll comment in-depth. But from the snippets on TV, it certainly didn’t look pretty.

The Oprah and James Frey discussion today was the lead story on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 last night and I did see most of that. And the primary thought I was left with is this…  is Larry King really brain dead? Is he stoned? What is going on with that man?

At one point, King raved about Frey’s ability as a writer and Cooper said he wasn’t smitten with the book. King then referred to the dentist scene and said “well, how did he make that up?” He kept asking “how did he make that up?” King seemed to be saying that there had to be some truth to it because a normal human being just couldn’t invent that. Cooper looked like he wanted to say “well, stupid geezer, there’s this thing called an imagination and artists use it to dream up Wookies and Puff the Magic Dragon and Smurfs and Cyclops and all kinds of things that don’t happen.” Then, King mentioned that Hemingway never fought a bull but that he was a good writer. Cooper, once again, diplomatic to his network mate but barely restraining his condescension said “yes, but he was a novelist.” The whole exchange was just weird and made me wonder if Larry King ever partied in the sixties and fried all his brain cells.

Another initial thought I had while watching the outtakes was that Oprah was performing a little bit. But what really bugged me was her feigned naivete about the nature of publisher fact checking. I’m not saying its right or ideal, but the reality is that no publisher checks every single fact of the nonfiction books they publish. It’s simply impossible. And most nonfiction contracts I’ve seen say specifically that the author is warranting that the work is true.

Throughout this whole discussion, it has been noted that newspaper, magazine, and television journalism has a higher standard of fact checking than book publishing. But even then, even with these heightened standards, truth is the author’s responsibility. I’m looking at a nonfiction contract I signed recently with a national magazine. The contract specifically states “you are responsible for the accuracy of all information contained in the Article.” Without a doubt, it is in the magazine’s best interests and responsibility to check my facts and the editors should make sure I’m not going off the deep end. But eventually, truth and accuracy are ultimately my responsibility as the author.

Yet, Oprah seemed aghast that the publisher had let her down in this case by not checking everything. Once again, I agree that in a perfect world, I’d be comfortable in relying on the publisher to guarantee every word of a nonfiction work. But it’s just not the reality of our current publishing environment and Oprah damn well knows it.

In preparation for an author interview, I re-read a biography of a popular rock band. For a couple of pages, the author recounts how this band, in 1978, traveled to one of the most remote places on Earth to perform in a small mining community. There’s a recollection of a guy who collected spiders and even walked around with one in his mouth. This is one tiny tidbit in a book that covers 25 or 30 years with a rock band. Is the publisher supposed to call the mining company, check twenty-year-old employment records, call local tarantula dealers, try to verify that a guy with a spider jones exists? Oprah knows this simply isn’t possible.

She also mentioned that the lawyers had vetted the novel and she played dumb with exactly what that means. Publishing company lawyers vet a novel to make sure there isn’t anything libelous or slanderous. They want to make sure you’re not saying Mr. Bigwig Politician is a pedophile who eats golden retriever puppies for breakfast. But they are not going to go back and check my junior high school girlfriend’s name and whether we kissed by the school bus one afternoon before my soccer practice. And Oprah, with her media experience, surely must know that. However, by playing dumb, she can try to deflect some of the criticism she has faced in recent days.

Anyway, I’ll watch the tape, and see what else I think about the whole bloodletting. However, I’ll leave you with one final thought for now… don’t you think the folks behind the J.T. Leroy charade are happy they didn’t cross Oprah?