by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - February 13, 2006) The case of James Frey and A Million Little Pieces will be chronicled in literary history as The Exoneration of Oprah Winfrey; a rare and troubling instance wherein, to affirm the unassailable integrity of a talk-show host, a vulnerable author was publicly humiliated.
The honest thing for Ms. Winfrey to have done was to issue an announcement admitting she had ignored earlier indications that sections of Mr. Frey's "memoir" had been fabricated and thereby set the record straight. But that would not have made for very exciting television nor would it have been a sufficiently operatic (or Oprahtic) mea culpa. It simply would have been the most civil thing to do. But when integrity (read national reputation) is at stake, Ms. Winfrey and her inner circle recognized the theatrical possibilities of a public act of condemnation, which, in unmasking Mephistopheles, would immediately place her on the side of the angels. The decision to publicly humiliate James Frey was an appalling act of hubris by a woman who was more concerned with repairing her tarnished image than she was performing an act of common decency.
Or, in this over-hyped, spin-ridden world in which we live, might there have been a collusion between Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Frey to perform a dramatic act of contrition which would have served both their purposes? "Jimmy, you allow yourself to be crucified on public television and I will assure you the book will sail to the top of the charts and your fortune will be made." Is that scenario simply too cynical to contemplate? No, not in a world where media-spin has replaced the rotation of the earth's axis as the most important revolution in nature.
The essential question that has been conveniently obscured in this tempest-in-a-shot-glass concerns the actual quality of Mr. Frey's novel-cum-memoir. If it is a compelling read and the author has fulfilled the requirements that readers tacitly impose on authors, A Million Little Pieces must be acknowledged as having artistic validity. "Artistic validity" is, to some extent, measurable and verifiable -- "truth" is not. Every lie is an embroidery on some smidgen of actuality and the so-called "Real Truth" is very often a choice made by people who prefer one version of its ambiguity over another. When the philosophers proclaim that the most elusive reality of all is this quantum called "truth," they imply that our subjectivity is so all-enveloping that no objectivity can possibly displace it. One can be caught out in a lie, but it doesn't follow that once the equivocation is removed, an absolute truth is what remains. History, journalism, biography, and politics are all exercises in "relative" truth disguised as certainties. But with the passage of time, some of the most resolute truths are unmasked as falsehoods. That's why we have what we call "revisionism." Each generation revises truths previous generations firmly accepted as unimpeachable. The history of History is a series of new revelations that compel us to reconsider what we formerly believed.
Autobiography is perhaps the stickiest of these categories. How much of Proust's Remembrances Of Time Past is pure fiction and how much has been filtered through the experiences Proust actually experienced? What "fact-checkers" went through De Quincy's Confessions of an Opium-Eater to winnow out the validity of his perceptions and excise the fanciful burblings of a spaced-out drug-addict? Is Jack Kerouac's On The Road, a true chronicle of his wild adventures, a "novel" as alleged, or a "memoir" of personal experiences with a few thinly-disguised friends? Is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin completely free of tampering or has it been judiciously cosmeticized to omit Ben's more salacious affairs? Shakespearean critics have spent centuries, and spilled much ink, matching up passages from the playwright's work to incidents which supposedly occurred in his life. Whether they have been successful or not is not the point. The point is they have been scouring "fiction" to confirm verifiable facts and, in many instances, believe they have succeeded in finding connections.
Frey's falsifications to his "memoir" would have caused no fracas had they been contained in the "novel" he originally touted for publication, and they would have been just as untrue as he admitted them to be in the "memoir." Is the labeling of his book the fundamental test of its validity or the effect it has on its readers? You may argue that in a memoir, the "effect on his readers" is a form of deceit, as we do not expect mendacity in a factual work recounting a writer's personal experience. But if we acknowledge Frey's mendacity and simply change the label to read "novel," are the falsehoods any less odious? Many will answer, Yes -- because the work no longer has to pass the test of complete veracity. But what if "complete veracity" is a virtue impossible to achieve and even harder to verify? Where precisely does that leave both the reader and the writer? Fiction is a means by which selective truths are revealed and the reader accepts the fact that authorial inventions are the means by which they are imparted. If fiction can be used to demonstrate truths, why should fictions in a memoir be condemned for pursuing the same ends?
Running beneath the whole of the Frey controversy is the pompous, holier-than-thou attitude that by denouncing mendacities, one is affirming the virtues of Honesty. Morally comforting as this may be, it doesn't begin to allay the suspicion that absolute truth is an abstraction that can never be positively confirmed -- or that imaginary inventions may frequently illustrate truths more convincingly.
It would be simplistic to say that James Frey "prevaricated" in parts of his memoir, but it would be preposterous to say that he "lied" in his novel -- since all novels are lies; lies disguised as truths. In some sense, the Greater Lie is Oprah Winfrey claiming the moral high ground by burying James Frey underneath it.
holier-than-thou is *not* a Swans attitude, but we could use someto keep the birds healthy, if you see what I mean.