Facts vs. truth
An old friend of mine, let's call him Jack, is a marvelous storyteller. Years ago, when I first met Jack, I was enchanted by some of the stories he told about his exploits in New York and Los Angeles during the 1950s and '60s. These stories, often told at dinner parties, were loaded with incident and famous names. They were also instructive. Jack was not a braggart. His best stories were usually told by way of illustrating a larger point about dealing with disappointment, say, or talent, or success.
Jack taught me many things, one being that it was a good idea to take his stories with a grain of salt. The better I got to know him, the more clear it became that Jack's stories weren't always informed by a literal adherence to the facts. He embroidered. He embellished. I learned that when it came to many of his best stories, an old line applied: If they weren't true, they should have been.
That Jack might have played it fast and loose with the facts didn't make him a bad guy as far as I was concerned. His stories didn't hurt anybody. And besides, they were great entertainment - vivid and even edifying. If parts of them were made up or exaggerated, well, the only disappointment there was finding that Jack, apart from his gift of gab, was pretty much like the rest of us.
I've been thinking about Jack lately in light of the brouhaha that's arisen concerning James Frey's best-selling book A Million Little Pieces and his public chastisement by his former patron and advocate, Oprah Winfrey. Frey's is a redemptive story about drug addiction and self-destruction and how, in the end, he turns his life around. The book, which Frey and his agent originally called a novel, was rejected by a string of publishers. Then they decided to call it a memoir and it was snapped up by Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Random House. There are now 3 million copies of A Million Little Pieces in print in North America, in large part thanks to Oprah making it her book club selection for October 2005. Oprah, it seems, loves stories about people who pull themselves together, and her legion of viewers love what Oprah loves. Thus Oprah's book club has become a major force in American publishing.
But shortly after Oprah endorsed A Million Little Pieces, stories surfaced that debunked some of what passed for facts in Frey's narrative. For some reason, this powerful story didn't seem so powerful if it wasn't true. Frey was interviewed by Larry King, who challenged the veracity of his tale. "I think of this book working in the long tradition of Hemingway and Kerouac and Bukowski," said Frey, citing novelists famously known for disguising autobiography as fiction, rather than the other way around.
The highlight of the King show came when Oprah herself called in. While allowing that maybe some facts in the story didn't add up, Oprah said, "The underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me."
At this point, Oprah was sounding like an artist. She was willing to make the distinction that makes art possible - that is, to recognize that sometimes facts don't add up to truth. The facts in Frey's story may not add up, but the power of that story moved Oprah and, she claimed, a lot of other people, too.
Trouble is, we live in a literalistic world, a world not given to metaphor or the strategies of art. This is a world that confuses art and advertising, where expression is less important than persuasion and a story's only good if it makes you do what it wants you to. What's more, ours is a celebrity culture that values personalities over the work they do.
Oprah's willingness to cut Frey some slack in favor of what she thought was his story's larger truth got her in trouble. As far as the American media establishment was concerned, she was defending a liar. Never mind that they've been doing the same thing with George Bush over war in Iraq where people are being killed. Oprah would have to make amends.
So she called Frey and his publisher on to her show and reamed them both. The Chicago Tribune covered the confrontation on its front page. Columnists across the country celebrated the scourging. Diane Sawyer, fellow TV star and former Nixon aide, gushed, "It was a master class in bravery. [Oprah] reminded everyone of the power of telling the truth."
In fact, what she did was to show us that a guy named James Frey is less interesting than we might have thought, and that the feelings we might formerly have had for the story he told were ... what? Last week, in a fit of literalistic pique, a California woman named Karen Futernick sued Random House for $50 million because of Frey's book. "Nobody can get away with profiting with a product that you represented as something that it is not," fumed her lawyer.
I feel sorry for my friend Jack. He may never be invited to dinner again.