The Ugly Truth; When James Frey Embellished His Rap Sheet in His Best-Selling Memoir, Did He Cross the Line into Fiction?
Peyser, Marc, Newsweek
Byline: Marc Peyser (With Karen Springen and Jac Chebatoris)
James Frey is not a guy who backs away from a fight. He's got a pit bull. He's got a mean tongue, too. A few years ago he told a reporter that Dave Eggers's "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" "pissed me off because a book that I thought was mediocre was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation." Frey even has a tattoo on his arm that reads ftbsitttd, which, hosed off, stands for "F--- the bulls---, it's time to throw down." So it was surprising to see Frey sitting meek as a schoolboy last week, being grilled by Larry King about allegations he'd made up incidents in his best-selling drug-addiction memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." Frey admitted to 18 pages of "embellishments," which he rationalized as "less than 5 percent of the total book." He tried to sound tough, but he came across as more pussycat than pit bull. He even had his mother, Lynne, at his side. "The important aspect of a memoir is getting at the essential truth," said Frey, 36. "I stand by the essential truth of my book... I don't think I'd change anything."
Not that it mattered what Frey said. In book publishing today, one person's opinion matters most, and with one minute left on King's show, she called in. "I understand we have Oprah on the phone," King announced--and you could hear Lynne Frey gasp. Winfrey selected "A Million Little Pieces" as an "Oprah" book last September, helping it sell more than 3.5 million copies. Would Winfrey stand by Frey now? At first, it was hard to tell; she started by complaining that the publisher should have checked the book's facts better. Frey sat still, waiting. Finally, Oprah cut to the chase. "The underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me," she said. "And I know that..." She said some stuff after that, but it was hard to pay attention. Frey's blinking, almost prayerful look of relief was amazing, as was his mother's applause. Oprah had rehabbed Frey's reputation.
"Little Pieces" clearly won't disappear. In fact, the dust-up propelled it back up the best-seller lists. But it has touched off a literary tempest. For the last decade or so, memoirs have been the cash machines of publishing houses. From "Angela's Ashes" to "Sleepers," a genre that had been dominated by the likes of Lee Iacocca has taken on the sexiness that used to be associated with big-book fiction. Will readers keep buying memoirs if writers admit juicing some facts? It doesn't help that Augusten Burroughs is being sued for fraud and libel by the family he writes about in "Running With Scissors." Or that stories published last week allege that JT LeRoy, a novelist who claimed to draw on his past as a male prostitute for books like "Sarah," isn't really a prostitute--or a man. Sure, writers make things up for a living. But how much invention can go into a memoir before it crosses the line into fiction? "Manufacturing events wholesale is just morally wrong," says Mary Karr, author of her own memoir, "The Liar's Club." "I think this calls into question every aspect of this guy--who he is and everything in his damn book. …