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True or False Scientologists Levitate on Oprah's couch?
True or False Scientologists Levitate on Oprah's couch?
Is No Stranger
Oprah Winfrey has thrown her support behind memoirist James Frey, whose Number One bestseller, "A Million Little Pieces" -- a vivid recollection of his drug and alcohol addictions, crimes against humanity and recovery -- turns out on a sliding scale to run from false to faulty. Mr. Frey's literally incredible life was exposed recently by a Web site, the Smoking Gun. Respondeth Oprah, and legions of Mr. Frey's readers: Who cares?
Ms. Winfrey said, "The underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me." Many of the some 1,900 Frey messengers to Oprah's Web site also voted for redemption over factual accuracy.
In an age when controversies are a dime a dozen, this one is worth thinking about. Some have said the publisher should have made clear the memoir was fictionalized. But people don't want that. As with reality TV shows, people now enter into these new kinds of experiences with the conceit that it's somehow true or real, and when they find out later the truth was staged, they don't care. If you think this doesn't compute, tough. That, so to speak, is current reality.
Still, criticism has rained down on Mr. Frey, publisher Doubleday and Oprah for choosing falsity over fact. Most of this comes from authors or teachers of writing defending what they think are utilitarian distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. One might expect that most people would similarly support the primacy of facts in a book making claims to factuality, as Mr. Frey's did. The recent, wide denunciation of Korean stem-cell faker Hwang Woo Suk derives from the centuries-old belief that improving the human condition works better in a world run on facts rather than tall tales.
But maybe that's changing. Maybe the power of personal opinion and personal experience are becoming more valued than facts. As Oprah said, "I believe in James." But for now, the fact people aren't conceding victory to the factoid people without a fight.
Smoking Gun's editor, Bill Bastone, a former Village Voice reporter, told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Frey is "dishonest and unethical." Author Mary Karr cites "the venerable standards of journalism and history" and the damage done to writers "who don't break the ethical code."
But this is old school. The new school poses a competing value called "emotional truth." And right now "A Million Little Pieces" is exhibit A. This tension is clear in the world of Mr. Frey's subject -- drug and alcohol abusers.
Much support for the book on Ms. Winfrey's Web site comes from persons recovering from addiction or from family members; all found solace in "Pieces." drug and alcohol hells are bad places to be, with no common solution. The road out is often arduous, and one is hard put to gainsay what works for these folks. That said, Oprah's site also carries many unforgiving comments from these same people. "What good would a book of lies do," one of them asks, "for someone who's trying to learn to live without them -- who's trying to be honest and stand up for maybe the first time in their lives?" Another said it contradicted Oprah's "essential message: to live in truth of ourselves." Oprah's loyalists are a lot more interesting than they are often given credit for. One woman, the wife of an alcoholic, cut to the chase: "James Frey lied. He is accountable for his actions." Or used to be.
The reaction among writers has been as intense, with most of their criticism hammering at the publishing industry's greater willingness to erase the line between fiction and fact. Doubleday issued what one might call a businesslike "net-net" version of the new, saleable world of false facts; it referred to the power of the book's "overall reading experience." The publishers argue, and some writers support them, that the consuming public's changing tastes are forcing these category changes. Publishers are simply following the market.
In this view, fiction or even traditional nonfiction isn't providing the hyper-real narrative many people now crave from an assembled memoir like "A Million Little Pieces," no matter that it has been proven a fraud, or at least a fraud as formerly understood. But perhaps this suggests some people can't handle the truth anymore, so they'd just as soon be lied to so long as the lies fit their belief system, such as belief in the power of personal "redemption."
What's a fraud now -- and what's something else -- has become a question worth pondering. We live in a world of reality TV shows, of newspaper photographs and fashion photos routinely "improved" by the computer program Photoshop, of nightly news that pumps more emotion than fact into its version of public events such as Hurricane Katrina, hyper-real TV commercials manipulated with computers, the rise of "interpretive" news, fake singers, fake breasts, fake memoirs. Morris Dickstein of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York described this world as "always at the edge of falsehood" and so people come to tolerate it "as part of the overall media buzz of their lives."
He's right. But there is a political dimension to this, which many of what are no doubt politically liberal writers upset at James Frey and Doubleday ought to consider. Before all this, most people operated from a common personal standard, a broadly held superstructure of right and wrong, integrity and dishonesty, which they probably learned in Sunday school. You can see and hear it in hundreds of old Hollywood movies. "The Maltese Falcon," written by Dashiell Hammett, a Communist, is full of this moral tension and resolving clarity.
We all know those widely shared categories were broken and blurred the past 38 years, leading to terrible political fights between social conservatives and liberal liberators over disintegrating standards of personal behavior. Welcome to what it has wrought: The mass marketers and their accepting publics are skipping past the politics and simply pocketing the value added in the new controlling value -- whatever "works" for us personally, no matter how meretricious. It's hardly James Frey's fault that the culture really is in a million little pieces.
1/21/2006 7:59 pm
Have we gotten to the point that drug abuse and recovery are not riveting enough. Now we have to make even that better fiction than fact.|
1/23/2006 12:13 am
Have you read the book? I haven't. And I didn't see the Oprah segment that caused the current wave of brouha (how is that spelled, anyway?). But I'm aware of it second hand, from my best friend who LOVED the book. She is in a Masters' program to become a mental health counselor and has been clean and sober for seven years. She tends to defend Frey, although not fanatically.|
Since I'm not directly familiar with his works, I'm not in a position to really have a strong inclination one way or another. It does, however, remind me of how outraged some felt when it was made known that Carlos Casteneda basically fictionalized his characters. Very different situation, but not really.
If I ever read it, I'll return with some sort of opinion. For now I'll just stay this - at least my opinion of A Separate Reality didn't change!
Yeah, I'm still [blog 1hotwahine]