STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It started as a familiar story this week when some more writing labeled as fact was exposed as partly fiction. A Web site called The Smoking Gun challenged some facts in a popular memoir by James Frey. His book about addiction, called "A Million Little Pieces," was one of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club picks. Here's the unfamiliar part of the story. Despite the charges, neither Winfrey nor the book's publisher withdrew their support for the author. NPR's Lynn Neary reports on the truth and consequences of tell-all memoirs.
LYNN NEARY reporting:
When The Smoking Gun began looking for James Frey's mug shot so they could post it on their Web site, they discovered that Frey had greatly exaggerated his run-ins with the law. Instead of a major brawl with police that resulted in a three-month prison sentence, Frey had spent just a few hours in custody after being arrested for drunk driving. That was only one of the discrepancies the Web site uncovered, and when Frey went on the Larry King show Wednesday night, he acknowledged that he had embellished the truth a few times in his book. But Frey didn't really see anything wrong with that.
(Soundbite of "Larry King Live")
Mr. JAMES FREY (Author, "A Million Little Pieces"): You know, it's a memoir and it's an imperfect animal. I don't think it's necessarily--I don't think it should be held up and scrutinized the way a perfect non-fiction document would be, or a newspaper article.
NEARY: The publisher of Frey's memoir, Doubleday, which is a division of Random House, wasn't terribly concerned about the revelations either. It issued a statement saying that `Memoir is a personal history that is meant to illuminate events of larger social consequence.' And Oprah Winfrey called into the Larry King show to say she still backs the book.
(Soundbite of "Larry King Live")
Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host, "The Oprah Winfrey Show"): If it says `memoir,' I know that maybe the names and the dates and the times have been compressed because that's what a memoir is. And I feel about "A Million Little Pieces" that although some of the facts have been questioned--and people have a right to question because we live in a country that lets you do that--but the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me and I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book.
NEARY: In essence, the defense of the book seems to be that memoir is based in memory, which everyone knows is subjective, and what really matters is that the story delivers the desired emotional effect. So when all is said and done, says Jeff Chandler, a vice president at Little, Brown Publishing Company, the biggest loser in this controversy may be the reputation of the genre itself.
Mr. JEFF CHANDLER (Vice President, Little, Brown Publishing Company): The very worst of this whole incident is not that we have an author here who fabricated to make himself more glamorous, more complicated, more dramatic. It's not that a publisher's making millions and millions of dollars off the book, is reluctant to do anything to upset that author or to walk away from the gold mine. In some ways, the worst of it has been this defense of the book as memoir and that memoir somehow equals a book that doesn't have to be authentic.
NEARY: This is not the first time memoirs have been called into question. Writers as well-known as Lillian Hellman have been accused of making up stories to make their lives look more interesting. And memoir writers as well-loved as Frank McCourt have been questioned about their brilliant recreations of dialogue based on conversations that took place years ago. Charlotte Abbott of Publishers Weekly says there's no question that publishers view memoirs differently than other forms of non-fiction.
Ms. CHARLOTTE ABBOTT (Publishers Weekly): A book that is someone's memory of their experience is not held up to the same standard of scrutiny as a book that accuses the president of wiretapping citizens without warrants.
NEARY: When it comes to memoirs, Abbott says, publishing companies have one major concern.
Ms. ABBOTT: When publishers vet a manuscript, they're looking at it in terms of libel. Is there anything in this book that will open us to the possibility of a lawsuit? And in Frey's case, he was libeling himself.
NEARY: Such a thought is cold comfort to Mary Karr, whose own memoir, "The Liar's Club," helped spark the current popularity of the genre.
Ms. MARY KARR (Author, "The Liar's Club"): I feel a little bit like some soccer mom who has a motorcycle who goes out on Sunday afternoon and we got this Hell's Angel who roared into town. You know, I'm trying to--I try very hard to do the right thing, as do most of the memoirists I know.
NEARY: The idea that memoirs shouldn't be too closely scrutinized is just wrong, says Karr.
Ms. KARR: The writer scrutinizes the book and asks herself or himself, `Is this true?' No one plants in your head by whole cloth events that didn't take place. I mean, surely he knew that he wasn't in prison for three months. Surely he knew a brawl with the cops never took place. Surely he knows the difference between crashing into the back of a cop car and running one wheel of his car up on the curb in a no-parking spot. Those aren't embellishments.
NEARY: Writers aren't the only ones who are upset. Chat rooms have been buzzing with opinions pro and con, and some readers have said they want a refund, though Random House says it isn't giving any. Judith Barrington, author of a book about writing memoirs, says a writer has a kind of contract with readers.
Ms. JUDITH BARRINGTON (Memoir-Writing Teacher and Author): They say to the reader, `This really happened to me.' Or they say, `This is imaginary. It might--you know, it might have happened. I hope you can believe it.' And I think that a writer needs to honor that contract.
NEARY: Barrington also teaches memoir writing, and she says she'll use this controversy as a lesson for her students.
Ms. BARRINGTON: I will tell them that I think that they have to be honest writers. They don't--they should not be deliberately deceptive. If they don't exactly remember everything, that they should tell the reader that; that the reader can identify with you struggling to piece together your own story. And I think that's part of what memoir is.
NEARY: But writers, says Jeff Chandler, may take away another very different message.
Mr. CHANDLER: That message is if it makes for a better story--if it makes for a story that not only reads better but might be more commercial, go ahead, fiddle with it. Fudge it. Make something up. It's OK if it's emotionally effective in the end. And that is scary. It's just--it's the same as cheating on a test.
NEARY: James Frey's follow-up memoir "My Friend Leonard" has a disclaimer at the front. As for his next book, it will be a work of pure fiction.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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