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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Several big lies

Last night (Wednesday), Larry King devoted an hour of his gabfest to the James Frey controversy.  Frey has been accused by The Smoking Gun, in a long investigative piece that has not been (and presumably will not be) impeached of making things up in A Million Little Pieces, his bestselling “memoir” [sic] of addiction and alcoholism. Among other things, he is accused of completely making up a melee with police and a three-month long stint in the county jail.  (For more details, see this Gawker post.)  His main defenses seem to be artistic license – memoir, though non-fiction, apparently has come to mean “you can make stuff up” – and the fact that this stuff he made up only totaled 18 of 300-some pages of the book.  Yeesh. Can you imagine a student using those excuses for a plagiarized paper? 

But let’s consider the legal and business issues here from the publisher’s perspective.  Can the publisher claim that it was fraudulently presented with a work of fiction as a “memoir,” which it assumed to be reasonably factual?  (Let’s assume that the publishing contract didn’t include a provision specifically stating that the author assured the publisher that the work was “factual” – though even as I type that assumption, I wonder if such a thing could or even should exist since it seems totally vague.)  Alas, his publisher seems unlikely to be able to make such a claim here, since Frey submitted the manuscript originally as fiction (this is from a Times article and from a NY Observer article from August 2003), had it rejected by the publisher, re-labeled it as non-fiction and re-submitted it with no changes, and had it accepted.  Another way of reading these accounts is that the publisher itself suggested Frey re-label it as memoir.  Either way, has the publishing industry’s decreasing interest and investment in checking the manuscripts it purchases from agents (see Gay Talese’s comments in this Times article) left it unable to challenge a work and an author about whom they do virtually no due diligence?  And, indeed, as Frey himself appears to exploit the genre, is the “memoir” so open-ended, if not meaningless as a category of non-fiction, as to allow an author to lie to his agent, publisher, and audience about the veracity of his material?

But even if the publisher wanted to press the issue, should they?  Most disconcerting of all about Larry King’s show was Oprah’s self-serving call-in.  Oprah chose the book as her club selection in October of last year, leading the book to become the best selling non-fiction book of 2005.  On King's show, Oprah stood by her man, claiming that his voice was true, that the book has proved intensely meaningful to recovering addicts, and that what really mattered wasn’t his (bogus) life of crime before recovery but his description the time he spent in rehab and then willing himself to straighten out his life  But Oprah: If the guy made up one part, why should we trust his account of another?  No publisher in its right mind would want to alienate Oprah.  Better to lose some credibility than to press an issue in the face of the publishing industry’s most important salesperson.

Posted by Mark Fenster on January 12, 2006 at 12:17 AM in Books | Permalink

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» James Freys Big Lie? from madisonian.net
Everyone is shocked SHOCKED! by the disclosure that James Freys new memoir isnt, well, true. But they shouldnt be. Weve been down this road before. Mark Fenster blogs about the incident at Prawfsblawg. ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 12, 2006 10:18:44 AM

Comments

What is truth? The world is a dream and those who know they are dreaming and can shape their dream are fortunate (I made this up and I do not believe a word of it). I do believe that speech and writing are given too much importance when sometimes they deserve no more importance than a belch or the scrape of a shoe on the sidewalk. Will you pay for this guy's book as much as you would pay to hear him belch or to hear his shoe scrape on the sidewalk?"

Posted by: nk | Jan 12, 2006 8:41:09 PM

These people obviously have way too much times on their hands if they have to investigate James Frey. Maybe they can investigate the FDA or government officals. I'm sure they would find all the lies, fraud, and deceit they want. Drug addiction and alcoholism is an embelllished life. None of really know for sure what happened, we only have our account of what happened. How it seemed to us. What a waste of time and energy. I find it even sadder that it should be headline news. Oh well, people will be people.

Posted by: Janet | Jan 12, 2006 4:06:48 PM

These people obviously have way too much times on their hands if they have to investigate James Frey. Maybe they can investigate the FDA or government officals. I'm sure they would find all the lies, fraud, and deceit they want. Drug addiction and alcoholism is an embelllished life. None of really know for sure what happened, we only have our account of what happened. How it seemed to us. What a waste of time and energy. I find it even sadder that it should be headline news. Oh well, people will be people.

Posted by: Janet | Jan 12, 2006 4:05:23 PM

Not really a legal question but an interesting one nonetheless. I'm led to wonder why we care if the memoir is actually true in every detail. A lit crit type might point out that given the unreliability of human memory and differences in interpreting similar events, no memoir can be truly factually accurate (cf. Rashomon). But this memoir appears to have created whole episodes that never took place, which is materially misleading by any standard.

So why do we care if it's accurate? If the point of a memoir is to entertain or to edify, and it achieves those ends, I'm not sure it matters that some episodes were fabricated. For example, it eventually came out that the 60s drug-scare memoir "Go Ask Alice" was in many respects invented. Does this mean that it shouldn't be assigned to kids to try to keep them off drugs (assuming it's effective in doing so)?

One objection could be that the reason people find the book affecting is that it's a true story, and that if it's not actually true to life it may result in giving people an unrealistic model on which to base their own lives. But I don't know if I buy this; it appears that people were positively affected by the book regardless of its (partial) inaccuracy. This cuts against a consumer fraud theory; what are the damages suffered by consumers?

And in any event, there's also a quick solution any publisher should implement (if they haven't already): put a disclaimer at the outset of the book stressing that the book isn't meant to be accurate in every detail. Thus readers are on notice to be skeptical of the content.

Posted by: Dave | Jan 12, 2006 2:47:33 PM

Sorry--I don't know why the Overlawyered post didn't track back.

Posted by: Ted | Jan 12, 2006 12:07:28 PM

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