Chicago Tribune 01-28-2006 (A Million Little Pieces)

Chicago Tribune 01-28-2006 (A Million Little Pieces)

Publishing turns a page

Authors can expect tougher questions from editors in the wake of James Frey’s memoir; readers are likely to find better explanations

By Patrick T. Reardon and Susan Chandler
Tribune staff reporters

Oprah Winfrey’s public evisceration of James Frey’s literary reputation this week over the extensive fabrications in his memoir “A Million Little Pieces” changes the landscape of the U.S. publishing industry.

“From now on,” said Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, “it would be a very slow-witted publisher who wouldn’t ask The James Frey Wuestion; ‘What exactly have you done with the truth in this memoir?'”

Expect many, if not most, memoirs published in the coming months and years to include a prologue, not or preface – some sort of warning – telling the reader just how many liberties the author has taken with the facts, say publishing executives.

Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books, said explanatory prefaces “will be clearer, more forthright and more common” in the future.

But don’t expect many publishers to force their writers to go cold turkey from the occasional use of fiction – a composite character, a rearrangement of events or name changes – to smooth out the rough parts of what otherwise is being marketed as a “true” story.

A key reason for this is the nature of literature as an art. Great art comes from the unexpected, and you cant get the unexpected by putting down too many rules about what can and can’t be said.

“A book, unlike a newspaper, is the universe of its creator,” said Osnos. “You should be able to say what you want in a book, but you have to be clear about what is and isn’t fact. I would have no problem with someone writing a [non-fiction] book and saying, ‘OK, here’s what I made up.'”

There are practical reasons as well. Even major publishers don’t have the staff to check the facts of a manuscript unless the company lawyer raises questions or something just doesn’t ring true.

“In the short term, [publishers] may read a book a little bit closer and maybe ask a couple tougher questions, said Mitch Rogatz, president and publisher of the Chicago-based Triumph Books. “Like anything, there’s a knee jerk. Then the grip is loosened a little bit.”

Rogatz uses two freelance experts to ensure the accuracy of his firm’s sports books. But sports, with its multiplicity of statistics and records, is a field in which it’s much easier to spot mistakes than, say, Frey’s subject, addiction.

At W.W. Northon & Co., editors have long been “hard-liners” in requiring authors to stick to the facts, said President and Chairman W. Drake McFeely. “Anything we publish gets a pretty close sniff test,” he said. “We like narrative. But when it gets to be too creative, we draw the line. Invented dialogue is something we’re not comfortable with.”

The book-buying public can’t get enough of memoirs, and the big dollar signs that a bestselling memoir can mean to a publisher sometimes cloud judgment, said Osnos.

“The commercial tension in publishing is different than in other media,” he said. “We have no ads and no subscriptions. All we have are sales. The temptation to put virtue aside and pursue the lucre is enormous.”

Some publishers argue that readers don’t really take memoirs literally – that, when they see pages and pages of dialogue from the author’s childhood, they know those quotes are made up.

Others make a distinction between the memoirs of public figures and those of private citizens. Readers, they contend, expect a public figure’s memoir to be as accurate as possible, so as not to conflict with what’s already known about the person. But the experience of reading a private person’s story is very much like reading an autobiographical novel, so readers are willing to accept some fictionalization. At least, that’s the argument.

It’s a slippery situation. And it remains to be seen in the post-Frey publishing world how detailed the notes and prologues for future memoirs will be.

For example, Doubleday Books announced that new editions of Frey’s book will be printed with an author’s note and a publisher’s note. But will Frey explain, for example, that his friend Lilly didn’t commit suicide by hanging, as he wrote in the book, but by slashing her wrists, as he revealed on this week’s Oprah show? Or will he have a generic phrase saying that some unspecified details from life have been altered?

And, as embarrassed as Frey may be, his appearance on the Oprah show apparently didn’t hurt his book’s sales. It ranked No. 4 on the Amazon.com bestseller list on Thursday, and also on Friday. “This is going to give the book another kick in the pants,” said Rogatz.

One thing the brouhaha over Frey’s book shows, however, is how much easier it is today with the Internet to check the purported facts of a memoir and uncover falsehoods.

“We, as a society, always make a big fuss over lies,” noted Osnos. “Richard Nixon learned that. Bill Clinton learned that. And the latest to learn that is Mr. Frey.”

And the publishing industry.

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