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Chicago Tribune 01-27-2006 (A Million Little Pieces)

Chicago Tribune 01-27-2006 (A Million Little Pieces)

Oprah shreds Frey in a million pieces

By James Janega and Patrick T. Reardon
Tribune staff reporters

In a reversal of patronage for author James Frey’s fallen memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” Oprah Winfrey on Thursday apologized for the bestseller on her book list, then lambasted Frey and his publisher on live television from the set of her show in Chicago.

The pretext for Frey’s putative non-fiction work was demolished Thursday, though Winfrey’s image as truth-teller and book club maven was preserved two weeks after she defended the “underlying message” of Frey’s fabricated book in a telephone call to CNN.
“I regret that phone call,” Winfrey said at the beginning of her show Thursday. “I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter. And I am deeply sorry about that.”

Her reversal left Frey shaken and somewhat penitent, while bringing with it hints of repercussions within the publishing industry, notably its definition of the memoir genre that Winfrey challenged as wobbly.

“To me, a memoir means it’s the truth of your life as you know it to be and not blatant fictionalization,” she said. “I feel that you conned us all. I think the publisher has a responsibility…I’m trusting you.”

She cut into Frey with equally clear language. She asked if he really underwent two root canals without Novocain. When Frey said as a non-fiction author that he “struggled with the idea of it,” Winfrey cut him off abruptly.

“No, the lie of it. That’s a lie. It’s not an idea, James, that’s a lie,” Winfrey said.

“Yes,” Frey responded.

Winfrey said her turnaround stemmed ultimately from viewers’ letters and concerns raised after she picked Frey’s book for the Oprah’s Book Club list last October.

“What she did today, I think she ultimately had to do. She was putting her seal of approval on something that every episode of her show rails against. At some point she had to fix this,” said Robert Thompson, professor of media, and popular culture at Syracuse University. “When the dust has settled, this probably has helped her. She’s stopped the controversy.”

Later, Frey’s publishers apologized for the book’s stretching of the truth, and said they will include publisher’s and author’s notes in future editions.

“We bear a responsibility for what we publish, and apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion surrounding the publication of ‘A Million Little Pieces,'” Doubleday Books vice president and director of publicity David Drake wrote. “A non-fictional book should adhere to the facts as the author knows them.”

Though the book tops the New York Times paperback non-fiction list, Drake said no copies will be printed until the explanatory notes are added.

But the horse has left the barn – it has been on the best-seller list for 16 weeks, with some 3.5 million copies printed since its 2003 release.

“The whole episode is a wake-up call for the publishing industry,” said W. Drake McFeely, president and chairman of the Norton publishing house. “It’s a good moment [for publishers] to get a little more rigorous.”

Across the board, publishers acknowledged they have had little ability to check the particulars of a manuscript, except to answer legal questions raised by their lawyers. It comes down, one said, to trusting the author.

Still, “we take seriously the responsibility for the veracity and credibility of our author’s works, and share a mutual responsibility with them in having their writing be accurate and factual,” said Stuart Applebaum, spokesman for Random House, Inc., whose imprints include Frey’s hardcover and paperback publishers, Talese/Doubleday and Anchor.

Questions about “A Million Little Pieces” were raised not by the book’s editors – nor by Winfrey, who deferred to assurances by publishers – but by the Web site The Smoking Gun.

The site’s exposé this month put Frey’s assertions of violence and drug use side-by-side with police reports.

“Turns out he’s a well-to-do frat boy who, you know, isn’t kind of this desperado that he’d like people to think he was,” Smoking Gun Editor William Bastone said in a video clip Thursday.

Winfrey’s show could have been a primer on starting a book club conversation:

Pick a subject, something like addiction and recovery that’s guaranteed to spark deep, sundry feelings.

Interweave in it a theme timeless to humankind – say, Truth. Include an ironic twist – say, a non-fiction book that was ultimately untrue.

In Thursday’s drama, Winfrey played the role of moderator and injured party. Frey and Doubleday senior Vice President and Publisher Nan Talese took the public fall.

In a point-by-point question-and-answer, the author explained how he had fabricated and the publisher explained why the story hadn’t been fact-checked. Winfrey blamed them for hoodwinking her, and took responsibility for defending the book.

He was addicted. There was a Lily, the woman he loved more than addiction. She did not die by hanging. She slit her wrists, one of several things he said he changed to protect people on who the characters were based…

“I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was, and I – it helped me cope,” he said.

Explanations were offered, but doubts remained, said Winfrey guest Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for journalism. “When you learn some significant piece of a story is not true, you begin to doubt everything in the story.”

While Winfrey’s imprimatur was gone from Frey’s works (a best-selling sequel, “My Friend Leonar,” is now on shelves), there were hints by the end of the program that redemption of sorts might at last be under way.

“I have been honest with you,” Frey said. “I have, you know, essentially admitted to…”

“Lying,” Winfrey prompted.

“To lying,” Frey said, using the word for the first time in the show’s closing moments. “I mean, if I come out of this experience with anything, it’s being a better person and learning from my mistakes and making sure that I don’t repeat them.”

Oprah from ‘Larry King’
“If it says memoir, I know that – that maybe the names and 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 – that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. …Whether or not the car’s wheels rolled up on the sidewalk or whether he hit the police officer or didn’t hit the police officer is irrelevant to me. …To me, it seems to be much ado about nothing. …”

Excerpts from Winfrey’s show
Excerpts from the host’s confrontation with James Frey on Thursday, from a transcript provided by the “Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Winfrey: “I regret that phone call [to the Larry King show]. I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter. And I am deeply sorry about that because that is not what I believe. I called in because I love the message of this book and, at the time and every day, I was reading e-mail after e-mail from so many people who have been inspired by it. And I have to say that I allowed that to cloud my judgment. And so to everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.”

Winfrey, speaking to Frey: “I have to say it is difficult for me to talk to you because I really feel duped. I feel duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers. And I think, you know, it’s such a gift to have millions of people to read your work, and that bothers me greatly. And so now as I sit here today, I don’t know what is truth and I don’t know what isn’t.”

Winfrey: “I read this book as a memoir, and to me, a memoir means it’s the truth of your life as you know it to be and not blatant fictionalization. So when I pick up a book and it says it’s a memoir, I’m thinking that that is your life. I’m not thinking that’s a character…And I sat on this stage back in September and I asked you, you know, lots of questions, and what you conveyed to me and, I think, to millions of other people was that that was all true. That was all true.”

Frey: “I made a mistake. I mean, what was true is there was that person. Every one of the people in the book existed…I altered things about all of them.”

Winfrey: “OK. Let’s get back to Lily. Was your description of how she died true?”

Frey: “She committed suicide, yeah.”

Winfrey: “She hung herself?”

Frey: “I mean, that was one of the details I altered about her…Because all the way through the book, I altered details about every single one of the characters to render them unidentifiable.”

Winfrey: “So how did she die?”

Frey: “She cut her wrists.”

Winfrey: “And so hanging is more dramatic than cutting your wrists? Is that why you chose hanging?”

Frey: “I don’t think either are more dramatic than either…”

Winfrey: “I have been really embarrassed by this and, more importantly, feel that I acted in defense of you and…I was really behind this book because so many people seem to gotten so much out of it, and I believed in the fact that so many people were. But now, I feel that you conned us all. Do you?”

Frey: “I don’t feel like I conned you guys.”


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