What Can We Learn From James Frey?

Lessons from the controversy surrounding James Frey and his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Lies.

A publishing professional reflects on the ramifications of the James Frey controversy.

There should be a clear difference between truth and fiction.

Claiming a faulty memory or sloppy fact checking are not the real issues here, although writers have a duty to take steps to check their memories and their facts.  The real issue here is the deliberate intent to deceive, to create fiction that is passed off as fact.

James Frey deliberately and intentionally altered the truth in a significant way on a book he wrote that was published as nonfiction.  The implication that small changes were made to disguise and protect real life people, as is sometimes done in memoirs, is completely false here.

Had the book been published as fiction, none of this controversy would have occurred.

We have been appalled at the blurring of the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

And we’ve been surprised by those who have risen to Frey’s defense—whole websites have sprung up about this.

Today, perhaps more than ever before in history, the public needs to have a clear understanding of what is fact and what is not.

Those of us in publishing have an obligation to the public to do everything we can to keep a distinction between what is fiction and what is nonfiction, clearly informing the consumer just what they are buying.  We feel so strongly about this that our agency has twice cancelled marketing efforts for book projects when we had come to distrust the author’s veracity, withdrawing the book proposals under consideration.

We would have no problem at all with A Million Little Pieces, had the book been published as fiction.  But it wasn’t.

People who read the book believing it was the truth are entirely justified in feeling duped.

This controversy has caused broken trust in all the publishing relationships involved in this book:  the agent, editor, publisher, publicity people, promotion people like Book Reviewers, media people like Oprah, book sellers, and ultimately you—the millions of people who buy books based on recommendations from all of us in the industry.

Lessons Going Forward:

* Writers: be scrupulously honest and truthful when writing and when submitting to agents and editors and publishing anything labeled nonfiction.

* Readers and book buyers: Do not accept anything you are told as absolute truth, whether it’s in a book, an article, or media report.  This does not mean that you should go into paranoia and distrust everything, but rather that you should ask questions and to listen to your subconscious when it tries to inform you that something doesn’t feel right.  To think for yourself, not blindly believe.

* Publishing professionals: We need to tighten up our industry and we have already begun doing so.

Agents and editors are asking authors more questions about the veracity of a manuscript and being more cautious about acquiring nonfiction projects that could turn out to be fiction.

Authors of memoirs are including forewords or Author Notes that reference the James Frey controversy, sometimes to reassure the reader, sometimes to be funny, or both. For instance, What Did I Do Last Night? A Drunkard’s Tale by Tom Sykes published by Rodale contains this note:

“Thanks are also due to … James Frey for the importance of this statement: Everything in this book is absolutely true, although sequences have been rearranged and conversations re-created, often on the basis of subsequent interviews. The names of [certain characters] are pseudonyms.”

What do you think?

Had James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces, been published as fiction, would it have been as popular?  Sold as many copies?  Been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club?  Share your views in our Discussions.

Copyright 2006 by Barbara Doyen. All rights reserved.

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