Oprah's Bunk Club

By Maureen Dowd

We should have known the guy was not really a bad-boy, tattooed "It's time to throw down" brawler when he had to bring his mom on the Larry King show to protect him.

On Thursday, the unmasked memoirist's proud mother was replaced by a punitive national matriarch. Watching Oprah flay Frey was riveting. At The Times and at Doubleday, staffers were glued to their TV sets.

It was a huge relief, after our long national slide into untruth and no consequences, into Swift boating and swift bucks, into W.'s delusion and denial, to see the Empress of Empathy icily hold someone accountable for lying and conning – and embarrassing her. (Though she and her producers should have known questions were raised early on about the book.)

In a society obsessed with sin and redemption, this was the superfecta: Oprah admitting her flawed judgment and rescuing her reputation, while carving up James Frey for sinning in his book about sin and redemption.

Oprah interviewed and showed taped clips of her media critics (including me) and credited her turnaround to the essay by The Times's chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, who wrote: "It is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth."

When President Bush cut into Oprah's show with a press conference, perhaps he was trying to get the focus off truth. It was truly weird to see the twin live TV moments: A disgraced author, and a commander in chief who keeps writing chapter after chapter of fictionalized propaganda.

After Nan Talese was shamed by Oprah, Doubleday said it would add two notes – one from the publisher and one from the author – before printing any more books. But it's not enough to stick on little disclaimers. The book should be recategorized, just as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" should have been reclassified as fiction once John Berendt acknowledged all the liberties he took.

"A Million Little Pieces" and "My Friend Leonard" – the Frey "nonfiction" best seller that begins with the now-debunked jail term – should be sold as novels or fictional memoirs, the term Frederick Exley used for the great book "A Fan's Notes."

Will "A Million Little Pieces" move to the fiction category on The Times's best-seller list? The editors told me that the list was simply in the business of counting the books sold, not checking whether memoirs – from stoned rockers or spinning politicians – were mostly true. But The Times's list will indicate that Mr. Frey has admitted fabricating parts of the book.

The Frey effect chilled publishers and agents, some of whom have encouraged authors to turn novels into hot-selling memoirs.

"The decision to take on a memoir was always based on how good is the writing and how good is the story," said Christy Fletcher, a New York literary agent. "That's not enough any more."

Mr. Frey said in an interview broadcast yesterday on Oxygen that he and his agent had given the book to some publishers as a novel and some as a memoir. In the insular world of publishing, that didn't tip anyone off – because no one really wanted to be tipped off.

There was a bit of a panic among publishers this week. St. Martin's Press hurriedly put a warning sticker on Augusten Burroughs' latest memoir, "Possible Side Effects," due out this spring: "Author's note: Some of the events described happened as related, others were expanded and changed. Some of the individuals portrayed are composites of more than one person and many names and identifying characteristics have been changed as well."

Ballantine announced it would no longer ship two memoirs by Nasdijj, supposedly an inspiring Native American writer from the Southwest who said that as a child, he was "hungry, raped, beaten, whipped, and forced at every opportunity to work in the fields." The L.A. Weekly learned that Nasdijj was really Timothy Barrus, a white middle-class man from Michigan who had written gay porn.

Booksellers were also puzzling over how to proceed.

"I think it should definitely not be on the nonfiction best seller list," said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla.

Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., said she'd "probably reclassify it as fiction," and she thinks Doubleday should do the same: "Either it's a memoir and someone's doing their best honest job to recall things and this is how they remember it, or it's not true and it's not a memoir."

What about a third category? Non-nonfiction? Self-help and self-dramatization? Pure bunk?

The New York Times | January 28, 2006

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