Sunday, January 29, 2006

Oprah gets punk'd

Say what you want about Oprah Winfrey, if you’re a writer, there’s no better and quicker way to scale the best seller lists, than receiving her endorsement for your latest book. The afternoon (the show actually airs live in her home market of Chicago) queen of maudlin melodrama, Oprah has championed the literary careers of many semi-talented writers and former hacks.

Back in the fall, Winfrey featured the graphic memoir of a little-known writer, named James Frey. His book, A Million Little Pieces, chronicling a young life filled with crime, drugs, and jail time.

In typical overly dramatic fashion, Winfrey hailed the book, riddled with coarseness and graphic details of every aspect of Frey’s pathetic life—regaling readers with details about the texture of his vomit, his bowel habits and root canal surgery, sans anesthesia—details the modern reader can’t live without. She called the book, “a radical departure” and “like nothing you've ever read before. Everybody at Harpo is reading it. When we were staying up late at night reading it, we'd come in the next morning saying, 'What page are you on?’” Radical departure indeed! More like a departure from the truth, apparently.

After all the acclaim and hoopla lauded on Frey, it now appears that his non-fiction work is actually not even creative non-fiction, but instead, a work of fiction, as in, he made most of it up.

The Smoking Gun, a website that prides itself on cutting through the fog of lies and deception, has meticulously laid out the framework of Frey’s hoax. Caught in the middle of the mess, with pie on her face and the taste of crow in her mouth, is the high priestess of America’s reading lists for women—Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey has been forced to backpedal as swiftly as her handlers and PR machine will allow her to. Winfrey obviously had trouble believing that Frey could be so audacious as to lie to her, the diva of the self-help sisterhood. Appearing on Larry King Live, she at first stood alongside Frey and his fabrication, going so far as to label the hoopla and allegations, “much ado about nothing.”

When it became obvious to Winfrey and her team of handlers that she’d been had, she was forced to stand before audience of true believers and admit she’d mislead them and even, gasp, lied to them.

“I feel duped,” she said Thursday on her syndicated talk show. “But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”

While part of me feels sorry for Winfrey, particularly seeing her reputation dragged through the mud by an obvious poseur like Frey, my greatest indignation is directed at Nan Talese, and Frey’s publisher, Doubleday, the parent company that released the book.

Apparently, Winfrey’s staff put Talese on alert to possible discrepancies in Frey's book, only to be assured by the publisher that all was hunky-dory. Winfrey lectured Talese on her responsibilities: "I'm trusting you, the publisher, to categorize this book whether as fiction or autobiographical or memoir."

I find it interesting that Talese, an industry veteran who has represented many authors, including Ian McEwan, George Plimpton and Thomas Cahill, would allow herself to be duped by a two-bit con like Frey. She insisted that "A Million Pieces" received a legal vetting. Now, backtracking, Talese acknowledges that the book had not been fact-checked, something many publishers say they have little time to do.

The more I learn about the inner workings of publishing, particularly at the higher levels of the pyramid, the less impressed I am. Recent conversations with writers and reading various communiqués coming from organizations that track the trade, often reveal a veritable house of cards, easily toppled, if the right kind of pressure gets applied.

While Frey has received his comeuppance and a public tongue-lashing, I can’t help but imagine that his conscience receives a reprieve each time he looks at his bank statement. Dubious details or not, the young author has received perks from his lies and half-truths that most writers only dream of—millions in sales, as well as a $2.55 million Manhattan penthouse and a summer home in The Hamptons—all made possible by his ability to pull the wool over the eyes of people with a tad more integrity and talent, but gullible by their need to board the bandwagon.

As our culture continues to embrace the cult of personality and live vicariously through others riding the escalator of fleeting fame, this type of travesty will become more common. The only way to combat it is to be more careful and scrutinize the latest fad or “next big thing” coming down the pike.

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