Can Oprah Change the Phony-Memoir Culture?

February 14, 2006
Talking Points

When Oprah Winfrey tore into James Frey, the author of the falsified memoir "A Million Little Pieces," and his publisher last month, it made for one of the most riveting hours of television in a long time. What is less clear is whether Ms. Winfrey's stand will have any lasting impact on the long tradition of peddling false stories as true.

The dust-up over Mr. Frey's fabrications was a personality-driven story, largely focused on one writer and his decision to put falsehoods in a book he sold as memoir. Ms. Winfrey made some admirable efforts to put the spotlight on the publishing industry — notably in the harsh words she directed at Nan Talese, Mr. Frey's publisher. But almost all of the attention in this scandal has focused on a single author.

There is a long history of memoir writers — and other nonfiction writers — embellishing the truth. Long before Mr. Frey, there were Clifford Irving, peddling a phony memoir of Howard Hughes; Lillian Hellman appropriating another woman's courageous story as a chapter in her own life; and Alastair Reid saying in 1984 that nonfiction in the New Yorker does not really have to be true.

When these periodic scandals blow up, what is shocking is not that writers make things up, but that the supposed guardians of the writing culture — editors, publishers, and critics — are so quick to make excuses. Even Ms. Winfrey, the heroine of the latest scandal, began by calling the "Larry King Live" show to defend Mr. Frey's right to include falsehoods in his memoir, insisting that "the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me and I know that it resonates with millions of other people."

After she switched sides, Ms. Winfrey delivered a clear message to the publishing industry about its casual concern about truth: "That needs to change." It is far from clear, though, that it will. There are strong pressures, now more than ever, working against honesty and accuracy in books. Many writers are looking — as Mr. Frey admitted in his own case — to tell the best story, not necessarily the most accurate one. Book publishers are operating in a challenging market, and hyped-up stories may produce bigger sales.

Book reviewers, reporters, bloggers, readers — and Ms. Winfrey herself — need to remain vigilant. They should demand better practices from publishers. They should do what The Smoking Gun did — check out stories and facts that don't sound right. And they should hold specific authors, editors, and publishers responsible.

I. Oprah Winfrey Changes Her Mind

Mr. Frey's searing memoir has sold more than 3.5 million copies in significant part due to Ms. Winfrey's warm endorsement. The Smoking Gun, a muckraking Web site, set off a firestorm when it reported — in a bulletin entitled "A Million Little Lies" — that significant parts of the story were made up.

In her phone call to "Larry King Live" — which she later apologized for on her own show — Ms. Winfrey argued that what was important was the larger truth of Mr. Frey's book. And she insisted that she "rel[ied] on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work."

Ms. Winfrey, to her credit, changed her mind. She assembled an all-star journalistic hit-squad, including two columnists from The Times, to explain to Mr. Frey why it was important that memoirs be true. The most searing words, though, came from the host herself. "I really feel duped," she told Mr. Frey. "But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers."

In the face of Ms. Winfrey's wrath, Mr. Frey came off as pathetic — a troubled soul at best, or a trapped con artist at worst. It was Ms. Talese who was the real villain of the show because, unlike Mr. Frey, she tried to justify the unjustifiable.

Ms. Talese insisted that "a memoir is different from an autobiography," and suggested that an author has greater leeway to play with the facts in memoirs. As for her own responsibility in the process, Ms. Talese seemed to suggest that it went no further than asking "does it strike me as valid? Does it strike me as authentic?" But Ms. Winfrey made far more sense when she insisted that, simply put, stories have to be true if they are sold as memoirs. "You can make up stories and call them novels," she said. "People have done it for years."

On the show, Ms. Winfrey played a tape of her famous call to Larry King and expressed her deep regret over it. "I made a mistake and I left the impression that the truth does not matter," she said. "And I am deeply sorry about that."

But Ms. Winfrey did not fully explain why she had made a 180-degree turn, to condemn a book she had continued to stand by, even after learning of the questions about its accuracy. One factor may well be that, as Frank Rich noted, the current book she has selected for her on-air book club is Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir, "Night." The power and importance of that first-hand testament to the horrors of the Nazi era could be considerably diluted for her viewers if Ms. Winfrey leaves the impression that she is not attesting to, or even particularly concerned about, whether specific parts of the story are true.

II. The Larger Contest of Dissembling Writings

The biggest flaw of Ms. Winfrey's show was that it focused so tightly on a single book. Mr. Frey's dissembling is only the latest in a long line of literary scandals involving fiction being passed off as fact. The context is important because it makes clear that publishers should expect that writers will try to mislead them, and they should have procedures in place to guard against dishonest writing.

If there was ever a time of innocence in American publishing — and it is doubtful that there was — it ended in dramatic form in 1972, when Clifford Irving was caught trying to pass off a phony memoir of Howard Hughes (pdf), the reclusive billionaire. Mr. Irving could not claim artistic license, or confusion about the line between truth and fiction. He was, as a Time magazine cover story branded him, "The Con Man of 1972," and he was eventually sentenced to prison time (pdf).

Mr. Irving perpetrated a sophisticated swindle on McGraw Hill, the publisher that paid $750,000 in advances, and Life magazine, which purchased the serial rights. Still, it is hard to know why the publisher and the magazine let things get so far. Shortly after Mr. Irving's book deal was announced, a spokesman for Mr. Hughes labeled it a "hoax." And an investigative reporter, who was working on his own Hughes book, was able to poke holes in the manuscript (pdf).

This sort of dishonesty is hardly limited to professional con men. Lillian Hellman, the noted playwright and memoirist, appears to have perpetrated an equally audacious fraud in her 1973 memoir "Pentimento." In a chapter called "Julia," Ms. Hellman tells of her daring journey to smuggle money to her childhood friend Julia, who was resisting the Nazis in Vienna — a story that was turned into a movie starring Jane Fonda. A decade later, Yale published the memoir of a psychoanalyst named Muriel Gardiner, "Code Name: 'Mary,'" in which Ms. Gardner told of her own experiences in the anti-fascist resistance in Vienna. Ms. Gardner strongly suggests, and many people now believe, that Ms. Hellman stole her life and turned it into the "Julia" story.

The problem of fiction being passed off as fact goes far beyond the memoir category. Some of the new conventions of narrative nonfiction are controversial because, critics say, they introduce elements of fiction. Nonfiction political page-turners in the tradition of Woodward and Bernstein's "The Final Days," and business profiles now use quotations in scenes that were not recorded at the time, raising the question of whether the dialogue is being reconstructed — or fabricated. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," John Berendt's mega-bestseller, has been criticized for rearranging the story's chronology and making up dialogue.

When I was a reporter, an editor asked me to check out some of the anecdotes in "The Death of Common Sense," a bestselling attack on the American legal system. I selected a handful to check, and I was shocked by how poorly they held up. The book complained about how ridiculous it was that Minnetonka, Minn., was forced to "alter the municipal hockey rink to make the scorer's box wheelchair accessible" to comply with the American Disabilities Act. But when I checked with the city's A.D.A. compliance officer, she told me that Minnetonka had done no such thing. Other stories also failed to check out. When I contacted the author, Philip K. Howard, he put much of the blame on a researcher who helped him with the book.

III. The Response of the Gatekeepers

It is striking, and unfortunate, how many respected publishers, editors, and writers believe that it is okay for fiction of various kinds to be marketed to the public as fact. The New Yorker, which has a reputation for carefulness, was roiled by a fact-fiction controversy in 1984. In a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, a long-time staff writer was quoted insisting that it was okay to change facts in non-fiction articles as long as they were faithful to a "larger reality."

It was bad enough that Alastair Reid, the writer, expressed these beliefs — which he justified by saying that in some cases, being faithful to what people actually said "would be terribly boring for readers." But what was worse is that other writers at the magazine stood by Mr. Reid. "If you're having a conversation with somebody on an airplane and you want to make it a train because it's better for the piece, I don't see that it's all that dreadful," E.J. Kahn, a New Yorker writer, told The New York Times at the time. It took nearly two weeks for the magazine to formally disavow Mr. Reid's approach.

Academics and critics, who should be particularly outraged by literary dishonesty, have a spotty record of sticking up for the truth. A new biography of Ms. Hellman, written by the chair of English Writing at Occidental College lets its subject off far too easily. "The controversy pits reader against reader, literary scholar against political historian, all anathema to Hellman's purpose," Deborah Martinson shrugs in "Lillian: A Life with Scoundrels and Foxes." "Literary scholars now dismiss the furor as a tempest in a teapot, covering the same old literary ground, fought endlessly over the place of self in art."

The publishing industry has been reluctant to confront the issue of false non-fiction head-on. After Ms. Winfrey's highly publicized criticism of "A Million Little Pieces," the book's publishers, Doubleday and Anchor books, announced that they were delaying shipping and printing new books until an author's note could be added, which advises that Mr. Frey "altered events all the way through the book" to make a better story.

But Ms. Hellman's memoirs are still being sold without any such warnings. If publishers of the new brand of narrative non-fiction assume that some of the quotations are reconstructed, or that the chronology may have been altered for dramatic purposes, they rarely bother to inform the reader of these liberties.

In her appearance on Ms. Winfrey's show, Ms. Talese demonstrated just how out of touch many publishers are on the issue. Ms. Talese seemed to believe that it would be impossible for publishers to fact check the wild stories that memoirists come to them with. "I do not know how you get inside another person's mind," she said. Once again, Ms. Winfrey got the best of the exchange. When Ms. Talese seemed to be accepting of the idea that "anybody can just walk in off the street with whatever story they have" and have it published as a memoir, Ms. Winfrey said bluntly: "Well, that needs to change."

IV. Can Phony Memoirs Be Stopped?

The problem of "A Million Little Pieces" has been solved — no reader is ever likely to be confused about the fact that some of it is fiction. The larger question, though, is whether the system that allowed Mr. Frey to publish his falsified memoir will change.

For that to happen, many of the actors in these literary dramas will need to be part of the solution.

Publishers. As Ms. Winfrey suggests, publishing houses will have to do a better gatekeeping job than they are right now. For many publishers and editors, this will require a change in outlook. Some editors have Ms. Talese's trusting attitude toward the manuscripts that cross their desk, but others are even worse. It is a poorly kept secret that many literary agents and editors encourage memoir writers to elaborate on their stories for dramatic, and commercial, effect. Publishing houses need to make clear that they will insist that the non-fiction stories they publish are true, and that they will make efforts to determine that they are.

Those efforts are the second way publishing needs to change. First, publishers and editors need to approach book proposals and manuscripts with greater skepticism. They should demand back-up documentation for a book's key facts and claims, and have people on staff who can fact- check. It may not be possible to verify every single fact, but a good fact checker can hone in on the most questionable ones, and spot-check the others.

Book Critics. Book reviewers, academics, journalists, bloggers, and other guardians of the nation's literary life should — obvious though it seems — make clear that truth matters. They should make it clear to authors and publishers that they will be critical of false statements in non-fiction, and that they will hold everyone involved accountable.

These literary guardians should also be more skeptical readers of memoirs and non-fiction. The Smoking Gun showed, in impressive style, how false statements can be ferreted out and exposed.

Readers. Readers need to make clear that they expect memoirs and other works marketed as non-fiction to be true. They should shun books that have been revealed to take liberty with the facts, and should even consider trying to return them for refunds.

This may already be happening. Since the revelations by The Smoking Gun, sales of "A Million Little Pieces" are down by more than half. Publishing is, in the end, a business, and the best way to cut off the supply of phony memoirs and other fictional non-fiction is to cut off the demand.

Lela Moore contributed research for this article.