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Objective truth versus 'emotional truth'

16 January 2006

The astonishing story of James Frey seems like a fable for our times. His memoir of drug and alcohol abuse followed by redemption, A Million Little Pieces, was a smash hit in the US after he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show last October. It has now sold 4 million copies. An essential part of the account was his being charged with assaulting an Ohio police officer with his car, with inciting a riot, with possession of crack cocaine and felony drunk driving, charges which resulted in a three-month prison term.

Now has investigated the police reports and found, amongst other fabrications, that Frey, far from spending three months in jail reading War and Peace and other literary works out loud to his cellmate, was actually only in police custody for just a few hours. Frey himself says on his personal website, 'I stand by my book, and my life, and I won't dignify this bull**** with any sort of further response.' And then, on the Larry King show, he justified his work on different grounds: 'a memoir is a subjective retelling of events. It's an individual's perception of what happened in their own life; this is my recollection of my life.'

But does it matter whether Frey's memoir is true? It does to Oprah Winfrey, presumably, whose whole-hearted endorsement of the book now makes it look as if she has been cheated. It matters to the publisher Random House, which has taken the unprecedented step of offering dissatisfied customers their money back (though only on the few books sold from its own website). Presumably selling fiction as non-fiction is legally regarded as passing-off. It also matters to Hollywood, where the movie rights have been sold to a production company involving Brad Pitt.

Lev Grossman in Time magazine was in no doubt: 'By claiming this his story was literally true, Frey endowed it with a heightened immediacy and an emotional force that it lacked as a novel - in effect, he borrowed a little extra emotional oomph from his trusting readers, who treated his narrative as 100% lived experience, real dues paid by a real person. That's not trivial. If Frey wasn't entitled to that immediacy and that force - if he stole that oomph rather than borrowed it - well, that's cheating. And he should come clean and give it back.'

Frey first tried to market his memoir as fiction, so the publisher must have knowingly taken it on and suggested he should publish it as non-fiction, encouraged by the public thirst for tell-all memoirs. As the Los Angeles Times put it: 'it's hard to know which is worse: a writer who acts as though there is no distinction between a novel and a memoir, or a publisher who does not care'