Saturday, January 14, 2006

Anderson Cooper, Oprah, the Talese Family, James Frey, JT LeRoy, and the Search for the Truth About Lying

I didn't know how to feel about Oprah when I saw Anderson Cooper on Thursday night sitting with Gay Talese, Nan Talese, and Carole Radziwill to discuss James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and the responsibility of nonfiction authors to stick strictly to the facts. (Gay Talese is a famous journalist and book writer; Nan, his wife, is an esteemed editor with her own imprint at Doubleday, and she published the book in question; and Radziwill, who I was learning of for the first time, is the author of a new memoir, What Remains. Oprah is Oprah, and when she recommended Frey's book to her armies last year, it became an unstoppable bestseller.)

My first reaction was to shout "hallelujah" in Oprah's general direction. Here were bookish issues being batted around on TV -- by respected people, no less, with studied opinions and real-world experience in the business of writing and editing and publishing books. OK, great, but once again it’s all because of Oprah. So then I became angry at her, or what she represents, at least, which is the country's general disregard for books when she’s not in the room, even if it’s irrational to hold that against her. But then I realized, reaching the third stage of what psychologists call the Oprah Reaction Model, that she’s legitimately monopolizing books. How does someone, no matter how beloved, control almost all wider cultural discussion about an entire medium? (And she doesn’t even work in that medium. It’s like allowing LeBron James to determine when and where we eat.) So I went from admiration to anger to just basically being scared. I’m really starting to think she can alter the material world with her mind, and I’m not comfortable with that.

The issue at hand, though, is Frey, and in case you’re one of the dwindling number of Americans who don’t watch Anderson Cooper, or one of the 243 million Americans who wonder what these “books” are, and why Oprah’s so dang excited ‘bout ‘em, here’s the recap from recent days: Frey released this memoir about three years ago, detailing his severe drug addiction, the mess it made of his life, and how he recovered from it. The book had made a small splash in the publishing pool upon its initial publication, mostly because Frey shamelessly bellowed his self-regard, telling every alternative-press interviewer-hack he could find that he was the next great American writer.

Well, not so much, said the critics. Reviews were mixed, and they included a notice from Janet Maslin in the New York Times in which she wrote:
Mr. Frey is reported to have originally presented this material as a novel when he looked for a publisher.
Maslin also wrote:
...although every detail of it may be accurate, it powerfully and sadly resembles pulp fiction.
As it turns out, some passages didn’t just resemble fiction. Frey has copped to stretching the truth past its breaking point in a couple of instances. Among the family Talese, Nan, perhaps understandably since she’s Frey’s publisher, defends the essential truth of the book and downplays the importance of two or three scenes being embellished. Her husband is less forgiving, and Radziwill took his side, at one point saying, “Have we gotten so cynical that we don’t mind if we’re lied to?”

All of this struck me as slightly strange, because questions about factual accuracy in creative nonfiction have been around a while, and I didn't see what they had to do with our current level of cynicism. Gay is considered a pivotal figure in the New Journalism movement that was also represented by writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not accusing either Wolfe or Thompson of being a liar, but Wolfe’s voice so strongly recasts all his reportorial experiences that his take on things overwhelms any sense of him as an objective eye. And Thompson, well, I don’t know if you’d call all hallucinations lies, but let’s just say that it’s hard to focus on getting your facts straight when your blood is 70% airplane glue.

So I did some research, because I was surprised that Talese -- though a more traditional journalist than Wolfe or Thompson -- wouldn’t have a bit more sympathy for someone’s artfully playing with the truth, and I found this interview from a couple of years ago, in which he says:
"New Journalism," to me, came to represent this easy kind of writing. I mean, Tom Wolfe himself is such a unique talent, but he is also a dogged reporter of facts and a researcher. A lot of these so-called "New Journalists," however, were really sloppy people in terms of facts, and I didn't want to be typecast as this. I mean I have boxes and boxes of files and careful recordings and impressions and notes that I jot on shirt-boards about every single thing that I publish. I keep outlines and letters of everything I've done, every little note and event and impression.
That answer clearly establishes Talese’s disrespect for blurring the facts, but when he continues to discuss his own work, it becomes equally clear that anyone aiming for a poetic, “deeper truth” brand of nonfiction is going to take some liberties, no matter how subtle:
I wrote my impressions of people. But I did so with a real sense that I knew what I was talking about, because I spent a long time studying them. And I think I was never so incorrect in this assumption that people got angry with me. ... It's how you write it. I was always very careful with my writing. My turn of phrase was always an understatement; I got my point across without being unnecessarily harsh. I'll give you an example of how to under-write a sentence. I was writing about the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was a notorious womanizer and who was ill at the time. And while I was talking to him an attractive young nurse came in. As she turned to walk away, I saw him looking at her and it immediately struck me that he was probably having an affair with her or whatever. But in my writing, I simply put that "Mr. Sulzberger had an eye for an ankle." It was a small turn of phrase and you got it all.
Now, in the actual piece, Talese turned the moment into Sulzberger just checking out the nurse, but read his inspiration again: “ immediately struck me that he was probably having an affair with her or whatever.” Does that seem like a firm leap to anyone else? And isn’t that “or whatever” a pretty shady qualifier when you’re accusing someone of something?

In another piece about Talese, we get this:
If the aim of most New Journalism is to write so vividly and report in such intense bursts that a scene leaps from the page, Talese goes in the other direction. He slowly drills down through the mundane subterranean reality of human existence to its "fictional" core. "I believe that if you go deep enough into characters they become so real that their stories feel like make-believe. They feel like fiction. I want to evoke the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of reality," he says.
Again, Frey’s alleged imaginings are more severe than the small intuitive observations used as spackle in much of nonfiction, and Talese is guilty of nothing in the passages I quoted but grappling with the difficult nature of reporting and honestly capturing one’s subjects in print.

Still, I can’t help but think that in both the case of Frey and JT LeRoy –- a writer who had much longer-standing questions about his/her authenticity in the headlines last week –- we wouldn’t care so deeply about the completeness of their honesty if more people loved them as writers and not as cultural symbols. If we discovered that David Foster Wallace didn’t spend as many hours at the lobster festival as he said he did, I don’t think it would cause this kind of stir. If he had stretched the truth, it wouldn’t keep us from the insight and entertainment of his piece, and the central idea of it would remain intact. With LeRoy and Frey, though, the half-truths (or apparent non-truths, in LeRoy's case) are in service of heal-thyself platitudes, and if most of what you’re doing is preaching at us, you better be preaching the Truth.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Subjects of Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-aid Acid Test" were incredulous at his reportorial skills.They said he recreated events very accurately.

3:22 PM  
Blogger helen_boyd said...

As someone who writes something like memoir, I'd say the whole point of it is to relay events & experiences as accurately as you can, in good faith. No, no-one expects a memoirist to be 100% accurate, & that's even if you leave out Hollywood autobiographies.

Both of these cases, imho, were far far more cynical than that: both books firt marketed as novels, and then "made into" memoirs.

I'm having flashbacks of writing workshops, with some numbnut asking, "Did that really happen?"

1:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

JW said: "It’s like allowing LeBron James to determine when and where we eat."

Not a big fan of American Way in-flight magazine?

--The Comish (sic)

5:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic take on events, Bloggerman. I think it's a shame that the whole hullabaloo could have been smoothly sidestepped with one brief disclaimer at the beginning, or at the end of MILLION...

Of course, a whole nother issue to take with Frey's book, which I do to a small degree, is how it seems that through a smidge of self-discovery and the Tao Te Ching, Frey has managed to subvert decades of 12-step recovery theory and overcome his death-grip addiction. It pulls the rug out from under millions of other recovering addicts & alcoholics by dissing their path to sobriety. --tavia

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"is how it seems that through a smidge of self-discovery and the Tao Te Ching, Frey has managed to subvert decades of 12-step recovery theory and overcome his death-grip addiction."
When I read the book I felt that he was condensing his relationship with Taoism for the purpose of brevity. Perhaps I was interpreting his message the way I wanted it to be. However, it has long been my belief that the human spirit is stronger than any organized religion if it is allowed to surface and is nurtured. I felt that Frey was using his understanding of Taoism to use his own strengths. There were many things I did question in his book, but that was not one of them.

1:20 PM  

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