The Price of Truth


These days, non-fiction outsells, outshines and outstrips fiction in every way and it costs more too. Just ask James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. Or his publisher who just cancelled his next book contract; his agent who is declining to represent him; or the movie studio now hesitating over the movie deal.

Oprah Winfrey confronting Frey about his book.

A Million Little Pieces was originally offered to publishers as an autobiographical novel, but was published as a memoir. The book did alright, and then Oprah picked it up for her Bookclub. Sales went through the roof.

Then things got sticky.

The Smoking Gun a website dedicated to revealing secrets and lies heard about Frey’s ‘criminal past’ and having a whole page devoted to celebrity mugshots, decided to search for his from one of the three States in which he claimed to have a criminal record.

No mugshot could be readily found. A bit more poking around turned one up, but it also revealed that Frey spent only two hours in prison not 87 days, as his memoir claimed. He also fabricated a pivotal role in the tragic death of two classmates. And he lied about when and how an ex-girlfriend killed herself.

Lies, damned lies and memoir.

Frey’s deception might not have caused quite the furore that it has, except that when the suggestions of falsification and embellishment were made, Oprah defended the author by saying that the allegations were ‘irrelevant’ and ‘much ado about nothing.’

She asserted that it didn’t matter that a non-fiction work had been shown to be fiction didn’t matter that what claimed to be true had been shown to be false.

In blogs, on radio talkback and in newspaper articles, a lot of journalists, literary academics and presenters were getting het up. But few readers were. They agreed with Oprah’s original statements: what did a lie matter if the story was powerful? For them, what mattered were the lives the book touched. Never mind that the precise reason it touched those lives was because people believed that Frey’s rejection of the classic 12-step program, his criminal record, his wild-boy ways and his subsequent turning around, were all true.

My initial reaction was that this could only happen in BookWorld. I mean, where else could such a thing possibly be acceptable? If I buy an 18th century chair and later find out it’s a 19th century reproduction, I’m not going to say, ‘Well, it’s still a chair, it still looks good and I can still sit on it, so what does it really matter?’ No sir, I’d want my money back.

But then I broadened my perspective a little and found that a whole lot of people feel the same way Frey’s readers did.

What did it matter that the Howard’s Government lied about the ‘children overboard’ scandal if it meant we weren’t letting terrorists in by the back door? What did it matter if various national governments lied about the reason we went to war with Iraq, if a tyrant was removed? What did it matter if Australian Government bodies turned a blind eye to the AWB’s paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein, if the point was only to make sure Australian wheat growers weren’t pipped by competitors?

Vince O’Farrell, The Illawarra Mercury, Australia.

As Tim Besley, Chairman of the Australian Wheat Authority, explained, when he originally denied knowing that AWB had entered into commercial arrangements with Jordanian trucking company Alia, he was simply being ‘factually incomplete.’ After all, issues are complex. Nothing is black and white. The end justifies the means.

An American comedian, Stephen Colbert, coined the word ‘truthiness’ to explain the feeling you have about the way something was, when you don’t want to have to get all intellectual about dates or facts or anything that might verify it. So, if James Frey felt that policemen bashed him or felt abused even if that didn’t actually happen that’s good enough.

Truthiness.comes cheap because it isn’t the real thing.

It’s only when we do finally come across the real thing that the costs are revealed.

Frey had an opportunity to set the record straight. As soon as the allegations were made, he could have admitted his memoir was more fiction than fact. Instead, much like Demidenko when her familial heritage was found to be a bit wobbly, Frey lied and claimed his memoir was 100 per cent factual. In a moment of bombast, he also threatened to sue the journalists who had found him out. The truth was then revealed in a kind of lovely media circus.

The same thing is happening with various Australian Government officials. Years ago, they received indications from the UN and Australia’s Trade Commissioner in Washington that all wasn’t well with the AWB wheat sales to Iraq. Continual denial of knowledge and failures to recall are now rubbing up against further emails, cables, memos and meeting notes that, if not demonstrating knowledge of the kickback scandal (at this stage), then at least signal incredible willful blindness.

Oprah eventually changed her tune about Frey, and got him on her show to lambast him She said she felt disappointed, angry and duped, while Frey made a spectacle of himself apologising: saying he was sorry, but the two hours in prison really felt like three months. Saying the demons that drove him to drinking and drugs also drove him to lie. Saying anything he could to stop this whirling dervish of anger in front of him.

Pity Oprah can’t get a few politicians to go a couple of rounds in her media ring for lying.

Interestingly, after Oprah’s showdown with Frey, there was more anger directed toward her on various blogs than there was towards him. She got a few pats on the back from people in high places, but an awful lot of people felt she treated Frey very poorly felt that it still didn’t matter that his book was full of piss and wind. After all, his story was bigger than truth.

That’s generally the way fiction presents itself.

Truth does cost more than fiction, the question is simply who pays.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.