Pants on Fire

I keep hearing about the “controversy” surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. I just don’t get it. I first heard about this at the Kathy Griffin show that I posted about last week when she mentioned Frey getting chewed out by Oprah. The next day it was in the paper. What I don’t get is why this should be such a big deal. Many people (not me, I haven’t read it) seem to feel betrayed because they read and liked the book only to find out that it was – gasp! – made up.

Why should this bother anyone? We aren’t talking about historical events, scientific discoveries, how to safely dismantle a bomb, or anything that’s really important. It’s about one guy’s drug problems. Does the book’s veracity really change whether or not a person enjoyed reading it or learned something from it? I suppose for some people it must, but for me it seems sort of irrelevant.

This reminds me a friend who claims that Jesus never existed and never said all the things he is supposed to have said so therefore we should just disregard the Bible altogether. Putting all the obvious problems with disregarding an ancient and influential book like the Bible aside and accepting his claim that there was no Jesus, we’re still left with the fact that somebody somewhere had to write the Gospels and make all that stuff up. It’s quite a feat and still gives one much to think about, whether it’s literally true or not. I wish I had the talent to invent dialog such as Jesus had with his detractors.

I don’t suppose anyone will be L Ron Hubbardizing Frey any time soon, but it seems that a reader’s interaction with a text shouldn’t necessarily depend on whether or not it really happened as stated. This leads to Oprah’s choice to replace Frey’s memoir with another memoir: Night by Elie Wiesel. If it came out tomorrow that Wiesel never experienced the horrors he so eloquently describes and instead spent World War II living in a Manhattan penthouse, he would certainly lose credibility as a witness to the Holocaust, but Night would not be diminished one bit for me, and I would still have my students read it.

I do think Frey should have presented his work as fiction, and the marketeers who have helped him sell it have a right to be mad that their work, the image they so carefully crafted – or dare I say, made up? – is now shot, but I suspect that had he tried to sell it as fiction he would probably still be trying to sell it.

UPDATE 2-3-06: This discussion is also going on at Dem Soldier’s blog where you can see some truly beautiful photography as well. I was commenting there as I was working up this post, so links seem appropriate if a bit belated.

2 thoughts on “Pants on Fire”

  1. The only problem I have is that, when U say something is all true, they have to be all true…I give that this ain’t historical events, and the only reason it got so much attention is that Oprah is involved…..

  2. Ultimately, I agree with you that he shouldn’t have lied in whatever public appearances he made and he would have been wiser to sell it as fiction.

    My main interest in all this, though, is in the way that so many people’s experience with his book essentially seems to hinge on how it was categorized (non fiction as opposed to fiction).

    I don’t know why, but it’s interesting to me how categorization affects perception.

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