People have been arguing about whether James Frey should be criticized for making up portions of his Oprah-fueled, best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. His defendants – including Random House and Oprah – argue that the book is “really about recovering from drug addiction” and that the “made-up parts” (about spending three months in jail and punching a cop, among other things) aren’t relevant. His critics – me included – think he’s given the book industry another well-deserved black eye.
A Million Little Pieces is supposedly an inspiring book. But if the author lied about the troubles he got into due to his addiction, why wouldn’t he also lie about the troubles he got out of by virtue of his willpower?
Oprah isn’t asking those questions. And the reason she’s not – I think – is because she believes that the book’s message (that you can overcome anything, including addiction) is true. In her view, Frey’s lies can be ignored so long as the story he tells conveys a general truth – one that is useful. (Oprah said that the whole thing was much ado about nothing, that there were “hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been changed by this book.”)
This is the same sort of rationale that had liars like Jack Kelley at USA Today and Jayson Blair at The New York Times arguing that their fictionalized reportage should have been tolerated (nay, praised) because they were showing their readers a “deeper” truth about society.
Of course, these are not truths at all. They are personal perspectives. Big difference. Frey may be doing the right thing to argue the case that anyone can overcome addiction. But if he uses his own story to support his claim, we have a right to expect that the essential details of his story are accurate.
I am not suggesting that memoirs must be exhaustively researched works of precise and provable fact. In fact, I think it’s perfectly okay to say, “I don’t remember the details of that day, but this is what I think happened.” Had Frey said, “I got picked up by the police for this … and I might even have been arrested. I was so loaded at the time, I didn’t know,” he would have provided the book with the support for his greater argument – that he was down and got up again – without betraying the trust of his reader.
When I write about my experiences in ETR, I don’t always remember the precise details of every deal I made or every dollar I earned. But when I am not sure, I use words like “about” and “approximately.” Unlike Frey, I really have been in jail and I really have wrestled with a cop. (More than one cop, actually.) And if you keep reading ETR, I’ll tell you about it.
One thing you won’t have to worry about: that in an effort to change your life, I will simply make up stuff.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]