If you are one of the more than 3.5 million readers (and climbing) who forked over $22.95 for James Frey’s autobiographical account of his addiction to booze and cocaine, and his subsequent recovery from the depths of spiritual squalor, you were robbed. Frey, it turns out, made up — invented — the best, most dramatic, and most disturbing parts of A Million Little Pieces.
As literary frauds go, Frey’s is small potatoes. His scam was not as daring as Clifford Irving’s fraudulent "authorized" biography of Howard Hughes, not as inventive as Lillian Hellman’s manufactured memories of her days as an underground angel of mercy in pre-war Europe in Pentimento, nor as bold as Hitler’s forged secret diary. Still, it is disturbing stuff. By conning the public, Frey, according to some estimates, has made himself a cool five million bucks. That’s not chump change. And we think that most con artists would agree that by bunco standards it’s a tidy haul.
Frey’s con is bad enough. What’s even more telling — disturbing, outrageous, depressing (pick the adjective you think fits) — is the reaction of his publisher, Doubleday, which presented the book not as a novel (a work of the imagination) but as a memoir (a work of supposedly truthful revelation). Did Doubleday recall the book? Disavow the work and denounce the author? Nope. It shrugged. Said, in effect, "So what?" Somewhat begrudgingly it has agreed to add a note to subsequent editions explaining that some of the work is fictionalized.
Doubleday is not a fly-by-night outfit. It’s a venerable firm, founded in the 19th century by Abner Doubleday, the man who is credited with inventing baseball. Abner must be spinning in his grave. But the firm that bears his name is no longer an independent publisher. It’s part of the mighty Random House publishing group, which is in turn owned by the German communications conglomerate Bertelsmann. Once again we see the corrosive influence of monopoly media debasing intellectual life. Profit is apparently more important than the truth.
Of course, not all publishers are so craven. In the world of magazines and newspapers, standards of truthfulness still apply. When the New York Times discovered that reporter Jayson Blair was making stuff up, it came clean with a mea culpa of such intensity accompanied by internal soul-searching so disturbing that it resulted in the exit of editor Howell Raines, who was seen as cultivating a climate in which such rot could fester. When the New Republic discovered that Stephen Glass was likewise fictionalizing his reports, it too purged itself. The point is not that scam artists will hoodwink readers and deceive their publications. It’s that when bad stuff happens, good publishers act.
That brings us to Oprah Winfrey, herself a one-woman conglomerate who stars in and produces a mega-hit television show, invests in movies, and publishes her own magazine. She’s an icon of civility and rectitude, a walking, talking brand of wholesome decency and compassionate common sense. Her endorsement of A Million Little Pieces sent Frey’s fraud to the top of the New York Times’ and Amazon.com’s nonfiction bestseller lists. Did she feel used? Did she feel she had betrayed her vast and trusting audience? Nope. She all but said that she’d do it again. Never mind that Frey "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw ‘wanted in three states.’" Like the pope, when Oprah is right she’s, well, infallible. If we can’t trust Oprah, who can we trust?