Monday, July 30, 2007

A Day in the Life... and James Frey (again)

Maybe it’s a sign. Just before giving this one last look I accidentally hit quit and lost the entire post. Luckily it’s been saved, but it makes me wonder whether I should just skip it for today.

Anyway, I’ll brave it out since I have been wanting to do a day in the life post for more than a week now, but have been swamped and barely treading water. I promised though that today I would give myself 15 minutes to share a bit of that swampiness with you.

Since returning from RWA two weeks ago things have been a whirlwind. As you know I took the time in Dallas to meet with each of my clients individually. While I think it's fantastic for all of us, it always leaves me with a to-do list longer than my arm. Since returning I've been struggling to keep up with queries and submissions and I apologize because I'm not even coming close. I've been reading chapters, manuscripts, proposals and plot outlines from clients. I've been phoning editors to ask where's the money, the contract, the offer or my lunch date. And I've been generally acting like an agent. It’s great, but it’s been extremely busy.

In the past two weeks I've had three authors contact me with offers in hand. All are very talented so I need (or needed) to read those proposals and make decisions about whether or not I feel I would be the right fit. And lastly, I need to make sure I have enough blog topics to get me through August.

But beyond all of that I really wanted to write something about Nan Talese's comments regarding James Frey. As published in The Dallas Morning News Nan Talese blasted Oprah for her handling of the James Frey Million Little Pieces memoir situation and defended her own decision and the decision of others at the publishing house for publishing the book. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the situation and about its sudden reemergence in the media. I was disappointed when the issue first came up that Nan didn't speak more strongly for the publishers and extremely uncomfortable watching Oprah attack James Frey. So my question is how much of a responsibility do you expect the publisher to make when it comes to memoirs? After all, a memoir is, by definition, a story told from one person’s perspective therefore we must know that we're getting that person's interpretation of the facts and events. I'm not trying to defend James Frey. I would never do that, but I wonder why Nan Talese didn't act more boldly when on TV the first time? In all honesty, I think Nan Talese is right and given her version of the events I do suspect they were blindsided on the show. I also wonder why Oprah turned the situation into an issue about her and her feelings rather than confronting what would make a man so blatantly lie like that. As you can see I have a lot of questions and not many answers, but I thought it was worth putting out there. Besides contract, client queries and my long to-do list it’s what has me thinking today.

--Jessica

16 comments:

Merry Jelinek said...

You know, when this whole thing came up the first time, I defended him. I think it was brilliant writing and I hate the way outfits like the smoking gun go out of their way to go after someone for seemingly no reason, other than they've made a huge success of their lives.

Do I think it should have been labeled memoir? No, I don't. I think it could have sold quite well as fiction, even labeled 'based on a true story' would have done it for me, because you know there will be dramatic story changes.

I don't think either the publisher or author should have been ambushed that way in a public forum. If Oprah wanted to address it, they should have been given the opportunity to prepare or decline rather than be attacked without warning.

David Thayer said...

The problem here is not Oprah. Frey's book would have been an inane novel. It became a memoir in a kind of immaculate conception process Frey alluded to prior to his formal beheading on television ( what if it all were all true!)
I'm not sure why Nan Talese wants to relive this experience. She's in the ring with the undisputed heavyweight champ. Oprah will make us all feel better one memoir at a time.

Anonymous said...

This topic infuriates me. It seems so simple to me ... Think about James Frey. Human. Good writer. First contract? Would probably jump through fire, acid, & poison darts to see his book in print. I just wish he could have totally celebrated the whole process. Many people, after all, reading fiction or "memoir" or however it ended up, enjoyed his words. I so hated the public flogging.
www.deannakentmcdonald.com

Aimless Writer said...

I'll defend Frey! So what, he embellished (sp?)and over dramatized to create a good read. Big deal. Who are we to judge? I doubt that every autobiography out there is the absolute truth. I mean who has that great a memory? If we put every book under a microscope like that we'd never have time to enjoy them.
I probably wouldn't have bought Frey's book before but now I'm considering it just to soothe his battered reputation with some dollar signs.
:)
Jeannie

phoenix said...

Would I sound wishy-washy if I say I'll defend Nan but not James? I don't think it's the publisher's responsibility to verify facts. A publishing house is not a newspaper and shouldn't be held to the same journalistic integrity. Nan was no doubt blindsided by all this, too.

James, however, knew exactly what he was doing from all accounts I've read. He was a failed novelist, so he embellished the truth in true fiction fashion then tried to pass off the work as truth. I'm sure plenty of embellishing goes on in most memoirs, and many memoir authors probably lie by omission to make themselves look better to the reader. But face it, not to the extent James did.

I've only read snatches of "Million," and I didn't find what I read particularly brilliant prose. I also visited Frey's blog once and read some of his WIP stuff. Not to my taste at all. My very personal opinion is that James scammed his way in and that he deserved to be outed for what he attempted to do.

Nan, on the other hand, had no obligation to play investigative reporter before pubbing the book. Why wasn't she bolder? Perhaps her legal department was urging her to keep quiet.

Oprah over-reacted, but she felt she'd been publicly embarrassed and flim-flammed. No one acted "appropriately" in this situation, but everyone certainly acted "human." Lessons learned all around. And apparently more lessons to learn to come...

tessa said...

I don't read a lot of memoirs for the very reason this came about: a memoir is one person's memory of events. History is reconstructed constantly via individual's memories of particular events. Think the RASHOMON effect, where witnesses to an event see something totally different!

This doesn't excuse outright distortion or elaboration of facts, but it does serve to show that individuals see events from different pov's.

But I dare you to examine any memoir without finding some item that can be challenged.

What Talese said about Oprah's conduct is true. I saw snippets afterwards, and it was horrendous. Oprah wields tremendous power. People are afraid of offending her. As we've seen, it's with good reason.

Mark Terry said...

"I also wonder why Oprah turned the situation into an issue about her and her feelings rather than confronting what would make a man so blatantly lie like that."

Uh, because that's what Oprah does. Haven't you noticed?

December/Stacia said...

Ditto Phoenix. Rumors that Frey's story was a bunch of lies had been floating around forever--just check his Amazon reviews. But in every interview with him where he was asked about it, he insisted it was all true, all 100% true, and he could take down anyone who argued with him because he was HARD, d'you hear him, HARD! And BAD too. Man.

The info was all there had Oprah bothered to look before she featured him. It wasn't the publisher's job to vet him, but before Oprah held him up as her new golden boy she should have checked him out, IMO. But then, I strongly dislike Oprah. So I might be biased.

Aimless Writer said...

Do you think the fact that James Frey was on drugs could have muddled his memory?
I mean...think back to the last time you really tied one on? Did you remember everything you did and said? Now think about living days or months at a time in that kind of fog.
He was a druggie for crying out loud!
As for Oprah...she has the staff that should have done their homework. How hard would it have been to punch in his name on the internet? I love Oprah. She worked hard to get where she is and I have to admire that.
Okay, I'll stop defending him now...
:)
I'm glad I write fiction.

Peggy said...

I have always wanted to comment on this to someone-ANYONE publicly. I am an Oprah fan EXCEPT for when she bashed James Frey. I won't forgive her for that. I loved the book --it was a fantastic read. I did feel some things were a little far stretched as I was reading it--as I have been though that sort of thing myself- but I didn't care. It was a damn good book and he is a fantastic writer!!

Annoyed said...

Oh for God's sake, it is not Oprah's fault that this crack-head lied in his memoir. Why is everyone blaming Oprah? Didn't Nan get him published? Well, that's her little red wagon and not Oprah's...period. I love Oprah---and apparently most of America! Stop trying to find reasons to Oprah bash...

Anonymous said...

A certain detail to this story needs to be recalled: originally, Oprah stood behind Frey. In a phone call aired on Larry King Winfrey stated: "the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book. What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil from the time he was 10 years old drinking and tormenting himself and his parents, and stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves. To me, it seems to be much ado about nothing."

And then... Oprah was bombarded with emails/letters/calls of outrage from her viewing audience. This forced her and she stated as much, to pay attention to the feelings of her viewers who felt otherwise. Oprah is a tv personality. She's not esconced in some office breathing the rarified air of the publishing elite. Her world is viewers, ratings, advertising revenue. Period. This is what she meant when she said to Frey after the show: "it's just business." For her it is. The literary world can dismiss Oprah's audience as being naive and pedestrian, in the same way Jonathan Franzen did, but publishers can't have it both ways. They can't drool over the enormous profits her book choices bring in and at the same time look down their noses at her audience. They are who they are and perhaps they would do well to be provided with 'cliff notes.' Talese should have recommended a disclaimer of some such to offer Oprah's audience. I'm curious as to what might have occurred during the de rigueur Oprah Book Club on-air Q & A had these facts not come to light. Would Frey have answered the housewives in the audience questions truthfully? Or would he have just nodded politely and continue to string them along?

I'm not an Oprah fan and I hate being in the position of defending her. I saw the show and she asked pointed, tough questions and so did many members of the audience. Yes, she was angry, but probably more annoyed at having to deal with it. Anyone who claims that they wouldn't be angry at the prospect of defending their reputation publicly is a liar. In the end something about the way she handled it pissed people off. Mmmm I wondder why? Is it because Oprah is often criticized with a different yard stick? People talk about her gargantuan ego. Name me one big media personality who doesn't have a huge ego. Katie Couric got skewered not so long ago for her treatment of the Edwards, but nobody said, I'm tired of Couric's ego. And yes, Couric's treatment of them was rough, and it was also just business. God knows Katie needs viewers. Oprah simply defended her turf. Maybe the reason Talese, Frey and everyone else who has bristled at the 'smack-down' that was given is because it was at the hands of someone who half-a-century ago would have only been allowed to scrub their floors.

PS: A judge recently awarded Frey's readers $2.5 million.

Michele Lee said...

I agree with whoever said that no one handled this situation correctly. When I've signed contracts for publication there's a bit in there about "You claim that this is your original work, and that the publisher is not to be responsible if it turns out it's not yours." Perhaps memoirs should have a bit like "You certify that this is true, and if it's not you're responsible not us." Frey obviously did lie, extensively about his book. Obviously his hard luck story was helping sales, much like a famous name sells books, or the case of JT LeRoy, an author who penned a book about his days of being a young male prostitute and ended up really being a 40 year old woman. (Who actually got a movie deal before the movie company started asking questions.)

So no, Frey wasn't right, and the publisher should have done at least a bit of a check, or throw it into a different genre. But Oprah also should have done research and belittling him like that was uncalled for. Not undeserved, but as a much emulated celebrity, she should have known better. A fierce, carefully worded statement revoking her support of him, mentioning feeling betrayed by his lies and reinforcing that he is not a reflection of writers in general and as such she would be more cautious in her choices from now on... that would have been much more professional, and honestly even colder. An attempt to put out the fire of controversy instead of giving it more fuel.

Anonymous said...

... beause Oprah is all about Oprah and Oprah's feelings. I'm not saying that's a bad thin ... just the way it is.

Annoyed said...

Anon-12:51 a.m.,
How is Oprah all about Oprah when she is bulding networks to help women who are abused? Maybe you don't know but she used HER MONEY to build schools in Africa because the parents of the children she helped were dead. When she asked kids in this counrty what they wanted, they said, "I-pods and sneakers." When she asked the African kids what they wanted, they said, "A uniform to go to school with." So, how is she all about herself? I think you've got Oprah confused with Bush.

Anonymous said...

There is no question Oprah has been spectacular in her genorosity. The answer to your comment is too long for me to share right now for sad reasons. A dear friend passed away and I'll be away for a while. BUT I have to ask ... how in the world do you get from Oprah being all about Oprah ... to Bush? That kind of logic demeans what up until then was a reasonable response.