Friday, January 27, 2006

Oprah's Rapture

Photo: George Burns/Associated Press
[Note: This post is by Gustave. My latest post obliterated his credit. — CQ]
My wife, like millions of other women, likes to watch Oprah. We had an engagement after I got home from work, so she taped yesterday's show (on good ol' fashioned VHS) and we watched it together after putting our kid to bed. Yesterday's feature: a public flogging.

"Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of [Oprah]." Ephesians 5:6 (except for last word)

As Charlie discussed previously, James Frey lied in his book "A Million Little Pieces." After viewing the show, I grabbed a few of the magazine articles I've written in the last year to see if I—perhaps subconsciously—was guilty of the same embellishments for the sake of good storytelling. Nope, the events happened when, where, and how I told them. I suppose someone could dispute whether Lake Superior's waters really looked like liquid mercury on a blustery November day, but that's not akin to Frey’s exaggeration of his jail time: his book says three months, now he says a few hours.

Still, I'm not as incensed at the fudging and fictionalization in his book (which I admittedly have not read—I'm currently re-reading a Rick Bass book of essays about art and activism, and I'm not in the mood for drug addiction) as Oprah and her gaggle of self-righteous journalism experts were yesterday.

Perhaps it's because, for starters, I think the third-person, omniscient tone I was taught in journalism school is fraught with inaccuracies anyway. I prefer first-person narratives, because I believe it’s more truthful to tell readers “this is how I perceived things to be" rather than "this is absolutely, positively, how they were." If you've ever been at a dinner party, and you're telling a story, and then your spouse interrupts you several times to correct you along the way, then you know what I'm talking about.

Again, does this excuse Frey's fabrications? Nope, but it does mean that—contrary to the Poynter Institute stiff who denied that there exists a spectrum of facts—there are varying degrees of truth, all susceptible to the vagaries of human perception.

As for Frey’s style of storytelling, I find this passage from a interview with William Least Heat-Moon to be relevant:

Interviewer: Is there any room for fudging with the facts, whether chronological or otherwise, in travel writing?

Least Heat-Moon: Are we going to call it nonfiction?

Interviewer: Yes.

Least Heat-Moon: Then, according to my ethics, no -- unless the reader knows what you're doing. I contend that in the kind of nonfiction I write, and that other people also pursue, anything is permissible provided the reader knows what you're taking liberties with. In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," for instance, the reader arrives at the last page of the book to discover that some of the characters were invented by the author. I think it's all right to do that, but you have to put it on the first page of the book -- not the last.

Maybe Frey could have been pardoned for his embellishments had he or his publisher put a disclaimer on the front of his book. It seems to me that being guilty of not admitting to your literary device is a bit different from being publicly gutted because you’re a “liar.”

Maybe we’re getting too caught up in actual truths versus “essential truths” (as Oprah stated in her phone call to Larry King, which I respected). Again, I haven’t read Frey’s book, so I can’t speak to how readers of his book feel after learning the truth. But I know that after reading William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways”—where every diner waitress, bar drunk, and road tramp talks like a philosopher—I had some questions about whether the actual characters said the actual words attributed to them. But you know what? I didn’t care. Because it was a story well told. And because there was a bigger truth behind the book, and behind the author’s tale of self-discovery.

Did Frey deserve the vengeful wrath of Oprah and her bonafide experts (not one dissenter among them, by the way...seems a bit like stacking the jury)? It seemed to me an exercise of power—a flexing of her media muscles on a guy who’s on very vulnerable and shaky footing. A more benevolent god might have opted for absolution.

And it’s a little too convenient that news of Oprah’s confrontation with Frey was on the Web yesterday morning, which caused me to mention it to my wife, which caused us to tune in to the show. I wonder how Oprah’s ratings were yesterday. I wonder how her advertisers feel about Oprah taking a stand for the truth. Maybe I’m the one who feels duped.


Blogger Charlie Quimby said...

Apparently the only thing missing from the show was Larry King calling in at the end...

9:25 AM  

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