Before Oprah flogged James Frey on her TV show the other day about his untruths in "A Million Little Pieces," I was one of those who wondered if this was much ado about nothing. [Disclaimer: I have neither read the book nor watched her show.] I thought that if he was addicted to drugs since he was 8 or something, perhaps he was fuzzy on some of the details of his life.
I feel differently now, and not because of watching Oprah or reading any of the well-known editorialists' opinions, but because of reading the letters to the editor in yesterday's New York Times. Especially one by a Mary Taggart of Ottawa, who said in part:
Do people want a sensational story, a rags-to-riches story, an overnight-success story, love at first sight, a duckling to a swan, a frog prince — or do they want the truth?
The truth is that love at first sight is blind love, frogs are frogs, poverty breeds poverty, success takes years of hard work, and drug addiction is ugly and fueled by deceit.
The Times ran several pieces about this controversy in the 1/28/06 edition. To me one of the most fascinating is Edward Wyatt's piece, Questions for Others in Frey Scandal.
The "others" he refers to are Frey's agent and publishers. One journalism scholar and professor, Roy Peter Clark, reacts to the publisher's saying that she always intended to publish the book as a memoir, not as a novel, given that Frey's agent marketed it to some publishers as a memoir, and to some as a novel. He says, "The fact that you would not publish it as a novel is influencing writers everywhere: How can I make a million dollars?"
A good novel is art. A good memoir is not, in my humble opinion. A novel, like other art, can transform people's spirit. When you read a good novel or see a work of art or hear an artist's music, there is no question that this is truth as the artist perceives it. It is that artist's truth. Maybe that's why the debate about artists' "selling out" will always be around...was the piece done to make a buck or was it created because the artist had to say the truth, regardless of whether it would sell or not?
An artist named Mary Ann wrestles with these issues in her thought provoking blog from her Davisstudio. (Thanks to Seth Godin for the link.) No easy answers here. I get a flash every once in a while, but I count on the artists among us to lead the way.