The truth about books (and us)
By Erica Jong Tue Feb 7, 7:12 AM ET
By now everyone from Oprah Winfrey, the queen of candor, to Maureen Dowd, the queen of clever, to Liz Smith, the queen of gossip, has weighed in about the Strange Case of James Frey - as Dickens might have termed it. OK, we know the basics: Frey published a "memoir" - whether on his own say-so or at the request of his publisher is not clear.
There are more than 3.9 million copies in print, and The Smoking Gun found that he did not spend months in jail, among other exaggerations and inaccuracies. Oprah chastised the author on her show, and he looked suicidal. After Oprah changed her mind about the book because of its lying, the author also sheepishly agreed with her. Does he have no opinions of his own?
I've now read it (chalk up one more copy sold) and found it sloppily written and emotionally bankrupt (capitalizing nouns as people did in the 18th century does not emphasize their importance - it's just a typographical tic). I've been to the famed Minnesota recovery clinic Hazelden, and the scenes there are impossible.
The story smells fishy and overblown even if you've never been to Hazelden. Many of its scenes and riffs seem drawn from melodramatic movies such as the one about Billie Holiday, Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. As a reader, you just feel that Frey's upping the ante - which is what writers do - but usually we call that fiction. Blurring the line
Yes, the line between fiction and non-fiction has blurred in the past several decades. Henry Miller blurred it, as did William Burroughs and Hunter Thompson. I wrote a mock-memoir in Fear of Flying (1973) and added to the tendency - though I did cover my rampant exaggerations by calling the book a novel. It was my critics who claimed it as autobiography, not me. I always copped to the fact that it was full of made-up stuff and that I made stuff up for the sake of laughs. "Don't cut funny" has been my writing mantra since I started.
Suppose I had turned in that novel to my editor in 1971 with the words "a novel" on the title page, and my editor convinced me that the book would sell better if published as a memoir? That's hard to imagine because the times were different - books were not so far down the food chain - but, for the sake of argument, let's pretend.
My publisher puts it out as a memoir. It becomes a phenomenon. And all the talk shows that didn't want me before now want me (which is pretty much what happened). I go on TV to sell my book, and Larry King asks me whether the book is true. I would say, as I did then: "The book is full of exaggerations and funny send-ups and outrageous riffs, 'cause that's what writers do." I would not have claimed I was writing gospel truth. Why should I? I couldn't have pulled it off with sincerity, and neither could Frey.
It's this that has writers everywhere pissed off at Frey (that and being an Oprah selection, which everybody envies). It wasn't just that he published the book as a memoir when it was full of obvious exaggerations and untruths, but that he stuck to his story unconvincingly. Why not just say: "Books are hard to sell in this television-besotted world, and I wanted to sell my book so I fibbed. I still stand behind the emotional truth of my book. It felt like I was in jail for months." Honesty could have saved him
If Frey had been self-effacing and honest, who could have objected? It's difficult to sell books, and authors are desperate. Few people have time to read. Most talk shows want only Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie boxing. Authors used to appear on The Tonight Show in Johnny Carson's day (we appeared last, of course), but we're no longer welcome.
Promoting books is tough. So who could blame Frey for courting Oprah and obeying his publisher? I don't. But he didn't have to dither around on Larry King. He could have just said: "Writers exaggerate, and I'm a writer." End of story.
But then, he never would have gotten all that ink. So maybe he's a lot smarter than I thought he was. Still, there's no denying that much of this blurring of the line between fiction and fact has gotten trickier - since we've had a misleader in chief who says "clear skies" for pollution, and we have a Pentagon that says "transfer cases" for the shipping of human remains nstead of the body bags we spoke of during the Vietnam War. The American language has been utterly polluted from the top down.
I used to think that it didn't much matter who was president because we still had our system of separation of powers and a piece of parchment called The Constitution and a Bill of Rights to protect us. I have been proven wrong. This White House and its minions have outdone all previous ones in propitiating the Big Lie. And they still seem to be getting away with it - unlike the Clinton White House - despite plummeting poll numbers. They seem to know something woolly admirers of the Enlightenment (like me) don't: The American people are too busy, too stressed, too underpaid and undereducated to realize how thoroughly they've been rooked. If you can perfect fake news, fake reporters, fake slogans - and charge the poorest taxpayers for them - there's no limit to how far you can go. Throw in some electronic voting machines with no paper trails, and you can spin this theory of the Potemkin presidency out forever.
Character no longer matters, nor does truth - whatever that is. But you can tell the truth in books - at least for a little while longer (probably because nobody reads 'em) - so books remain the final repository for truth. Let's not lose that, OK?
Erica Jong, poet, novelist and memoirist, has a memoir, Seducing the Demon, coming out in March.