Why pay millions for ‘A Million’s’ lies?

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DAVID L. ULIN is book editor of The Times.

REMEMBER James Frey? Nearly eight months after the Smoking Gun website reported that Frey had lied in his bestselling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” he emerged this week in an apparent effort to make amends. On Thursday, Frey’s former publisher, Random House, announced that it and the author had reached a legal settlement with readers who claimed to have been defrauded by Frey’s book. Frey and Random House will offer refunds to people who, according to the New York Times, “submit a sworn statement that they would not have bought the book if they knew that certain facts had been embroidered or changed.” The total value of all the refunds will not exceed $2.35 million.

Frey is among our least appealing literary hoaxsters, a kind of Clifford Irving of the recovery set. Smug, self-satisfied, defensive, he never did take full responsibility for embellishing his saga of addiction and rehabilitation, even as his bad-boy act -- he began his career by declaring himself the greatest writer of his generation -- unraveled on the set of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Throughout it all, his book sat on bestseller lists and he brought home millions. So why not make him pay?

If only it were so easy. The decision by Frey and Random House to settle, however, causes more problems than it solves. In the first place, it’s an emblem of our litigious society, in which any issue can be remedied in court. What is the price of a disappointed reader? Should we really be compensated for suffering through a bad -- or a dishonest -- work? These are important questions, with implications for other books and writers. Can we sue an author now on the grounds of aesthetic differences? What about a reviewer with whom we disagree? Is any untruth or fabrication we find in a work of nonfiction now considered actionable?


What I find even more troublesome, however, is the idea that Frey should have settled at all. Sure, he eclipsed the line between fiction and nonfiction in his memoir, but throughout the early days of the scandal, that was his defense: that the line between the two is a fine one. That’s not such a bad argument; memory, after all, is fallible (although Frey lied not because his memory was flawed or incomplete but because he thought that it was not enough).

But whatever his intent, “A Million Little Pieces” clearly moved many readers -- Oprah included -- or it wouldn’t have been as successful as it was. Why did it elicit such an emotional response, and is that response rendered invalid if its source is revealed to be a lie? I’m not sure that this is territory we, as a culture, want the courts to enter because it has serious implications for how we interact with art.

Creativity, after all, is a matter of illusion. We take raw materials (ink, paper, memory, point of view) and fashion something that, no matter how faithful to our experience, is a contrivance, an invention, an elaborate shadow play. That’s the miracle -- that we can believe it at all, that these tools, imperfect as they are, can stir us into trusting something that is, on the most basic level, not actually there. We accept this when it comes to fiction but have other expectations of the memoir, which we seem to believe ought to be held to higher standards, as if memory had any objectivity.

I don’t mean to defend Frey, whose betrayal has everything to do with breaching just this trust. Still, I can’t help coming back to the original reaction of his readers, which was nothing if not real.

Frey said early on that his purpose in “A Million Little Pieces” was to evoke not the factual, but the emotional, truth. Such a distinction, he correctly argues, resides at the heart of creative nonfiction, and it complicates the issue, especially if you believe (as I do) in the validity of the genre, if not of this particular book. Do readers deserve to get the truth, such as it is, from writers? Absolutely.

At the same time, we need to remember that the give and take between author and material often renders genre boundaries moot. Whether they succeed is a matter to be adjudicated by each reader, which is why Frey and Random House should never have settled.


Unfortunately -- just as they have throughout the furor over “A Million Little Pieces” -- they’ve opted for the easy way out.