Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Why Good Things Happen To Bad Authors: Lies & The Lying Liars Who Sell Them

When it comes to book sales, there's nothing as good as a famous person to wave a magic wand and turn your pumpkin of a tome into a glittering coach. So when the Princess of Hype, Oprah Winfrey, selected James Lie's* (not his real name) memoir for her TV book club last fall, it was little wonder that it propelled him out of the pumpkin patch to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction. He has reigned there for the past couple of months. Problem is, some super-sleuths at the TheSmokingGun.com suspected something was amiss with "A Million Little Pieces," Mr. Lie's* (not the name on his birth certificate) cindery tale of how he wrecked, then redeemed his life after years of drug and alcohol addiction. (Well, people have been calling it "gritty," but I wanted to stick with my Cinderella theme. So I decided "cindery" meant the same thing. Besides, the man's reputation is now in ashes.) They weren't the only ones to get a whiff of the ocean as they read the tale. Janet Maslin of the New York Times also wrinkled her nose at some of the book's scenes. But the truth crusaders at the Smoking Gun had the gumption to investigate some of Mr. Lie's* (not the name that on his police record) claims. What they discovered is that a Frey* Fact is not the same as a True Fact. For you grammar sticklers who thought "true fact" was redundant, well, no longer! A Frey Fact "may" be 95 percent true, or it may not be true at all. It may be something he thought was true, wished were true, or simply pretended was true. Take the several months he spent in jail. Turns out, it was a few hours. He didn't even have to change his underwear! His "street cred" is not even as good as Martha Stewart's. Now I KNOW it can seem like months when you're in a boring place with no good reading material. But it doesn't justify portraying yourself as a seasoned jailbird. (Martha, on the other hand, knows when to use her turmeric, and that cayenne spice is a weapon.) So Mr. Lie's* (not the name on his book jacket) reputation is in a Million Little Tatters, at least with the literary community, by which I'm referring to people who actually write, edit or review sentences for a living. In the book sales universe, the marketing people are probably in ecstasy. The more notoriety he gets, the better his book does! Oprah was not outraged about this. Instead of standing up for truth and justice, she settled for the American Way. Which is to say, it didn't matter. Yes! She has succeeded in becoming this country's most prominent enabler ever. Larry King invited Mr. Lie* (not the name used on his glossy bio sheet) onto his CNN talk show shortly after the scandal broke. Was he there to apologize? Hahahahahahaha. Surely I jest. He was there to RATIONALIZE. Now, most human beings are natural amateur rationalizers from the time they hit school age. (My 4-year-old: "I didn't mean to hit him. My BRAIN told me to!") However addicts are professional rationalizers -- they do it for a living. So Mr. Lie* (not his original nickname) told us that memoirs are a literary form that aren't about "facts" but rather about one's perception of the facts. Which I could buy if he were referring to his subjective experiences. It is one thing if Christina Crawford tells us her mother Joan was mean to her. It's another if she says her mother died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. How much time you spent in jail is not just a matter of perception, it's a matter of public record. Oprah said that the truth didn't matter as much as the emotional experience people had while reading the story of Mr. Lie's* (not his real nom de plume) "truth." Forgive me for stating the obvious, but when it comes to non-fiction, some stories resonate simply because THEY ARE TRUE. Would the Diary of Anne Frank be a classic if we learned she was hiding in the attic due to agoraphobia, and went on to die of old age in a Belgian nursing home? Mr. Lie's* (not what kids called him on the playground) story failed to sell to publishers as fiction, so he punched up some of the scenes, painted himself as the key figure in some girl's death in a train wreck, and repackaged it as a memoir. Why not, there's room in DaVinci's Last Supper painting, too. Didn't Judas have an accomplice? But Mr. Lie* (not the name he uses on his IRS forms) had the nerve to say the book is "95 percent true," so overall the reader is being served a lot more fact than fiction. It would be helpful if the publisher would use a different color ink in order to differentiate the faux prose -- perhaps yellow? With respect to Oprah's contention of the "experience" being true for the reader, I just plea bargain to differ. Suppose a man or woman goes on a date and has an absolutely stunning time. The date of his or her life. Then, before the next date occurs, learns that the other person is in fact already married. Not quite the same date, is it? Sure, a good time was had. Enjoyed every moment of it, maybe. But the experience as a whole has soured because it was based on a lie. A restaurant meal that's only five percent arsenic? Well, I think I'd want the arsenic as an optional side dish, not baked into my entree. So James Frey (his real, sullied name) is going to profit nicely from his jitterbug with the devil. Can't wait to see the eventual movie: "Bogus Memoir and the Brotherhood of the Flaming Pants."

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