Ever since the investigative Web site, Smoking Gun, "outed" James Frey for embellishing his best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces, every pundit and critic in the country, it seems, has seen fit to weigh in on the subject. I didn't think there could be any more to say until I read Michiko Kakutani's critic's notebook piece in the Jan. 17 issue of The New York Times arts section.
Kakutani has never been my favorite among Times critics; she tends to favor contemporary fiction, while I think her strong suit has always been arts reporting – see her only book, and a fine one, The Poet at the Piano – and literary history and theory. In fact, that's exactly what her recent Times piece, titled "Bending the Truth in a Million Little Ways," demonstrated wholeheartedly.
As Kakutani noted, the Frey dust-up is not simply a case of "truth-in-labeling or the misrepresentations of one author … . It is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth."
She quoted both Frey and Oprah Winfrey, who chose the memoir for her book club, to the effect that the exaggerations didn't matter, that some exaggeration was perfectly acceptable in this sort of work, and that the embellishments didn't undermine the overriding "truth" as a whole.
But according to Kakutani, "We live in a relativistic culture where television 'reality shows' are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics, where academics argue that history depends on who is writing the history, where an aide to President Bush, dismissing reporters who live in the 'reality-based community,' can assert that 'we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.' Phrases like 'virtual reality' and 'creative nonfiction' have become part of our language. Hype and hyperbole are an accepted part of marketing and public relations. And reinvention and repositioning are regarded as useful career moves in the worlds of entertainment and politics. The conspiracy-minded, fact-warping movies of Oliver Stone are regarded by those who don't know better as genuine history, as are the most sensationalistic of television docudramas."
Kakutani reiterated her point by noting that Winfrey's next selection for her book club would be Elie Wiesel's devastating and brilliant memoir of his Holocaust experience, Night. He is a writer who understands, as Kakutani noted in her piece, that "the apprehension of memory [is] a sacred act."
"If the memoir form once prized authenticity above all else … it has been evolving, in the hands of some writers, into something very different. In fact, Mr. Frey's … fabrications in many ways represent the logical if absurd culmination of several trends that have been percolating away for years. His distortions serve as an illustration of a depressing remark once made by the literary theorist Stanley Fish – that the death of objectivity 'relieves me of the obligation to be right'; it 'demands only that I be interesting.' "