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James Frey: A Million Little Pieces Controversy

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Oprah turned on one of her favorite authors Thursday, attacking James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces for taking liberties with the truth in a book billed as a "non-fiction memoir".

In the book, Frey claimed that he had spent 3 months in jail when in fact, he never spent more than a few hours. He also claimed to have had root canals administered with no Novocaine.

Apparently Frey's true story of drug addiction and recovery has been substantially embellished and exaggerated.

In his defense, he did say that names, places and events had been changed to to protect the privacy of 3rd parties but the story is essentially TRUE.

This controversy begs a few Questions of our authors:

When does fictionalizing a story cross over the line?

Is James Frey covered by dramatic license or is he a liar, liar pants on fire?

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I haven't read the book, but I'd say that the answer to your question depends on what sort of disclaimer has been published in the book. If he says that some events and names have been altered to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned (or for other documented reasons) then I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, if significant events turn out to be predominantly fiction, then that's decietful.

My opinion only, of course.


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In simple terms, even if you change the names, there is a big difference between embellishing the story so it "sounds better" versus outright makin' stuff up or, to be more blunt, just plain lying about what happened. I've forgotten who gave the quote, but there are tall tales, there are fish stories, there are fibs, and then, said the quote, "there are lies, and there are damned lies."

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I agree with you guys- 3 hours in jail is a far cry from 3 months.

There is just no good reason to make a change like that in the material facts of a memoir or work of non-fiction.

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Yeah, I'm all for artistic license, but if you're going to call it non-fiction, you can't make stuff up. Call it "based on a true story" or "semi-autobiographical" or something - that's why those phrases were invented.

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When does fictionalizing a story cross over the line? Is James Frey covered by dramatic license or is he a liar, liar pants on fire?

You know, I can see both sides of this. On the one hand, the guy fibbed about all these events happening in real life, just as he described. On the other, the reviews I read indicated the book was very well-written, and depicted a harrowing tale of a guy who went all he way down in life but somehow managed to bring himself back up.

So to me, the bottom line is: is the book well-written? Is it entertaining or enlightening in some way? Is it worth reading? If the answer to those three questions is yes, I couldn't give a flying fig if it's true or not.

I believe it was Napoleon who said, "history is a collection of lies statesmen have agreed upon." If a writer tells lies for his book, but the lies are a better story than the truth, then I'm not sure any great harm has been done.

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Guest rusticmonk86

It was mis-interperted.

This book was Published in 1969 by James Frey. The Library of Congress has found the following three themes throughout this book: Narcotic addicts, Minnesota, Biography. No page count or book size available. Republished in April of 2003.

A review on the cover used the word "memoir".

Biography . . . a charecter portrait, perhaps?

Has he actually made false representations on Oprah or in public that the entire contents of his book are true, to the best of his knowledge; and that, only the names and places have been changed?

I think readers get too wrapped up in artists' work. It's a book. A story. I can't count how many people actually believe my boyfriend was hit by a drunk driver.

***ADDED--- Oh yeah, it's an awesome book. I wouldn't call it "harrowing" or a "tale" because I read this sort of hum-drummery all the time. Yet another ode to Narcotics Users World-Wide. (I'd like to give a shout-out to all my homies in NA and AA.) It has a place on my bookshelf next to William Burroughs and J.D. Salinger. /--ADDED***

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I think readers get too wrapped up in artists' work. It's a book. A story. I can't count how many people actually believe my boyfriend was hit by a drunk driver.


I'm with Gabe on this one, I think people get too wrapped up in 'truth' versus 'fiction' when, 99% percent of the time, they can't define either one. And get it all mixed up anyhow, assuming EVERYTHING we write is autobiographical/true/gospel. People confuse me with characters I MADE UP, people assume a poem's events happened to me (some have, dont' get me wrong but usually when people think it, it's isn't so), or assume every protagonist in every story is ME. Now, bits of me are in most, maybe all, of my characters but are ANY of them me? No. So this guy wrote a memoir, so he used a broad brush to paint the picture, so that means he gets pilloried when each and every fact isn't 100% confirmable? I mean, what's the point? Is it a GOOD story? If not, who cares, if yes, then, again, who cares whether stuff happened or didn't happen as written. Hell, even our memories work that way sometimes, the way we remember our eighth birthday isn't the same as how our Moms remember it, not to mention how differently everyone sees a relationship (esp after it's broken up) or a car accident (often not unlike a bad breakup). I just don't think there's such an absolute distinction between 'Truth' and other stuff, maybe because I'm a storyteller, maybe because I'm an inveterate liar (aren't they the same thing?), maybe because I'm paying attention. Truth? The line between fiction and nonfiction is pretty blurred, just like the line between 'news' and 'entertainment' is on television. Give the guy a break, if it's a good story, then let it 'lie'. If it sucks, just don't buy the thing.


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Just a quick update on this story: Oprah just had the guy back on her show in late January and excoriated him for lying to her about the book's truthfulness. His publisher announced they'll be giving refunds to anyone who bought the book directly from the publisher (but not from book dealers), and somebody just filed a class-action fraud suit against the author and the publisher.

I think this is much ado about nothing, but it just shows to go ya, how people get so nuts about this stuff. Ironically, sales on the book went sharply up after the recent publicity, but I suspect the author's new book won't do nearly as well.

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