Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, January 27, 2006


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Well, if I were Doubleday and wanted to reestablish my responsibilities as a publisher, here's what I would do about James Frey, his book of now-admitted lies, "A Million Little Pieces," and all memoirs in the future:

  • Hire Smokinggun.com and other fact-finding groups to "vet" every memoir that comes through the house from now on. If readers have stopped trusting authors of memoirs, and don't trust publishers who refuse to do fact-checking, as Frey's editor Nan Talese explained (see below**), get Smokinggun to hold every nonfiction book up to scrutiny and place a statement on every jacket that verifies the book's accuracy. Imagine: Truth as a marketing tool! What a concept, I love it.
  • Come on, Doubleday - it IS a book of lies, so offer a refund to any reader of Frey's book who wants it. (And make it easy - let readers rip the cover off and mail it in to Doubleday for a refund, or bring it to any bookstore (no cash register receipt needed). The bookseller then provides the refund and sends the cover to Doubleday, which reimburses the store, with a little bonus as a thank-you for the bookseller's effort and time.
  • Egad, don't reissue the book with baloney "explanatory" notes from author and publisher. For pete's sake, what is there left to explain? Put your money where your mouth is: Have Frey rewrite the book with no "embellishments" and have Smokinggun.com substantiate all the facts, and then let's see what you've got. Give it to critics as a new book - heaven knows it'll be unrecognizable from the former - and to readers at half the price, just to show good faith. (And keep that first printing low.)
  • Send James Frey on a new publicity tour (once the book is rewritten) so he can answer to readers rather than lie his head off to Oprah. I'm not saying he deserves more punishment (he does, but it's too painful to watch). Rather let's give him a forum to explain what he intended by "embellishments" and "composites" in the book Oprah chose. That way, instead of looking retarded and stupefied instead of shamefaced as Oprah caught him in one lie after another, and pretending he didn't remember, or "struggled with the idea," or lengthened his jail time, to make the book read better, Frey would find out what it means to be the serious author he claims to be. If he doesn't do this, he'll forever be a "well-to-do frat boy" who trying to disguise himself as a "desperado," as Smokinggun.com editor William Bastone commented.
  • Have Nan Talese and other memoir editor/publishers come back to Oprah to explain what that ballyhooed new form of writing called Creative Nonfiction is supposed to be, and why the best writers and editors do think it's sometimes necessary to use fictional tools to make nonfiction work. This could be a great show - the editors could bring out, say, a dozen really good memoirs and pull out the "embellishments" and the "composites" that help the authors write their memoirs in a gripping, lively and VERIFIABLE form. Frey could then be seen as an exception to the rule, and we'd all come away shored up as critical readers.

[DRIB (don't read if busy) #1 - About Creative Nonfiction: Having worked with my partner Terry Ryan on the writing of her memoir, "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," I remember one principle of this kind of writing that is not only defensible but REQUIRED. This is the charge to the author to examine the raw materials of your life and find a way to tell it - not sell it - as a story. For example, If Terry had said, "my mother won a car in 1953, and then she won a trip to Europe in 1964, and one day she wrote this poem for $8...." the reader would have fallen asleep on page 2. But by looking at the chronology of her mother's winnings, alongside the chronology of events in the lives of her alcoholic father and her nine brothers and sisters, alongside the chronology of aging appliances her mother won (they began to fall apart so she had to jerry-rig them all), alongside the chronology of all the animals who found their way to Mrs. Ryan's toe (Mortimer the mouse), hair (Barney the swallow), back door (Charlie the chicken) and front door (Mammy the cat), Terry saw the life she experienced begin to emerge as an engaging story, with a beginning (Mom wins the house), a middle (Mom wins the supermarket spree) and an end (Mom re-wins the house after Dad takes out a 2nd mortgage and drinks away the payments). Every fact in the book is true, right down to the postage due on the special-delivery check that arrived only days before the house was foreclosed and brings the story to a rousing climax. But the great joy of the book is that her mother's story IS a story that can be told in a way that transports the reader to that crazy house in Defiance, Ohio, where we fall in love with that crazy family and never want to leave. That's Creative Nonfiction at its best, I believe - the author uses tools of fiction to describe the facts. Frey's problem is that he left the facts behind because he IS an addict: He started making things up and couldn't stop. He was more in love with his own arrogance than the disciplines and conditions of rigor in writing nonfiction.

**And about Nan Talese's statement that publishers don't do fact-finding - that's been true as long as I can remember. Magazines like the New Yorker confirm every fact they can find; publishers of books figure that authors are laying their entire their entire careers on the line because books are permanent - they're written for posterity - so it's the author's job to check every fact. A copy editor will query and sometimes research many of the details, but the author bears full responsibility.

At least that's the way it has been. But for heaven's sake, you'd think publishers have never heard of the Internet. Today, and from now on, it certainly should be the book publisher's job to set up a fact-finding system that makes the author answerable before publication. Since Smokinggun.com and others are "out there," what a great opportunity exists for publishers to win back the trust of readers.

[DRIB #2 - Being a Critical Reader: I've thought for years that Oprah Winfrey distrusts herself as a reader, and that's why she's gotten into trouble with the likes of James Frey and, of course, Jonathan Franzen. With writers she trusts, such as Toni Morrison, there's no doubt that Oprah Winfrey soaks up every word like a sponge and can't wait to ask questions that may reside on the surface but, with the author's help, begin to deepen into many layers of interpretation. Some of the best Oprah Book Club segments have allowed readers and friends of Oprah to join in during a dinner party atmosphere in which the discussion is rich with a persistent and infectious desire to learn. In these conversations, Toni Morrison especially could introduce literary concepts - metaphor, foreshadowing, allegory, construction - while Oprah supplied the humor and rooting for the "right" characters that made the environment receptive and warm for all of us watching. Here you could see Oprah Winfrey wanting very much to contribute to literary discourse by helping millions of people find their way to different kinds of books that might have seemed too far afield for them otherwise.

But with other books, Oprah seemed to lack the personal conviction that "sold" good literature to her audience. It was as if she had sat down determinedly with the book in question but could not concentrate, as if she let her producers do the research while Oprah, brilliant at making thoughtful questions sound spontaneous, handled the author interview. She was not comfortable with the literary hoity-toity and for many years stayed away from books like "The Corrections," but one can see her, again, wanting very much to have a hand in elevating literary aspirations of her readers. By this time, Oprah had the reputation of liking books about victimized women, and some men, who rise up against adversity and become heros in their own lives - not a bad preference, but it got a little soap-operay and seemed to be the only kind of book Oprah read. While an interview with Jonathan Franzen about "The Corrections" would have changed all of that, one wondered why Oprah picked it in the first place. "The Corrections" is a well-intentioned mess by another self-aggrandizing "literary" author who had already swaggered onto the literary scene and had written better novels years before. But Oprah is not a critical reader - she could be but doubts herself too much - so she went along with reports from (poor) critics and her producers and bingo, there went the snafu.]

[DRIB #3: The White Bread Theory: In some ways, Oprah Winfrey is reminiscent of Tom Cruise and Marilyn Monroe, both famous nonreaders who admitted an inability to concentrate on full-length books. Cruise says as he can still barely stay in his chair when a book is open in front of him. Marilyn Monroe was notorious for buying very difficult classics at Hunter's, the movie stars' favorite bookstore on Rodeo Drive, and leaving them barely opened when she got home. (Down the aisle at Hunter's, Katherine Hepburn, a great reader, used to shop for light mysteries to help Spencer Tracy pull himself out of a hangover state, so we know SHE didn't worry about what people thought of his tastes)

It all reminds me of the White Bread Theory that used to be an essential part of the book business when it was still so elite you could lose your lunch just walking into the office. [The White Bread Theory was often voiced in the same breath as The Book Buying Audience - those who read the New York Times Book Review - and The Top 500 (the number of literary decision-makers in any community, no matter what its size).] The White Bread Theory says that if you start out reading romances or easy thrillers you'll never develop a taste for more complicated or serious literary fare. It's like Wonder Bread: If you eat white bread during your childhood you'll never like multi-grain or whole wheat bread. The same goes with magazines and newspapers: If you read USA Today you'll never find your way to the New York Review of Books; if you start out reading People, you'll never "graduate" to Harpers or the Atlantic Monthly.

I've hated this theory so much since I first heard it in the mid-1970s that I've spent the last 30 years trying to disprove it. As a book critic I used to wait with great anticipation for people who believed they were newspaper readers only - that they weren't "book readers" and would never open a book, let alone never venture into a bookstore. How I loved them. My column in the daily paper was located between the movie and TV listings, so as that roving eye traveled through the feature section on its way to sports, I would be waiting. If I made the column intriguing and challenging enough whether the book under review was of interest or not, the roving eye would stop for a few moments to read the book column just because it was intriguing. In a way, the whole point to critical writing is to strike up a conversation with readers about literature, to keep inviting them in, to show them fabulous ideas, sentences, controversy, humor, history, using each day's book as an example. The goal was, without jumping up and down and pandering to base tastes, to make the discussion too rich and enticing to miss. And so the day would come when I'd have a book that captured the personal attention of the most unbookish person, and bam: I'd get that eye into the text before the beholder knew it. I'd show a sentence of such beauty the viewer would gasp. I'd discuss a message that was so gripping, the challenge of reading the hard parts would be worth all the trouble. I'd open up the head of that writer as we crawled through the book and make the whole experience of being transported to another world a possibility for everyone. If it worked, the reader would take a chance and buy or borrow the book, and bam! again! - the joy of reading would become so addictive that another book would be read, and another and another. And not only would people read more books, up the ladder we'd all go, hungry for more complicated, stimulating fare. Letters came in from people who started out on Danielle Steel and were devouring Margaret Atwood. Tom Clancy lovers became critical readers of E.L. Doctorow.

This is why I so admire Oprah, as you can imagine. She's the one who's going up the ladder right now, and millions are following her ascent.]

I also admire independent booksellers who know that you can only spread the word of good literature one customer at a time. More about that, and what Book Passage of Corte Madera is going to do about the latest Barnes & Noble threat next time.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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