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Thursday, January 26, 2006
posted by Jen at 1/26/2006 02:46:00 PM

In the department of "better late than never," Oprah Winfrey has recanted her defense of embattled junkie-turned-fabulist James Frey, announcing that the truth actually does matter when a memoir purports to be non-fiction, and dumping a righteous can of whup-ass on her anointed author's head.

"I feel duped," said Oprah. "And, more importantly, I feel you betrayed millions of readers."

Props for Oprah for admitting that her defense of Frey was misguided and for pointing out, quite indignantly, that when your book says "memoir" on the front cover, it best be true.

Shame on Random House and Nan Talese for taking Frey's eyebrow-raising story at face value, and for their cynical original defense of, "We stand by our author and if his book moved people what does it really matter whether the stuff on a few pages really happened?"

Frey was a train wreck -- squirming and stammering and looking like the proverbial deer in the headlights, the minute before it comes crashing onto your hood, shatters your windshield and lands dead in a ditch.

But Nan Talese was worse -- arrogant, elitist, unapologetic, and clueless about the niceties of live TV (best to turn off your cell phone before taking the stage).

Talese took no responsibility for publishing fiction as fact. She sidestepped the issue of her own responsibility with a rhetorical "should we have done more?" Gee, ya think?

And she claimed to have swallowed Frey's account of the whole double-root-canal-no-Novocaine thing due to her own experiences with inept dentistry.

"It's very sad," Talese said mournfully, in the tones of one whose tea party's gotten rained out. Oprah wasn't buying it. "No, it's not sad, it's embarrassing."

As thrilling as it was to hear Oprah deliver the smackdown, declaring that nonfiction books must be truthful,(and not just truthy), James Frey's Hour o' Contrition, while doing nothing to enhance his reputation as the biggest badass on the block, is probably going to ultimately serve to fatten his wallet.

In his humble-pie gobbling shame spiral of an interview, sitting crumpled on stage while the audience gasped and sneered and booed, Frey morphed effortlessly from Embattled Bad-Boy Author into one of the best-loved figures of the pop culture canon: repetent and troubled sinner in need of the public's forgiveness.

He's Hugh Grant or Jimmy Swaggart, with lies instead of hookers....and, by the end of the show, Oprah, who started off so angry she could barely speak, seemed well on the road to forgiving him.

Coming clean is "a healthy thing he's doing," applauded the Washington Post's Richard Cohen.

"I do believe that telling the truth can set you free...maybe this is the beginning of another kind of truth," said Oprah. To which James, sticking to the script, responded, "if I come out of this with anything it's being a better person and learning from my mistakes and making sure I don't repeat them."

I suspect he's actually going to come out of this with something more than just "being a better person," and the millions he's made since Oprah selected his book for her club (as more than one report has noted, even in the midst of her ire and indignation, Winfrey never revoked her book club's seal of approval for A Million Little Pieces).

What's next in the script? Hitting rock bottom, which in Frey's case could well involve the collected works of JT LeRoy,a crack pipe and a Barnes & Noble bathroom. Then, intervention (possibly spearheaded by Dr. Phil), and redemption via more rehab (only this time his parents won't have to pay), a six-week stint where he'll pick himself up, dry himself out, and start writing again.
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