Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Truth of Lies

By Charles Dodd White

Just a couple of weeks ago I was shocked to learn of Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic gross fest, The Road, for her book club. Not because it’s not a great book, but rather because it is. In fact, the Pulitzer committee gave its sanction as well, obediently falling in line with Mistress Oprah’s benediction, lest they incur the wrath of her displeasure.

Now, I know some of you will say, “Okay, granted O. can be a bit of a bore, but really, shouldn’t we be encouraging more people to read good books, regardless of whatever celebrity affiliation might be made?” And you’re probably right. I mean, sure, reading is something most people interested in words are going to want to encourage. If for no other reason than it increases the market for whatever we might want to publish in the future.

So, good for Oprah—she’s a regular cultural dynamo and altruist. Now, is The Road a very wise selection for her book club? Probably not. You have to
wonder how many women who make up the vast majority of her show’s
demographics--especially if they're fans of her previous women's fiction and dysfunctional family picks--will enjoy reading about a single weak-willed female character
who abandons her son and husband through suicide. Nor will they particularly
like the cannibalistic adventures and gut-wrenching imagery that seems like
an absurdist blending of Dante’s Inferno with the Nick Adams Stories.

A bit of a downer, when compared with giving away free cars.

So, I began thinking, why in God’s name she would have chosen such a book.
Had she recognized McCarthy’s singularly beautiful prose? Was there a
message within the story that spoke to some universal desire for existential
validation? Had she suddenly developed an overwhelming hunger for the sweet
flesh of humans?

No! (Well, at least I hope not).

She wanted to reclaim legitimacy. Legitimacy lost with the James Frey
debacle and his book, A Million Little Pieces.

Most of you probably remember this little Oprah foible, but for those of you who might not, Frey was the mealy-mouthed guy who claimed all sorts of trials and tribulations involving drug addiction and recovery in a memoir published by Anchor Books. He is purported as saying that he intends to be the “greatest writer of his generation.” A short sample from the opening of
A Million Little Pieces to let you judge for yourself:

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut…I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.
So, uh, there you go. Surely you can see why Oprah would decide this is indeed the work of genius.

But, you see, there was a problem. Seems like Jimmy exaggerated his story a
wee bit. Prison stays that were only three hours long turned into three
months. Busted faces were only light bruises in doctor’s records. There was
a touch of the melodramatic in Frey’s story, though no one could ever have
guessed that from the book’s restrained, understated opening. But boy, O’s
peeps got pissed.

He lied, they said. This dirty little bastard made something up and they
felt cheated because they identified with his story of addiction and
redemption, only to discover it had been a trick, an untruth.

At first Oprah backed Frey, saying that she stood behind her authors. Until
she started catching criticism. O. doesn’t like criticism. It makes her
corporate capital go down. So she told Frey to get his ass on national
television in order for her to berate him like a spaniel that shit on Mama’s
favorite rug. Which he accordingly did. With tail tucked submissively.
Oprah said he was a liar, a dirty sonofabitch that let everyone down and
Frey obediently agreed. It was perhaps the most uncomfortable interview I
have ever seen. It was a fucking crucifixion.

But there was a small problem with all of that. Memoirists have never been
charged with recording facts. They are responsible for Truth. And there is a
hell of a difference between the two.

Authenticity might please the readers of a hard news story. However, if we
want to know what it was like inside the Virginia Tech massacre, the simple
description of “32 people killed by lone gunman” fails to capture the horror
a first-person account of someone on the scene would, even if we allow for
subjective and unavoidably non-factual perspectives of the incident. The
truth is often impossible to get at unless we allow for some invention, some
coloring of the incident that communicates the nuances and personal details
of a narrative. Frey might not have literally experienced everything written
in his book, but he undoubtedly felt strong enough about his experiences
that he rendered them in such a way that many people who had endured
addiction felt a connection with him. Frey was wrestling with demons of some
kind, and he wrote convincingly about them to give meaning to his life.

But that wasn’t good enough for Oprah. She’s only interested in the facts.
She’s a gatekeeper, making sure we aren’t exposed to anything that isn’t
good for us. She’s very maternal that way, you know.

Aren’t you glad that O. is there looking out for your best interests?

God knows what we could do without her.

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