Daniel Henninger explores how the spirit of 1968 has taken us to James Frey, Oprah Winfrey’s favorite author, whose best selling A Million Little Pieces has been proven to be a million little lies.
But as Henninger writes, Oprah stands by her man, as do thousands of her fans:
Much support for the book on Ms. Winfrey’s Web site comes from persons recovering from addiction or from family members; all found solace in “Pieces.” Drug and alcohol hells are bad places to be, with no common solution. The road out is often arduous, and one is hard put to gainsay what works for these folks. That said, Oprah’s site also carries many unforgiving comments from these same people. “What good would a book of lies do,” one of them asks, “for someone who’s trying to learn to live without them–who’s trying to be honest and stand up for maybe the first time in their lives?” Another said it contradicted Oprah’s “essential message: to live in truth of ourselves.” Oprah’s loyalists are a lot more interesting than they are often given credit for. One woman, the wife of an alcoholic, cut to the chase: “James Frey lied. He is accountable for his actions.” Or used to be.
The reaction among writers has been as intense, with most of their criticism hammering at the publishing industry’s greater willingness to erase the line between fiction and fact. Doubleday issued what one might call a businesslike “net-net” version of the new, saleable world of false facts; it referred to the power of the book’s “overall reading experience.” The publishers argue, and some writers support them, that the consuming public’s changing tastes are forcing these category changes. Publishers are simply following the market.
In this view, fiction or even traditional nonfiction isn’t providing the hyper-real narrative many people now crave from an assembled memoir like “A Million Little Pieces,” no matter that it has been proven a fraud, or at least a fraud as formerly understood. But perhaps this suggests some people can’t handle the truth anymore, so they’d just as soon be lied to so long as the lies fit their belief system, such as belief in the power of personal “redemption.”
* * *
What’s a fraud now–and what’s something else–has become a question worth pondering. We live in a world of reality TV shows, of newspaper photographs and fashion photos routinely “improved” by the computer program Photoshop, of nightly news that pumps more emotion than fact into its version of public events such as Hurricane Katrina, hyper-real TV commercials manipulated with computers, the rise of “interpretive” news, fake singers, fake breasts, fake memoirs. Morris Dickstein of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York described this world as “always at the edge of falsehood” and so people come to tolerate it “as part of the overall media buzz of their lives.”
He’s right. But there is a political dimension to this, which many of what are no doubt politically liberal writers upset at James Frey and Doubleday ought to consider. Before all this, most people operated from a common personal standard, a broadly held superstructure of right and wrong, integrity and dishonesty, which they probably learned in Sunday school. You can see and hear it in hundreds of old Hollywood movies. “The Maltese Falcon,” written by Dashiell Hammett, a Communist, is full of this moral tension and resolving clarity.
We all know those widely shared categories were broken and blurred the past 38 years, leading to terrible political fights between social conservatives and liberal liberators over disintegrating standards of personal behavior. Welcome to what it has wrought: The mass marketers and their accepting publics are skipping past the politics and simply pocketing the value added in the new controlling value–whatever “works” for us personally, no matter how meretricious. It’s hardly James Frey’s fault that the culture really is in a million little pieces.
Ever since the creation of the phrase “false consciousness” by Friedrich Engels, (Karl Marx’s main man), atomizing the shared culture has been a goal of the left. And truth be told, postmodernism has been doing a great job of it over the last twenty years or so.
(H/T: The Anchoress.)