Oprah’s book flub

If I were to write a memoir about my first sexual experience it would probably read along the lines of the beautiful night air, the tense anticipation, nervous laughter and ultimately beautiful connection. I would wax poetic about the foibles of youth and the importance of human touch, the social stigmas about virginity and the sharing and profound effect that sleeping with someone I will never forget, whose name is, uh, well it doesn’t matter. I would not, however, talk about the sand creeping up my ass, the half dozen empty Boones Farm bottles fueling us, the 13 seconds of awkward thrusting or the projectile vomiting that followed directly. That would just make me look bad.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, a memoir is a narrative composed from personal experience. And “personal” is subjective and open to interpretation. It’s your perception of events that defines personal memory, and perception has been known to stray from the truth. Take James Frey, for instance, author of “A Million Little Pieces,” his harrowing account of addiction, destitute violence and ultimate redemption. The Oprah Book Club-selected best-selling author apparently has a knack for embellishment.

Thanks to super-investigative web site “The Smoking Gun,” Frey, who was tearfully endorsed by Oprah, has been revealed as a world-class liar. Frey is accused of decorating his story of debauchery and violence with fake assaults on and by police officers, fake prison time and experiences, and fake warrants. In fact, after reading the full report on “The Smoking Gun,” the only thing that seems certain about Frey’s memoir is his name on the book jacket, which leaves Frey and all his machismo looking more than a little pathetic and leaves Frey’s biggest fan and champion, Oprah Winfrey, with egg dripping down her multi-billion-dollar face.

Her response? To publicly lambaste Frey on her show, assailing him for a full hour for “manipulating” his readers. According to The Associated Press, Winfrey struggled through the interview saying, “It is difficult for me to talk to you because I really feel duped but more importantly I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” But almost immediately the cry rang out: was it Frey, who wrote the exaggerated story, or Oprah, who, through the power of her book club, convinced millions to read it? The media swarm moved away from speculation about Frey’s inconsistencies to speculating if the public could ever trust Oprah’s choices again. And consequently the question being raised, from MSBNC to USA Today, is what this means for literature. The answer? Nothing. Used-book buyers at Powell’s report no significant jumps in returns of James Frey’s opus to addiction since the expose and, while they see extraordinary amounts of Oprah’s Book Club picks come in and out, it hardly feels like Oprah is affecting literature any more than are film adaptations or television mini-series.

Oprah’s Book Club is both a blessing and a curse. Thanks to Oprah, classics by Steinbeck, Faulkner and Tolstoy have found their way into the hands of a nearly illiterate U.S. market and back to the top of the bestseller list. The Oprah brand on a book promises epic sales for a novelist and infuses a struggling literary market, but how pathetic is it that we need celebrity branding to make people read in this culture? It’s not as if having Oprah endorse a single Gabriel Garc퀨͌_a M퀨͌�rquez novel is going to inspire avid readers of Us Weekly to investigate the wonders of Latin American fiction. What it means is that complex and beautiful novels are being treated with the same reverence as pop-trash superstars such as Nora Roberts and Steven King. Now instead of skimming a novel designed for light reading next to the pool, readers skim a novel with intense and profound cultural significance and get nothing spectacular out of it. Oprah’s Book Club is about sales, not literature. And so the effect on U.S. literature of Oprah’s duping by James Frey is almost nonexistent. In fact, the real question should be what is wrong with not just U.S. readers, but the U.S. media, that this incident has been treated with such gravity.

There are inordinate numbers of books about addiction and redemption currently in print in the U.S. and James Frey’s is hardly spectacular (yes, I read it). And “non-fiction” memoir authors, from Annie Dillard to Hunter Thompson, openly admit to embellishing their work to further greater points. It’s not uncommon in literature. But this isn’t literature we’re talking about here, it’s celebrity scandal. Saying Oprah’s endorsement of a second-rate, exploitive memoir is going to hurt literature is a laughable proposition. But saying that Oprah’s endorsement of a second-rate, exploitive memoir is going to hurt Oprah is achingly true and consequently achingly awesome. So if you’ll excuse me I’m off to Borders to see if there are any copies of the novelization of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” left. That Johnny Depp makes for tantalizing reading.