What’s the Story #28

The James Frey-Oprah Winfrey affair erupted at about the same time we were finalizing this issue. Frey is the author of the blockbuster “recovery” memoir, A Million Little Pieces, in which he describes his life as an alcoholic and crack cocaine addict and his miraculous rehabilitation.

Soon after publication, A Million Little Pieces became an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection, and Frey, a guest on her show. The book did what most of the books featured by Winfrey do—made the author wealthy and famous. To date, A Million Little Pieces has sold nearly 3 million copies. Frey, meanwhile, was praised by major newspaper and magazine critics as a rising literary star, the voice of his generation—until “The Smoking Gun” Web site revealed, with impressive documentation, that Frey had embellished or simply made up certain portions of A Million Little Pieces.

Frey at first denied any wrongdoing. Interviewed on CNN by Larry King, he repeatedly attested to his innocence. Oprah even called in that night to defend her friend “Jimmy” against his critics.

For a few days after Oprah’s dramatic rescue, Frey weathered the storm, but the media and the evidence gradually began to overwhelm him. The high point of the story (or, some might say, the low point) came when Frey appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with his publisher and confessed that “The Smoking Gun” had been shooting straight; he had made up scenes and facts out of thin air and rampantly embellished “stuff.”

Oprah was Oprah: Angry, apologetic, tearful, she castigated everyone involved for their complicity while defending her own actions and simultaneously apologizing for her poor judgment. (In the heat of the controversy, she had declared to Larry King that it didn’t matter that parts of the book weren’t entirely true.)

To date, that’s the end of the story, at least as far as the public and the media are concerned. A rising star has been toppled—temporarily, at any rate—and reporters and critics have had the chance to sound outraged and informed without really doing much reporting or understanding the inherent challenges and issues. The story wrote itself. But that’s not the end of the story for us here at Creative Nonfiction. It is, in fact, the bare beginning.

Our mission and mandate at Creative Nonfiction is not only to publish the best writing from new and established authors but to also help define and, if necessary, defend the genre. We were the first literary journal to publish creative nonfiction exclusively, and we have pioneered its growth and prominence through books, CDs, conferences throughout the world and, most recently, a literary podcast. Creative nonfiction is the fastest growing genre in the publishing world—and we, along with all our readers, have helped make that happen.

Many of the essays in this issue of Creative Nonfiction are, coincidentally, examples of what James Frey originally claimed to have written: an honest examination of a difficult time in one’s life. It has been reported that all new copies of Frey’s book will include an author’s note explaining that many events depicted in the book were altered because Frey wanted “the stories…to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.” But the stories in this issue—for example, Craig Bernier’s search for what compels him to frequent horse-racing tracks; Megan Foss’ essay about rape and the years she spent as a prostitute with a $30-a-day heroin addiction; Meredith Hall’s story of her journey across Europe by foot and her attempt to come to terms with the loss not only of a child but of the life she expected for herself; and Thomas Wanebo’s impulsive decision to hire a prostitute in Osaka’s red-light district—have that ebb and flow and narrative arc…and they’re true.

This issue also features an exclusive excerpt from a new book by the writer who most inspired the use of dramatic scenes and narrative in creative nonfiction: Gay Talese.

We can think of no more appropriate way to demonstrate creative nonfiction’s strength and flexibility even in the face of challenges that have been highlighted by the Frey scandal, than to publisher the master of the form—the writer responsible for what Esquire magazine calls the best piece of nonfiction it has ever published, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Talese’s classic collection of profiles, Fame and Obscurity, which includes the Sinatra profile, together with a new collection, The Gay Talese Reader, which brings together much of his work from the 1960s through the 1990s, is a mandatory and magnificent reading experience. Talese’s newest book, a memoir, will be published this spring.

Interestingly, the excerpts from this new Talese book, A Writer’s Life, demonstrate two major facets of creative nonfiction. The first excerpt, in which Talese discusses his own life and his relationship with Tina Brown, former editor of The New Yorker, is a memoir.

The second deals with John and Lorena Bobbitt and is a masterful exercise of dramatic reportage—what some writers and editors might consider new journalism, literary journalism or narrative journalism. However it is labeled, this kind of writing, along with memoir, falls under the expansive creative nonfiction umbrella.

Finally, our next issue will be very special. In response to the James Frey controversy and the misinformation about creative nonfiction that has been spewed over the airwaves and in newspapers by mostly uninformed critics and pundits, we will devote the issue to explaining and weighing some of the issues brought forth by the Frey debacle. Watch for this in early summer.

About the Author

Screen Shot 2011-11-18 at 3
Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

View Essays