Literary license

A New Yorker
cartoon from some years ago features a man sitting on a porch, frowning
at the blank piece of paper in the typewriter in front of him. A woman
is standing next to him, holding a sandwich, and saying something like
this (I’m quoting from memory): “Here’s an idea for a story: George and
Linda live on Long Island. George sits on the porch all day, every day,
trying to think of ideas for stories. They never go anywhere or do
anything. One day, Linda goes crazy and becomes a
nympho-lesbo-killer-whore. Here’s your sandwich.”

The easiest way for a writer to solve the eternal puzzle of the blank
piece of paper is to simply tell the story of his own life. The problem
with this solution is that most people lead boring lives. This is
especially true for writers, whose lives consist largely of staring at
blank pieces of paper.

If James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces,” had written an honest memoir, it would have had read like this:

“I grew up in an upper-class suburb of Cleveland and in the wealthy
beachside town of St. Joseph, Mich. I drank Pabst Blue Ribbon and
smoked pot. I went to an expensive private college in Ohio, and joined
a fraternity, full of other rich kids who drank Pabst Blue Ribbon and
smoked pot.

“I eventually developed a garden-variety
substance-abuse problem. Because my family is very well off, they could
afford to put me in a famous and expensive rehab program. I sobered up
and decided to write a novel. The novel was in the form of a memoir and
featured a narrator like me, except he was much more interesting _ more
violent, more macho, far more strung out, and equipped with a vastly
more impressive criminal record.

“I also provided him with a
tragic girlfriend who dies tragically in a tragic incident, just hours
after he gets out of prison and is driving to Chicago (home of Harpo
Productions, creators of “The Oprah Winfrey Show”) to save her. Nobody
would publish the novel, because I’m a terrible writer. So I went back
to school, got an MBA, and joined Dad’s old firm.”

That is a
boring story, but it does have the virtue, except for the last
sentence, of being true. The last sentence would be true if life were
fair. Instead, Frey started pitching his novel as a memoir, which was
soon snapped up by Nan Talese, one of the more powerful figures in the
New York publishing world. One canny publicity campaign later, Oprah
chose it for her book club, and it ended up selling 3 million copies.

Thanks mostly to The Smoking Gun Web site, we now know that, contrary
to the tale told in his phony “memoir,” Frey’s only serious crimes were
committed against the English language. After writing a fable about how
he overcame addiction without the help of 12-step programs, Frey was
forced to face his own Higher Power when _ perhaps after a helpful
shove from his publisher’s lawyers _ he found himself once again on
Oprah’s couch.

There he suffered the ritual humiliation Oprah
reserves for those who have incurred her wrath. “I feel duped,” the
woman known in the publishing world as She Who Must Be Obeyed confessed
to a shocked and saddened world. (It would be terribly cynical to point
out that Oprah’s outrage only began to appear after her initial support
for Frey’s fabrications didn’t play well in Peoria.)

Who could
imagine that, in an age like this, a self-styled degenerate criminal
junkie who had fought his way to an inspiring sobriety would end up
writing a book full of what Stephen Colbert, who portrays the fake
newsman on Comedy Central, has called “truthiness” (defined as “the
kind of truth that won’t let the facts get in the way”)?

O Oprah! O mores!

(Paul C. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)