So I spent much of yesterday attempting to compile my meager thoughts about l’affaire Frey into something halfway worthy of a post. After all, this little crisis around the truth value of the memoir is hardly the first such I’ve encountered, but this particular one seems different, somehow, and not simply because the great and powerful O got personally involved last week, giving both Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, the talk-show smackdown. Given my longstanding interest in Oprah’s interventions on the literary scene, I could hardly let the occasion go by.
Now, of course, I find that Jon Stewart has said the vast majority of what I wanted to say, and then some. Stupid Daily Show, has to be so smart about things.
There’s still one issue that’s bugging me, though. Frey, who has now painfully and publically admitted to lying, claims that A Million Little Pieces was originally submitted as a novel, and that it was his publisher’s decision to market it as nonfiction, a claim Talese not only denies, but says almost caused her to collapse. And as the New York Observer points out, many pundits — in which I have to include myself, at least in the sitting at the bar working on your third glass of wine sense of punditry — have pointed to the possibility that Talese caused this whole brouhaha by forcing the genre issue as entirely symptomatic of what’s wrong with commercial publishing today, that marketing a text drives the enterprise, rather than the text itself.
Well, true. But not exactly a shock. After all, marketing rules the roost in scholarly publishing, too, in which decisions about manuscript quality often, and arguably of necessity, come second to the publisher’s perceived ability to sell the resulting product. So why get all up in arms about whether it was Talese or Frey who decided to stick the little word “nonfiction” on the book’s cover? In an enterprise so ruthlessly focused on the bottom line, this becomes the point to which things inexorably progress, in which any author will do whatever they need to in order to get a book published, and any publisher will likewise do whatever it takes in order to sell as many copies as possible. To be shocked by this requires not having paid attention to the world in which we live for the last fifty years, at least.
What does surprise me, though, is the extent to which Frey’s readers claim to feel violated by the million pathetic little deceptions that the book’s genre classification worked on them. You’ve read by now, I trust, the stories about the lawsuit filed in Seattle, which seeks damages for “lost time” on behalf of the book’s readers? The reasoning behind this claim can only stand on an assumed relationship between the truth status of the book and its value for the reader — the assumption being that the book’s utility exists only in what it can do for the reader, that its audience’s investment of time spent reading will produce material benefits in their lives.
There are a couple of things that this makes me want to ask: first off, what happened in this culture to relocate the entire concept of reading within the realm of self-help? Are there no other reasons for reading anymore aside from learning lessons that are directly applicable to our own lives? And even if the answer to that last is no — even if we’re only reading, ever and always, for what we can “learn” in a totally pragmatic sense — why is it that we can only learn things of value from non-fiction? Whether there are such things worthy of being learned from Frey’s fiction aside, is there no longer any instruction to be found in literature that would make the investment of our time “worth it,” in the crassest possible sense?