Sunday, Feb. 12, 2006 | 12:33 p.m.
Part of the challenge of writing a column just once every two weeks is that material can get outdated very quickly. But there is a clear advantage in having so much time to choose a subject: It allows me a fair amount of time to ruminate about a topic before addressing it.
I have had plenty of time to organize my thoughts about the book controversy that's had everyone buzzing lately, and what it all means. I allude of course to James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" and how it shot to the top of the bestseller lists after Oprah Winfrey chose it as her Book Club selection, and how the book was then exposed as a piece of nearly total fiction wrapped in the nonfiction blanket of a memoir by its publisher, Doubleday.
I read enough of the book before the controversy broke to know I didn't really like the writing style of Pieces and that I wasn't particularly interested in the subject matter. So I put it down.
But after Oprah raved about the book on her show, and her loyal audience went out and bought millions of copies, catapulting a book that was over two years old to the very top of the bestseller list and awarding its author a Megabucks jackpot of millions of dollars in royalties, I thought maybe I should give it a second chance.
That is until The Smoking Gun Web site exposed many of the fabrications in the book.
James Frey's defense was to go on Larry King and explain that the essential truth of his book and its message about recovering from addiction was still intact, and that in fact only "18 pages out of over 400" were under dispute.
King threw a few softball questions at Frey, and the author seemed to have calmed the raging seas. He breathed a further sigh of relief, and his mother clapped her hands in glee when Oprah called in at the end of the show and basically excused Frey's looseness with the truth by saying that so many people had been helped by the book that picky details about authenticity weren't all that important.
All of the above seemed downright giddy about the fact that more good had been done than harm, totally overlooking the point that everyone who bought the book had reason to assume it was a true story. "Pieces" was, we were told by publisher Doubleday, a "nonfiction" book.
Lost in the discussion was the fact that had the book been more accurately categorized as a novel, it certainly never would have been published, and Oprah and millions of others wouldn't have purchased it, and Frey would still be an unpublished author rather than a multimillionaire.
After taking an unaccustomed, and unexpected, bashing from book critics and columnists around the country, Oprah did the right and brave thing and apologized for her mistake. She then took Frey and his editor, Nan Talese, to the woodshed for one hour, and got both of them to concede that the book was indeed full of lies.
So what is the punishment for this deception? Apparently only shame and humiliation. I am fairly certain both Doubleday and Frey will keep the tens of millions of dollars they have made off the book, and the sequel that was spawned from it.
At this writing "Pieces" is still far and away the number-one-selling trade paperback in the country, and I'm assuming that Frey is licking his wounds on the porch of his estate or perhaps contemplating his navel on a five-star world cruise, hoping he's never interviewed again other than by agents who are lobbying for the "contrition" book that is certain to follow.
Having published 11 books myself, a few on light subject matter and others quite serious, I can tell you a few things about the vetting process that takes place on a nonfiction book.
Basically, a careful editor and a legal team behind that editor will not allow an author to get away with any loose information. A nonfiction book I wrote recently on the adult industry in Las Vegas was carefully read and questioned by two good editors before the first galleys were printed. Then I had to withstand another two hours of grilling by the publisher's attorney to make certain I hadn't libeled or unfairly misrepresented anyone in the book.
Had I been making up material being represented as factual, I would have been busted at least two or three different times before the book went to press. Then when the trade paperback rights to that book were sold to Harper Collins in New York - the world's biggest publisher - I had to withstand another three hours of grilling from their attorney, to confirm among other issues whether I had tape recordings of many of the interviews to back up some of the shocking events I reported in the book. Of course I did.
If writers and readers can learn anything from this imbroglio, it's that the media in general have gotten very sloppy in distinguishing fact from fiction, and in drawing the lines between reality and drama.
This nauseating genre called "reality television" is about as real as Joan Rivers' nose. When Mark Burnett's reality show, "The Casino," was filmed at the Golden Nugget in 2004, there were writers on the set constantly restructuring or concocting out of whole cloth scenes that they thought would make good television.
There was very little real about any of it, and the final product was disappointing to the hotel owners who initially approved the idea and a television audience that gradually dropped off in the ensuing weeks.
The New York Times, the so-called paper of record, had its Jayson Blair. The New Republic had Stephen Glass. And now Oprah's book club has an albatross around its neck, which is a shame for an idea with such good intentions behind it.
In this day and age when the electronic and print worlds can turn no-names into celebrities virtually overnight, one has to wonder: Will the truth eventually win out?
Stay tuned, but remain highly skeptical.
Jack Sheehan's column runs every other week.