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What price truth over celebrity?

23 January 2006

News Review has taken the unusual step of reporting on the same story two weeks running because it appears that the general conclusion we reached last week was wrong. We concluded that James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, 'first tried to market his memoir as fiction, so the publisher must have knowingly taken it on and suggested he should publish it as non-fiction, encouraged by the public thirst for tell-all memoirs' (see below, News Review 16 January)

But Nan Talese, the distinguished veteran editor whose imprint at Doubleday published the book, said that the book had always been seen as non-fiction: 'When the manuscript of A Million Little Pieces was received by us at Doubleday, it was received as nonfiction, as a memoir. Throughout the whole process of publication, it had always been a memoir, and for the first year and a half it was on sale, it was always a memoir with no disputation. It was never once discussed as fiction by me or anyone in my office.'

Talese sees nothing to apologise for in Doubelday's handling of the book. She said that there were never any doubts raised - at least with her - about the truth of the book's claims and that the only real editorial change was to cut about a hundred pages from the manuscript. She also said that if James Frey had confessed to the fabrications prior to publication, she would have had them taken them out of the book.

Like all publicity, the scandal has been good for sales and Doubleday has gone back to press, perhaps rather surprisingly, on the hardback. Frey is writing an Author's Note for future editions of the book, presumably making it clear that some parts of his memoir are not literally true.

But in the end it is the public thirst for tell-all memoirs, especially those with redemption as their outcome, that has stoked this fire. James Frey appears to have invented some parts of his memoir, presumably on the cynical assumption that his story needed some embellishment to make it work. You have to be a pretty bad character to turn over enough of a new leaf to interest anyone. Nobody noticed until The Smoking Gun investigated his story and found the holes in it. The public are still happily buying the book. What price truth over celebrity?