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Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Medium Is The Meta

The past week has been an illustrative one for understanding how the "legitimate" literary world operates, as well as the boutique swells of certain swanky soiree sets. One was how underground author JT LeRoy, supposed transgendered wunderkind and darling of the San Francisco hiperati, was really just a frumpy hausfrau with a knack for gimmicking the swells, which just doesn't have that hipper-than-thou cachet said swells crave.

But the bigger of the two stories is the revelation that James Frey's Oprah-hyped memoir, soon to be made into a movie, was pulled at least partially out of Frey's sphincter.

First, JT LeRoy, a novelist who claimed to be a transgendered young man suffering from HIV, was revealed to be a fortysomething mother and housewife. This shocked some of his fans, and those who thought they were his friends, but by week's end the scandal was already fading. Novelists sometimes can get away with such things, being licensed liars and all.

A day later, a second kingpin of bestsellerdom was revealed to be even more of a fraud. James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces, the rollicking, readable memoir of addiction and recovery, admitted he exaggerated and invented significant parts of his story.

This was a bigger problem, as the book is non-fiction -- i.e., it's supposed to be true. It was also singled out last fall (to join Faulkner and Tolstoy) by the all-powerful goddess of bookland, Oprah Winfrey.


Oh well -- fiction, non-fiction, what's the diff? Seriously. We've entered the post-Springer, post-Survivor era of meta-reality, where facts are merely things to be manipulated for maximum public consumption. Idiots now routinely audition for their shot at a contrived "reality" show, which is not real at all, but merely a heavily-edited wad of scenes featuring people you'd ordinarily avoid on the street. The scenes are deliberately grafted together to fit a pre-conceived story arc.

Similarly, the "mainstream" media faithfully stenographs whatever nonsense Scott McClellan or Dick Cheney throw at them, like chimps flinging their shit at passersby at the zoo. Both versions of "reality" are presented with equally straight faces, unironically. After all, "irony" is now something along the lines of rain on your wedding day, n'est-ce pas?

Mr. Frey's crimes against truthfulness were revealed in The Smoking Gun, a website associated with CourtTV, which sicced two reporters on his case for six weeks. (Ow, ow, ow.) The reporters discovered that Jimbo's claims of having been a badass prior to his morally uplifting recovery were -- well, not really true. In fact, he had "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states.' "

A typical example: Mr. Frey claims in the book to have spent three months in jail for a morass of felonious crack- and alcohol-induced crimes. In fact, the crimes were fairly mild, and his jail time amounted to anywhere from five hours to a few days, while he awaited bail. Even he now admits this.


You know what the worst part of this is? This bullshit is only going to help Frey's sales, and sweeten the back end of his movie deal. Hell, he'll probably get another fictionalized "memoir" out of it.

So what's Queen Oprah, Grand Imperator of the Readin' Milf Book, Biscotti, 'n' Two-Buck Chuck Club, have to say about Frey's deceptions?

Winfrey made a surprise call Wednesday to talk show Larry King Live, where Frey was a guest.

Winfrey, who chose the memoir for her book club last year, said the controversy was "much ado about nothing" and urged readers inspired by the book to "keep holding on."

"What is relevant is that he was a drug addict ... and stepped out of that history to be the man he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves," Winfrey said.


No, what is relevant is that he tried to pass off a greatly embellished narrative as biographical -- that is, a retelling of the facts of someone's life. What if Frey had pulled this sort of shit writing about someone else's life?

But in his own defence, Frey said only a small percentage of his 430-page book had been challenged. Memoirs should not be held to the standards of other non-fiction books, he said.

"The essential truth of [my] drug and alcohol addiction is there. The emotional truth is there.... I think you will find people who will dispute every memoir ever written."

King and Frey discussed a specific incident in the book in which Frey claims he assaulted a police officer while under the influence of drugs. Frey refused to say whether the incident was made up.

"I hope the emotional truth of the book resonates with [readers]," he told King. "I couldn't have written it if I hadn't been through a lot of the things I talk about."

Winfrey told King she didn't care whether the incident was true. "Whether or not the car's wheels rolled up on the sidewalk or whether he hit the police officer or didn't hit the police officer is irrelevant to me."


And that's the real problem in a nutshell. Supposedly the book "spoke" to Oprah precisely because of its harrowing "truth", as relayed by the "facts" put forth by Frey. If Frey never really hit the rock bottom that he originally purported to, then he really didn't have nearly as far to pull himself up, now did he? Of course, that kind of story doesn't sell quite as well with this particular crowd -- small-town dipshit gets fucked up once too often, has a minor brush or two with the law, goes to rehab and cleans his act up. Happens all the time.

The problem is that we are in a paradigm of meta-reality, where "emotional truths" resonate more than facts, which is just a handy way of saying that we're suckers for cheap emotional manipulation. Frey's "memoir" is nothing more, nothing less than one of those VH1 Behind the.... deals, with shamelessly clich├ęd, predictable arcs of innocence, corruption, guilt, and redemption. It's just a cleaned-up Jerry Springer, for people who mistakenly think they're smarter than the rubes on that misbegotten show.

At least the cheating lesbian strippers know what the deal is.

1 comment:

Craig Heath said...

And dig it, Brother J - that "meta-reality" is also just a handy way of saying that we can just make shit up, and if it serves a purpose, then it is just as good as fact.

As in "WMD was just the best story we could think of to sell the war", and a million other lies, big and small.

And after a month or a year no one remembers anyway. Convenient, no?