Where do we draw the line?

In 2006, The Smoking Gun, a website famous for posting mug shots of celebrities opened a can of worms in the publishing world when they released a report on James Frey and the validity of many events noted in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Oprah Winfrey supported it and millions of copies were sold.

In the LA Times, Bill Bastone, Editor of The Smoking Gun said, “We were trying to look for a mug shot, if we’d had any luck, we would have posted it and that would have been it.” He was referring to James account that he served three months in jail, rather than only a few hours.

The book’s first paragraph begins as he finds himself on an airplane with an open hole in his cheek, bloodied, and covered with puke, spit and urine. He has, “No ticket, no bags, no clothes, no wallet.”

That alone should have raised some red flags. How could Oprah, the book reviewers, his publisher and the millions of people not question the validity of him being able to board a plane without a ticket, ID and in his condition?

Does the memoirist owe its audience the whole truth? Is there such a thing and where do we draw the line between embellishment and what James called, “misremembering?”

So what if a memoirist prefaces the story with, this is told from the best recollection of my memory? Do we let a few minute details slide? Possibly, but if you write that the house you lived in was the architectural style of Frank Lloyd Wright in an established neighborhood and it was actually an apartment in a dilapidated ghetto high-rise. Probably not, but then again, how would you know?

Frey’s book was reportedly turned down by 17 publishers before it was reworked as a memoir. Nan Talese of Doubleday admitted, “That her company failed to check the veracity of the memoir. Talese further stated, “Frey told us it was a memoir, we believed him.” LA Times retorted, “It’s an impassioned defense, but in some way, it sidesteps the larger question: Is a publisher accountable? Should Doubleday have checked the facts?”

So yes, I believe authors and publishers have a moral responsibility to ourselves and our audience to research, ask questions, do our due diligence and tell the truth to be best of our ability. But, unless we wrote every little detail of our being, as Nan Merrick Phifer says, “Some falsity is inherent.”