GRAPEVINE, Texas — Publisher Nan A. Talese took up a fresh defense of A Million Little Pieces this weekend, defending the “essential truth” of the discredited memoir — while criticizing Oprah Winfrey and her fans.
Asked about the book during a session at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest on Saturday, Talese said her experience with author James Frey had not changed the way she handled memoirs.
“I’m afraid I’m unapologetic of the whole thing,” she said. “And the only person who should be apologetic is Oprah Winfrey,” who she says exhibited “fiercely bad manners — you don’t stone someone in public, which is just what she did.”
Calling Winfrey’s behavior “mean and self-serving,” Talese said that readers should be able to decide for themselves about whether to believe an author, and that Frey was clear about how believable he was.
“When someone starts out and says, `I have been an alcoholic. I have lied, I have cheated’ … you do not think this is going to be the New Testament.”
A Million Little Pieces was Winfrey’s Book Club selection for September 2005. In January 2006, after The Smoking Gun Web site revealed that parts of the book had been fabricated, Talese and Frey were subject to Winfrey’s on-air wrath, and Frey acknowledged that his book was not the literal truth.
Saturday evening, Talese spoke up in response to an audience comment during a question-and-answer session with keynote speaker Joyce Carol Oates, who had been discussing the nature of truth in memoir writing.
Talese said that when producers invited her to Winfrey’s program, they told her she’d be sitting on a panel with Richard Cohen of The Washington Post and Frank Rich of The New York Times to discuss “Truth in America.” But moments before the live program aired, she says, she was told program would be called “The James Frey Controversy.”
“James was told, `It’s going to be very rough, but at the end there will be redemption,'” Talese said. (She heard this thirdhand, she clarified on Sunday.) “And she verbally flayed him in public.”
She continued, “And at the end of it she pulled James aside and said, `I know it was rough, but it’s just business.’ (Sunday, she clarified that this was relayed to her by Frey.) And so I really, really am bothered by the sanctimoniousness of Oprah Winfrey.”
Winfrey’s publicists could not be reached Sunday. On her broadcast, Winfrey, who had stood by the author in the early days of the scandal, told her audience: “To everyone who has challenged me on this issue of truth, you are absolutely right.” She angrily told the author, “I feel really duped. But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”
In May, a judge approved a tentative settlement that calls for Random House Inc. and Frey to refund $2.35 million to readers who purchased the book before that interview.
In interviews Saturday and via e-mail and phone from California on Sunday, Talese explained why she was speaking out about the incident now.
She says people have asked, “`Do you mind talking about it?’ as if it were some sort of disgrace. And I’ve said, `No I’m fine.’ I published the book, I’m proud to publish the book. … I think it has helped a lot of people.”
She described the Oprah audience as “holier-than-thou” and discussed being on the show as Frey amended his account of one character’s suicide.
“Oprah kept saying, `Did she kill herself? Did she cut her wrists?’ And he said, `No, she hung herself.’ And the whole audience went, `Boo! Boo!’ It was like being in the Roman circus. And after I said to them, `The tragedy is not how she killed herself, it’s that she killed herself,’ they all looked like a treeful of owls — no expressions at all. It was awful.”
Asked about the book’s veracity, she said: “I believe he overblew his character, which he has admitted in his new author’s note to the book, and I agree with what Oprah said initially when she championed the book. The essential truth is very powerful. The only difference between us is I have not gone back on the statement.”
Talese, publisher and editorial director of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, is an industry legend who has published the likes of Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan. Her husband is author Gay Talese, a prior Mayborn participant.
The conference, which is sponsored in part by The Dallas Morning News, draws writers from across the country to discuss the practice of narrative journalism and nonfiction writing.
By Michael Merschel
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)