Oprah Backs Redemptive Message Of Frey's Controversial Memoir

(Gino Domenico - AP)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

If Oprah Winfrey is still his friend, does it really matter if James Frey made up part of his mega-selling book?

Maybe not. But the publishing world might want to pay attention to what the Queen of the Bestseller List had to say.

Frey went on "Larry King Live" last night to defend the "essential truth" of his addiction and rehabilitation memoir, "A Million Little Pieces" -- an Oprah's Book Club selection last fall -- from charges that he fabricated or embellished portions of his tale. "I hope the emotional truth of the book resonates with them," he said of his millions of readers. "I couldn't have written it if I hadn't been through a lot of the things I talk about."

"It's a memoir. It's an imperfect animal," he added. "I don't think it should be held up and scrutinized the way a perfect nonfiction document should be, or a newspaper article."

At the end of the hour, King got Winfrey on the phone and she weighed in on the controversy for the first time. Echoing Frey's defense, Winfrey said she still supports him because "the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir resonates with me" -- and the "hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been changed by this book."

But in response to the notion that Frey's emotionally charged retelling of his painful rehab might better have been published as fiction, she pointedly did not disagree.

"I am disappointed by the controversy surrounding 'A Million Little Pieces,' " she said, "because I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within."

It has been a difficult week for Frey, to put it mildly. First, the Web site the Smoking Gun alleged that court records, police reports and interviews showed that "many key sections" of his book did not check out. In particular, the site contended that he had greatly exaggerated his criminal record.

Then his own publishing house appeared to repudiate him.

Reuters reported yesterday afternoon that Random House "will offer a refund" to customers who purchased Frey's book directly from the publisher, suggesting that this measure was "unprecedented." The wire service based its story on calls to the customer-service line at Random House, parent company of Doubleday and Anchor, which published the memoir in hardcover and paperback, respectively.

Random House issued a prompt denial. It is "standard procedure," said spokesman Stuart Applebaum, to offer refunds to unhappy consumers in the (relatively rare) event that they purchased the book directly from the publisher. Otherwise, they are directed to the retailer where they obtained it.

"If you asked customer service about a Mark Bittman cookbook, they'd probably say the same thing," Applebaum said. But by this time, the alleged refund offer was all over the Internet anyway, fanning the flames of controversy.

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