You can’t judge a book by its cover…

…because Oprah sure can’t. A departure from Nobel Prize-winning works for her Book Club of must-reads is the subject of a heated debate that boils down to nothing more than what section of the book store the public should find A Million Little Pieces, a book on substance abuse and recovery by James Frey.Frey

After the muckraker site TheSmokingGun.com posted a damning report on the veracity of Frey’s harrowing tale of alcoholism and crack addiction this week, the author, and even his mom, have taken to the Web and the air to defend not only the book that "kept Oprah up at night," but the memoir genre itself.

Frey’s story is about his experience as a 23-year-old man who wakes up broken, bloody, and with his teeth nearly dangling out of his mouth on a plane heading to Minnesota, where he is to begin rehabilitation treatment. While he is trying to sober up, he must face the demons in his very near past, which include arrest warrants in three states.

TheSmokingGun.com claims this is a flat out lie and that Frey was never wanted in three states and that he never served any jail time. In fact, they devote eight pages to dissecting the lies that "abound" in Frey’s book on their site.

In an interview last night on Larry King Live, James Frey offered that, by definition, the memoir genre, whose rules and boundaries as a new genre have yet to be outlined, lends itself to the embellishments of the author. In fact, he admits that the book was originally shopped to different publishing houses as a novel and that the decision was ultimately made by Random House to distribute it as a memoir.

This is where the debate begins and where it should end. James Frey is not a liar, he’s an author who got a very nice check for writing a good book and his publishers decided to label it X while some people (perhaps without book deals of their own) would prefer to call it Y.

Whether Frey was missing one tooth or three by the time he arrived in rehab or whether he served three months or three years in prison as a result of his drug use has nothing to do with the fact that the author was in fact a young man who hovered near death in the grips of addiction. To call the author a fraud, or worse, a liar, is ridiculous.

As is TheSmokingGun.com’s headline "The Man Who Conned Oprah."

Even Oprah would agree with that, as she made a surprise phone call to Larry King last night to say that despite the controversy surrounding Frey’s story, she made a connection with his words and so have hundreds of thousands of other people. This, she says, is what critics should focus on: the impact of a writers words, the quality of the story, and the lessons to be gleaned from it.

Kudos to Ms. Winfrey for subtracting herself quickly and masterfully from a rather bland debate by pointing out the bottom line for Larry King and his viewers: A Million Little Pieces is a good book that will scare anyone straight on even casual drug use and it should continue to inspire future readers.

As with anything involving Oprah, she always comes out on top. Now THAT’s reputation management…

2 thoughts on “You can’t judge a book by its cover…

  1. Having just finished A Million Little Pieces (after finding out that everything in the book might not be 100% accurate), I have to say I was not disappointed in the story or the way that the story was told, but in Frey’s original claims (during various interviews) that everything in the book is true. As you point out what really matters here is the message in the book, its ability to help and move people, however, I think that this situation could have been mitigated if James/publishers said up front that this story is based on the truth/his struggle with addiction, and certain parts/details have been changed, as he has been wise to do in the sequel “My Friend Leonard.”

  2. Steve, from a great PR man as you, can the entire Frey, after Oprah thing, have been cooked up by his publicists to assist in yet further sales? Let’s face it, it has created quite a buz.
    It has been known to happen before.