Taking a markedly different approach than Oprah Winfrey, who publicly declared that the intentional inaccuracies in a supposed non-fiction memoir she turned into a national best-seller by her endorsement do not alter its value, the publishers of James Frey’s discredited A Million Little Pieces announced that it would give refunds for the book “because of the controversy” surrounding its veracity, according to the Reuters news agency. The move is highly unusual, industry sources say.
The move is also undeniably the right thing to do. The investigative report by “The Smoking Gun” website shows that A Million Little Pieces isn’t merely an example of an author manipulating the facts of his or her personal story in order to look as good, as both Clintons clearly did in their recent books and virtually all autobiographies inevitably do to some extent. No, author James Frey fabricated events, confrontations, conversations and people in order to create a sensational personal saga, then misled his publishers, Winfrey and the legions of consumer who made his book one of 2005’s most purchased. Publishing houses aren’t responsible for tracking down their author’s misrepresentations; Frey is the one who engineered the deception, and Random House was just one of his victims. But its name was on a product Random House erroneously promoted as non-fiction, and its willingness to offer refunds to purchasers who feel cheated is both good business and good ethics.
Not all of Random House’s family agrees. Doubleday, the Random House division that actually handled A Million Little Pieces, initially released a statement declaring that it was unconcerned about the book’s accuracy. “Memoir is a personal history,” the statement said. “By definition, it is highly personal.” The Random House employee who acquired Frey’s work, Nan Talese, is also offering rationalizations for Frey’s deceptions. But there is a distinction between a “highly personal” account, meaning a writer’s subjective memory of events, and an intentionally false account, intended to deceive. Frey’s comments since the revelations by “The Smoking Gun,” which include his admission that he misrepresented key facts, indicate that he might not understand that distinction. Random House’s offer of refunds shows that it does.