After last week’s post, I pulled out an editorial I wrote a year ago (“A Million Little Dollars,” Networking Times, Mar/Apr ’06), when the fracas over James Frey’s book first happened, and thought I’d post it here as a followup. The Frey scandal is long gone, but the issue of whether or not it’s okay to “bend” the truth (and if so, how far) is perennial. Hope you enjoy. — J.D.M.
This man does not look happy. I am watching author James Frey on the The Oprah Winfrey Show being publicly flayed for lying in his best-selling “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces.
A quick recap of events, in case you missed them: Frey’s gritty account of his nightmarish odyssey through drug addiction and recovery shot to the top of the best-seller charts last fall and became an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
(In my home, we like to follow Oprah’s Book Club: the lady has good taste, and she may have single-handedly done more for the noble cause of American literacy than generations of Sesame Street. She got me to finally read East of Eden, one of the most electrifying reads I’ve ever had.)
This January, it was revealed that Frey actually fictionalized major elements of the book. Oprah defended him at first, claiming the spirit of the book was genuine, but when it became clear just how fast and loose with the facts Frey had played, Oprah brought him and his publisher Nan Talese onto her show, roughed them up pretty good, and apologized to her millions of viewers.
Her emphatic two-word summary: “Truth matters.”
In a recent editorial (“Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics,” Networking Times, May/June ’05), I poked a pin in several popular hot-air bubbles, including the frequently cited “Harvard study” that says only 3 percent of us write down our goals, and that those 3 percent have a greater net worth at retirement than the other 97 percent combined. (No such study exists.)
One reader, a public speaker himself, took issue with my position. “Do you believe,” he wrote, “that writing down your goals helps? I sure do. Bottom line for me: the origin of the statements is not important at all. They tell a powerful story that we as writers and speakers can use over and over. Let’s say for a moment that they are bogus; what harm has been done? Have you ever made up a story in your speaking to drive home a truth?”
To which I reply: No, sir, I do not “make up stories to drive home truths,” and I hope you don’t either. Telling fables of the tortoise-and-the-hare variety is one thing. But when I talk about my company’s history or the growth of my organization—or cite a Harvard study—I had damn well better be telling the truth.
My correspondent doesn’t want me to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” I think he’s in danger of hanging onto a polluted bath. I say, by all means, let’s rescue the baby, clean him off, wrap him tight and warm . . . but isn’t the first step to remove him from the tainted water?
If Frey had called his book a novel (as did Memoirs of a Geisha author Arthur Golden), well, that would have been, as the expression goes, quite another story. Frey is a talented writer, and it’s a shame he didn’t write the story the way it really happened. I suspect it would have been compelling enough on its own merits.
And by the way, the same is true for your business and everything you might say about it, whether on a private phone call, in a media interview or from an auditorium stage. People typically “embellish” the truth—or outright lie about it—out of insecurity, the sense that the actual facts are somehow not good enough. But if you don’t think the actual facts about your business are compelling enough, then you’re in the wrong business.
The truth about your business is compelling indeed. When you stretch, embellish or distort it, my correspondent asks, “What harm has been done?”
But I’ll bet he wouldn’t want to say that live on Oprah.