Oprah's book flub

Her latest pick -- James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" -- is bad news for her viewers and her show.

Published October 11, 2005 11:30AM (EDT)

Late last month, Oprah announced a major change in her influential book club. Leaving behind the classics of Tolstoy, McCullers and Faulkner, she's once again focusing on work by living authors. This time around, however, featured titles won't necessarily be novels. Memoir, biography, history -- they're all fair game now. In the same breath, Oprah alerted fans to her first selection for the club's newest incarnation: James Frey's 2003 recovery memoir, "A Million Little Pieces."

At first glance, Frey's book seems like a fine pick. Although it's a memoir, it shares with many of Oprah's fictional picks an overwhelming message of triumph; the underdog has beaten the odds and come out on top. In "A Million Little Pieces," the then-23-year-old upper-middle-class kid Frey (who shares my father's name but is no relation) goes into rehab, where he kicks his addiction to almost everything: coke, crack, alcohol, glue -- you name it. Rejecting the 12 steps, Frey relies on little more than the "Tao Te Ching" for support. His portrait of withdrawal is graphic and ugly; at one point, he undergoes two root canals without anesthesia (no drugs for addicts, after all), and he generally spends a lot of time retching into the john. But Frey's is a success story -- he gets clean and, judging from his follow-up memoir, "My Friend Leonard," stays that way.

Yet, Frey's book is a peculiar choice. The advantage to featuring books by living writers is pretty basic: Wally Lamb, Anita Shreve and Janet Fitch -- unlike, say, Faulkner -- are all available to go on to "Oprah" to discuss their work. And the point of talking about fiction is to learn about the craft, to think deeply about the way a story unfolds, and to recall and share that unique sublime emotion that comes only with investing oneself -- heart and mind -- in something that is not true. A novelist might appear on "Oprah" and have a conversation over dinner, with Oprah and a few viewers; the writer will answer questions about characters and all the imaginative choices that go into dreaming up a plot. But when Frey is a guest on "Oprah" later this month, how will that work?

Frey is the author and main character of his book, and the plot of "A Million Little Pieces" is his actual life. A discussion of Frey's work, then, amounts to a discussion of James Frey. On the show -- and in their own homes, as they finish their weekly assignments -- book clubbers will pick apart the causes of Frey's addiction and analyze his parents and what they may or may not have done to contribute to his problems. (And you do get the sense, reading the book, that Frey is very, very angry with his parents, even as he doesn't outright blame them for his turn to drugs. Note: They pay for his rehab.) Readers will dissect the "rage" Frey carries like an old blanket throughout his book. Oprah's fans -- who have become careful, close readers of literature -- will in the end rely on their skills in pop psychology as they try to make something of this memoir.

In other words, the conversation with, or about, James Frey will likely not be about creation, or books or literature, but about destruction -- of Frey's and his friends' and family members' lives. There is something inherently creepy about a million-odd people discussing -- over a series of weeks, online and at home -- how and why James Frey became a drug addict. And there is something frustrating in that these debates will take place under the guise of a discussion about a piece of writing.

But "A Million Little Pieces" isn't a poor choice for the most successful book club in the world solely because scrutinizing it amounts only to picking apart its author. To put it plain, this book just isn't that good. In 2003, just before "A Million Little Pieces" was first published, Frey gave a manic interview to the New York Observer during which he exclaimed, "I'm going to try to write the best book of my generation and I'm going to try to be the best writer." Well, he's not even close.

To be sure, Frey has perfected his own style or, rather, anti-style: his is a Kerouacian, expletive-laced, bare-bones kind of writing that eschews punctuation and radiates machismo. Oprah -- who admits that "A Million Little Pieces" is "a radical departure" for her book club -- says it's "raw"; another reader might find it numbing. "Something else comes and it makes me feel weak and scared and fragile and I don't want to be hurt and this feeling is the feeling I have when I know I can be hurt and hurt deeper and more terribly than anything physical and I always fight it and control it and stop it but..." Frey writes, on and on until "I start to cry. I start to cry. I start to cry." He's filled another page where each line consists on just one or two words: "Damage irreparable./ Cry./ Fight./ Mom./ Dad./ Brother./ Cry./ Fight./ Live./ Torch./ Pipe./ Bottle..."

Is this even writing? All of "A Million Little Pieces" is like this. His autobiography on the "Oprah" Web site is like this (though, to be fair, he uses more commas). In the book, each time he leans over the toilet to regurgitate bits of his stomach, he tries to drive home how hard and gross and painful it is to get off drugs. ("I crawl to the front of the toilet," he writes. "When I get to the toilet, I vomit. The vomit is full of bile and brown shit that I have never seen before. It is full of blood. It burns my stomach, my throat and my mouth. It burns my lips and my face. It won't stop. I heave and it comes, the burning vomit comes and comes again and again.") But too often the horror of his reality is made unreal by his posturing, by his aggressive toughness, by the monotonous rhythm of the way he writes. If Frey's story is powerful at all it's for the facts -- the sickness, the hurt, the fatigue of withdrawal -- not for his rendition of them.

When Oprah started her book club, she quickly became the most powerful advocate for reading in America -- reading novels, in particular. With our culture so heavily focused on literature of self-improvement and health (see the endurance of Kevin Trudeau's "Natural Cures 'They' Don't Want You to Know About" and Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz's "You: The Owner's Manual" on the bestseller lists), Oprah did a worthy and wonderful thing by encouraging so many people to read fiction. Of course some of Oprah's fans were readers before, but surely thousands of others hadn't picked up a novel in years, let alone participated in a discussion of its shape and story. Oprah has spawned an entire population of serious readers -- who else can claim such an achievement?

And what about her impact on the publishing industry? A literary novel that sells 20,000 copies is considered a success; many books bearing Oprah's stamp have moved a million copies or more. As Sonny Mehta, the chairman of the literary publisher Knopf, told the New York Times recently, ''The fact that [Oprah] had 300,000 people reading William Faulkner over the summer -- she should be given a cabinet post.''

Like practically everyone else in America, I love Oprah. However, I can't help but hope that she'll return to fiction again soon or, at the very least, choose a different kind of nonfiction book for her next club -- something that seems more distinct from the other content on her show. The problem isn't that Frey's book is a memoir per se; it's that it's a memoir of addiction, of recovery -- and a bad one at that. The books in her club -- especially during the "classics" years -- were markedly different from much of the rest of Oprah's show, which already covers this terrain. With James Frey, the book club is losing its identity as a literary feature, morphing into yet another vehicle for self-help. His story might be shocking, but it isn't art.

Of course, it's possible that after finishing "A Million Little Pieces" Oprah's viewers will agree. We'll see how the ubiquitous "fuck's" and puke scenes go down, not to mention the endless one-word sentences. Maybe, after years of coaching from Oprah herself, her acolytes will see Frey's memoir for what it is: the story of a spoiled boy from the suburbs who nearly lost his life, and then cashed in on his mistakes and the misery he caused to so many people around him.

By Hillary Frey

Hillary Frey is the Books editor at Salon.

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Alcoholism Books James Frey Memoirs Oprah Winfrey