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Volume 71, Issue 80, Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Opinion

'Million Pieces' raises two issues

David Salinas
Opinion Columnist

The James Frey/Oprah debacle shed light on a detail in life that is overlooked. Recently, the book world has gotten in a frenzy over Frey's novel, A Million Little Pieces. The book is about a man who struggled to overcome his addiction to drugs and alcohol and all the misadventures his life took him through. It was billed as a "memoir," but thanks to some investigating by a Web site last Thursday, Frey admitted the majority of what he wrote was, in fact, fabricated. 

Three months ago, Oprah chose A Million Little Pieces for her book club and the novel, already a bestseller, shot through the roof. 

Oprah was moved by countless letters telling her of the inspiration people drew from Frey's story of redemption. Amid a firestorm of criticism, Oprah would even defend Frey as late as Jan. 11 on Larry King Live. 

But last week, the embarrassed talk show host apologized to her audience and went on to interrogate her guest, James Frey, in a way that would make the late Jerry Orbach proud. 

As Oprah asked question after question and Frey stumbled over his words, you could almost picture the text in his book, each letter, one by one, blowing away in the wind, along with any shred of credibility he still had. 

Though in the grand scheme of things this story won't matter much, it brought up two intriguing subjects. 

One of the reasons Oprah had chosen A Million Little Pieces was because she said as she read, she kept looking at Frey's photo on the back cover, amazed that someone would have gone through all of this. 

This was probably the reason others bought the book. Apparently, it's the reason Frey could only sell the book as a memoir, even though he had shopped it around as fiction at first. 

Why do people like Oprah need that bit of "reality" to find something worthy of praise? It's not just in books, either. This year, television shows such as Arrested Development, Malcolm in the Middle, and The West Wing were canceled as programs like Dancing with the Stars, Skating with Celebrities and Survivor thrived in the ratings game. 

It's even in the film industry, where, over the past couple of years, it seems like the only actors who can win awards are those who mimic famous people, such as Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, June Carter and Truman Capote. All the actors in these roles played fictional characters just as well, but they only got recognition after portraying people who really lived. 

Hell, just following people with cameras can make them superstars; just ask the formerly struggling singer, Jessica Simpson. This reality epidemic doesn't seem to have an antidote yet, unfortunately.

Bigger than the illness of reality is the idea of "perception" that came out of the Frey controversy. In this whole discussion of what a "memoir" is and isn't, it was mentioned that there is a difference between "truth" and "fact." The truth is what we personally see it to be; facts are what everyone sees. This may sound convoluted, so let's see if there is a better way to explain this. 

Facts are indisputable: Kobe Bryant really did score 81 points; weapons of mass destruction have not been found in Iraq; and James Frey never spent 87 days in jail as he claimed in his book. That last point is important because Frey misused the definition of a memoir to make up stories like his jail time to make his life look like Ohio's version of Johnny Rotten. 

A memoir is a "subjective" retelling of someone's life, because life is subjective. 

The way we each see ourselves is not the way others might see us. So when authors write about their lives, they may romanticize some situations, not because they want their lives to be more entertaining, but because that was the way it felt when they lived through them. Whatever we experience is the truth then, isn't it? 

René Descartes said it better over 300 years ago, but I think the point was lost with people. In discussions, debates and life in general, we can sometimes act as if the way we perceive things is the unquestionable truth. 

We can live a whole lifetime misunderstood and misunderstanding others because we don't realize that in a planet of 6.5 billion people, all of us have lived through completely different experiences. 

Everyone around us is not a character in our own personalized movie, but a person discovering the world, as well. And in the end, all of us have completely different views, literally and figuratively. 

In the end, the only perception that matters in life is our own, but it's important to remember that it is unique from everyone else's.

Salinas, an opinion columnist for The Daily Cougar, 
can be reached at davidcsalinas@yahoo.com

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