January 24, 2006


A Million Little Excuses

...In the wake of James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces being exposed for what it really is, something almost as disturbing as Frey’s willingness to pass-off a fictional tale as reality surfaced on the consumer side of the book industry: The lengths to which people will defend someone, even when the facts mount against them.
...Over the years we’ve seen all kinds of fraud, from books to music to documentaries to newspaper stories, and we can use the Frey case as yet another example since it has triggered an onslaught of questionable rationalizations. Whether we discover these arguments through conversation or by scanning various blogs and newspaper letters to the editors, we find that we can lump the vast majority of defenses for such chicanery into three categories: 1.) View the material for what it is and ignore the particulars (as if they will nicely go away); 2.) Change the subject, possibly to something positive (although still ignoring the false particulars); or 3.) Simply resort to name-calling (which seems to be popular with many people nowadays for all disagreements).
...The first argument is that of taking the book for what it is: A powerfully-written story about becoming a slave to a substance, hitting rock-bottom, and somehow finding a way to escape. There’s no doubt that such a plot is fascinating, entertaining, and inspiring. What becomes upsetting to see is how many people will use power of inspiration or entertainment value of something to not only ignore the original intent of something—in this case a book being an accurate memoir—but to defend its fraudulency by citing its “power.” If I film a fictional documentary about something, sell it as a true story, and then have the truth come out, do I deserve to have my lying deemed “acceptable” so long as my storyline was entertaining and powerful?
...The second defense, changing the subject to something positive, has become so popular that I actually began to wonder if there was some kind of James Frey talking-points seminar somewhere. From the radio to the newspaper to the Internet, when the issue of this particular book has come up, many of Frey’s fans have quickly offered the idea that the book’s power (similar to the first argument) has inspired dozens of drug users to enter rehabilitation clinics. I haven’t seen any official statistics, but I’m certainly happy to hear that so many have decided to detoxify. I’m fortunate enough to never have had any addictions, but I know that many people have become slaves to various substances. Anytime that someone decides to go clean, it’s a wonderful thing. With that said, does it justify fooling millions of people to make a few dollars off a book?
...A similar change of topic is that of using the importance of Frey’s story to bring more attention to the rampant problem of drug addiction. It has been suggested that we shouldn’t criticize Frey for lying about his experiences, but that we should use his book as a springboard to engage in conversation pertaining to the dangers of drugs. Sure, that’s a good thing, but if you’re going to use an argument like that, two problems arise: 1.) We devalue the efforts of honest drug awareness campaigns and speakers, and 2.) We open a can of worms that allows us to apply this philosophy to other aspects of life.
...For instance, we could say that we shouldn’t criticize the CIA, President Bush, or Congress because each lied to us about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Instead of criticizing any of them for leading us into war under false pretenses, we should use their rhetoric to focus our attention on the dangers of nuclear warfare. We would be turning a negative into a positive, and that’s the important thing, isn’t it?
...The third form of defense is the more understandable one, since it comes as second-nature for most Americans who attempt to discuss or debate issues. Name-calling has taken center stage in the James Frey saga, and by-and-large it would make a third-grader smile.
...The more civil name-callers stick with referring to the critics as “jealous,” whereas the more militant (read: juvenile) resort to “liar,” “idiot,” and the like. Such tactics have unfortunately become the American way, though; it’s the reason that I’ve disabled my comments section, and—on a more national stage—it’s why the Washington Post opted to disable their comments section on their blog, too.
...For those of you who enjoyed A Million Little Pieces, I’m happy to see that a book moved you as much as it did; good books have that power. If you were a drug addict who was inspired to enter a rehabilitation clinic after reading Frey’s book, I’m even happier; you’re one step closer to having a healthy life.
...A healthy life must be found in a mental sense as well as a physical sense, however. As such, engaging in deception isn’t a sign of being mentally healthy; defending those who commit such deception isn’t a sign of being mentally healthy, either.


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