Oprah did an interesting thing yesterday. She had been widely criticised for supporting author James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces - A Memoir following the disclosure that many parts of the book are either fabrications (two wisdom teeth extracted without novocane) or distortions (suicide by hanging versus suicide by wrist slashing) or fiction. So, she had the author back and his publisher and confronted them. Good television.
However, Frey's point was simple. A memoir is his recollections and understandings of something. It is not "truth", in just the same way as Churchill's memoir of his dealings with de Gaulle differ radically from de Gaulle's. A memoir is just that - one persons view of what happened to them. I doubt that Bruce Chatwin's memoirs would stand rigorous fact checking.
Part of the problem here is that the book is so powerful because it is fantastical. Another part of the problem is that the book's author says on the dust jacket "The Truth - Its All That Matters". The final part of the problem is that the book was originally offered as fiction, no takers - so it was then offered as a memoir.
Oprah's naiveté showed. She asked if every fact in the book had been checked, since its non fiction. What a daft question. When you read Hilary Clinton's account of her life to date, I doubt that the publisher had every date, fact, detail checked. When A J P Talyors books of history were offered to a publisher, are they expected to hire another historian to check every fact. When someone writes a biography of Graeme Greene, are they supposed to hire another biographer to check all of the facts. When I sign a contract with a publisher, this is my responsibility as an author.
She asked if the lawyers had checked it. They had - for libel - they are not fact checkers. She asked a Washington Post reporter what he thought and he suggested that all such books should be fact checked - this from a paper that authors 2,350 corrections to errors each year and from an industry where people fabricate news or embellish daily.
The world is messy, Oprah, get used to it. But keep on giving us good televison.
But dont get so easily misled. Talk about fact checking, on her own show the day before she had Professor Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert from the University of Minnesota, talking about the possible bird flu pandemic. He claimed that the best estimates were that some 350m would be infected and between 75m and 150m would die (who did the fact checking here?). He claimed that the global economy would likely collapse (who did the fact checking here?).
He made similar claims about SARS a few years ago. In fact, 600 people died from SARS (not the 50m which the WHO predicted would die). He predicted that world trade would be disrupted and, while Toronto and Hong Kong experienced some disruption, some very minor preturberance of trade was there, it was small. So why should we beleieve this guy.
Give me Frey anytime.