The million little lies of Nan Talese

In early 1998, when the world first learned the name Monica Lewinsky, a debate erupted: Did Bill Clinton do it, or didn’t he? In the scandal’s first days, before his infamous finger-wagging “I did not have sex with that woman” statement, Clinton’s strongest denial was this: “There is no sexual relationship.”

I remember talking about that quote with a colleague named Hal, and being astonished that he took it at face value. It was a totally fake-sounding denial, this weird present-tense statement that didn’t really even address the question. But Hal was insistent that Clinton had done nothing with Lewinsky, and that this statement was the proof.

“Speaking of affairs,” I told Hal, “I’ve heard you’ve been getting it on with [name of another colleague]. How’s that going?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Hal blurted. “I’m not having an affair with her!”

“Well, see?” I said. “That’s what someone says when it’s really not true.”

I thought of this conversation a few days ago, after reading the comments of Nan Talese, the publisher of James Frey’s now-thoroughly-discredited A Million Little Pieces. Talese’s remarks on how Frey’s catalogue of lies made it into print as nonfiction, and how she knew nothing about it until recent weeks, make about as much sense as Clinton’s strange non-denial denial. If she’s lying, which I think she is, she’s doing it badly. If she’s telling the truth, it’s even more bizarre.

Talese claims that, until a few weeks ago, she had absolutely no clue that the book contained falsehoods. From the Jan. 23 New York Observer:

“When the manuscript of A Million Little Pieces was received by us at Doubleday, it was received as nonfiction, as a memoir,” said Ms. Talese by phone. “Throughout the whole process of publication, it had always been a memoir, and for the first year and a half it was on sale, it was always a memoir with no disputation. It was never once discussed as fiction by me or anyone in my office.”

Something’s screwy here. James Frey has said repeatedly that he initially shopped the book as a novel. Others have corroborated this. He – and more importantly, his agent – would have had to be either stupid or insanely brash to have then turned around and approached a major house like Doubleday with the same basic proposal, while trying to hide the fact that they’d already shopped it around as a novel.

The world of New York publishing just ain’t that big. People talk to each other. It’s unlikely that Talese, a big, connected name at a big, connected house, would have had no inkling about what Frey had circulated. And even if by some chance she didn’t, there’s no way Frey and his agent could have known that for sure. If, as Talese implies, Frey and his agent simply forged ahead in the belief they could hoodwink Doubleday, it would be a truly extraordinary display of literary chutzpah.

Talese dug herself deeper on Oprah last Thursday, when she responded to very specific questions about the book’s vetting process with odd Hallmark generalities:

Oprah: We asked if you, your company, stood behind James’s book as a work of non-fiction […]And they said, absolutely. And they were also asked if their legal department had checked out the book. And they said yes. So in a press release sent out for the book in 2004, by your company, the book was described as “brutally honest and an altering look at addiction.” So how can you say that if you haven’t checked it to be sure?

Nan: You know, Oprah, I mean, I think this whole experience is very sad. It’s very sad for you. It’s very sad for us.

Getting sadder by the minute, I’d say. Talese had an opportunity to come clean here, and she didn’t. She could have admitted that Doubleday made mistakes – after all, it’s obvious that they didn’t do the checking they should have in response to legitimate queries. Why not just admit that? And if you’ve really been duped by your author, why not then reveal that as well?

All these things make me suspicious of Talese’s claims. But the thing that truly convinces me she’s lying is the Clintonesque lack of outrage, the weak “There is no relationship” response she offers in lieu of the indignation and anger you might expect. Put yourself in Talese’s shoes, in the situation she claims she was in. A writer lies to your face to get you to publish his book. He writes a falsified “memoir” under your imprint. His fakery is discovered, and you and your publishing house are suddenly under siege: Reporters question your integrity, the book’s film deal is under threat of collapsing, readers start demanding their money back.

If I’d been blindsided like that, protecting that writer would be the last thing on my mind. But that’s what Talese has been focused on. She’s protecting him for a reason, and it’s not because she’s worried about losing more money if he’s totally discredited. He’s going to sell many, many more copies of this book in the next few months, even more so than he would have sold without the “scandal.” I think she’s protecting him because she agreed to – maybe even urged him to – write fiction as fact, and now he’s paying the price.

6 responses to “The million little lies of Nan Talese”

  1. Riptide says:

    I think your observations are dead on. But am I alone in not giving a damn about this whole “scandal”?

  2. Lisa Parrish says:

    No, you’re not alone. I actually considered writing a couple of kicker paragraphs about “why all this matters” before deciding that whoever needed convincing wouldn’t make it to the end of the posting anyway.

    For the record, I think the Nan Talese element matters because it reflects on the publishing industry as a whole, rather than being a one-off ethical lapse by a lone greedy writer. It’s the difference between, say, a rogue soldier committing a crime and a five-star general issuing a criminal order. One reveals something about a single person, the other about an entire system.

  3. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Lisa, I realize that these are two completely different situations (and that you’re writing about a publisher’s transgressions here), but I wonder what your thoughts are on the somewhat-more-egregious (yet-infinitely-more-amusing) case of JT Leroy’s own autobiographical, uh… constructions? Especially being a ghostwriter yourself.

  4. Lisa Parrish says:

    You know, I actually find the “J.T. Leroy” thing kind of amusing. It’s in the tradition of a great literary hoax, which the Frey thing is not, though the situations are similar. (For those who haven’t heard the story, here’s a summary.) The fact that they made absolutely everything up – character, story, everything – is somehow more palatable than Frey’s selective exaggerations of his personal story. Besides, I love the idea of the hoaxers sending out a half-sibling to pose in dark sunglasses and hat as the eccentric, reclusive author. It’s just so over the top.

    The J.T. Leroy story reminds me of the great 1990s hoax of one “Anthony Godby Johnson,” the author of “A Rock and a Hard Place.” He was supposedly a brave and brilliant young man who was hovering near death from AIDS-related complications. He became friends with numerous celebrities, including Armistead Maupin, Jermaine Jackson, author Tom Robbins and Mr. Rogers. He communicated with them by phone and letter. But Maupin became suspicious when he was never allowed to actually visit Anthony, and he eventually deduced that the boy didn’t exist.

    Maupin wrote a fictionalized account of these events (there’s a twist!) called The Night Listener, but a more interesting, and much better written, account came from Tad Friend of the New Yorker in the Nov. 26, 2001 issue. Man, oh man, what a wacky tale. I’ve held on to it that issue ever since and still make occasional photocopies for friends. It’s that good.

    Anyway, Maupin’s book is now being made into a film, to be released next year. Robin Williams is playing the Maupin character (named “Gabriel Noone” in the book). As much as I despise watching Robin Williams on film, I can’t wait to see it

  5. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I agree, there’s something playful about the JT Leroy hoax that only makes me appreciate the one work I’ve read (“Sarah”) all the more. Personally, I assume that most writers embellish, and I find it amusing that anyone is surprised that Frey’s account is not completely accurate. Still, there is also something pathetic about his situation, and the whole ordeal makes me wonder whether he got increasingly nervous as the book gained the type of popularity and scrutiny that few writers expect to achieve… p.s., I’ll have to hunt down that NY’er piece. It sounds fascinating.

  6. Lisa Parrish says:

    Yes, but there’s a very big difference between embellishing and flat-out lying. It’s one thing for a writer to, say, pump up the emotion of a particular scene if that’s what he or she recalls. It’s quite another to claim you spent 87 days in jail when you only spent 3 hours. That’s why this Frey episode is getting so much attention.

    I am surprised that he did it — if for no other reason than because that information is pretty easily checked in the public record. I’m also surprised it took so long for someone to discover the fraud, considering how huge the book became.