Yet anyone with a bit of common sense and life experience should have been able to detect that Frey's wild stories of drunken, crack-addled mayhem were partly or wholly made up. So let's have an end to posturing on this matter.
There are three good reasons not to feel much outrage at all about Frey's fictions posing as non-fiction.
1) It's OK to delight in a fib. As demonstrated by an enjoyable exposé on The Smoking Gun, Frey fabricated a lot of his story about how he repeatedly fell prey to what he calls the Fury, an impulse to create chaos everywhere he went, fueled by massive quantities of drugs and alcohol. In its extensive reporting, TSG focuses on a supposed episode Frey recounts in his book about a drunken melee with cops in Ohio that resulted in his spending three months in a county jail. What really happened, based on legal records, was a far more mundane drunken driving citation with no jail time.
So he lied. But it's perfectly reasonable to say you enjoyed a book purporting, but only purporting, to be truth-based-as Oprah Winfrey did, which is why she recommended Frey's book to her viewers and turned it into the second-best-selling book of 2005 (1.77 million copies). I loved "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," the alleged factual basis for "The Da Vinci Code," despite the extreme implausibility of its conclusion about Jesus having blood descendants alive in modern France. Ditto Graham Hancock's "The Sign and the Seal," a silly but highly entertaining work purporting to discover the true Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia.
As with Frey, no one should have been fooled by either of those books unless they wanted to be. Far more troubling would be a piece of "non-fiction" or news reporting-like the notorious CBS "60 Minutes" story impugning President Bush's National Guard service on the basis of a forged document-where the writer or reporter is obviously striving to give an impression of sobriety, plausibility, and responsible concern for getting at the facts.
Whatever claims to truth-telling Frey made in interviews ("If I was gonna write a book that was true, and I was gonna write a book that was honest, then I was gonna have to write about myself in very, very negative ways"), this was belied by the tone and substance of the book itself, which fairly screamed: "I'm fibbing!"
2) Memoirists always lie. A memoir is a story, not a history, and real life doesn't play out as a story. Rather, life spools out full of ambiguities and doubts, seemingly random reversals and detours. A good story can't afford to do this. Thus, inevitably, in a memoir there will be distortion. This is why anyone with common sense and life experience should have a nose for the kind of deceptions in Frey's book. There are certain kinds of narratives that happen in real life and others that don't. The difference can't be defined by any abstract rule, but rather by hard-won intuition.
Since the Frey fray has inaugurated a season of truth-telling, I'll tell a truth about my own memoir, The Lord Will Gather Me In. The book is my narrative of becoming an Orthodox Jew and of finding my birth mother. The details and stories there are true, apart from many names being changed (as Frey did too). But creating a storyline that will pull the reader along from the first to the last page requires much simplification, streamlining, smoothing of rough edges, and the clear resolution of tensions where maybe the resolution wasn't so clear.