The meaning of nonfiction should be non-hard. It should mean Not Fiction. Truth. Facts. That's pretty unequivocal. As in: plain truth, no-spin zone, hold the nuance, don't tell me "it depends on what is" is, as Bill Clinton once suggested in his own defense. So Oprah stuck up for something simple and unnuanced: the idea that nonfiction should be factually true.
Fiction is certainly O.K. with Oprah. Almost all of her 59 book club picks have been fiction. But don't confuse the two. "Why didn't you just write a novel?" she asked him, almost plaintively. Frey didn't answer her question.
I've been a close watcher of Oprah Winfrey for years, and her television show has always been values-driven. It accounts for her success. Oprah believes reliability and trust sell. Trust is more than a therapeutic or interpersonal, or even a religious concept; it's also a marketing idea. She's made herself a billionaire by urging other people to tell the truth, to confess. Her own recommendation has Midas value. She at least wants to stand by it, even if others hold their own reputations and representations in lower regard.
Literal truth has left the nonfiction building. Facts have been replaced by "creative nonfiction." But publishing truth, when you say that's what you're doing is not really a novel concept, pun intended. An early name for Quakers, the religious Society of Friends, was "publishers of the truth." In the 18th century, the term publish meant to "express publicly." Quakers--and in the interest of full disclosure, I'll tell the truth by revealing that I am one--were successful merchants in the 18th century because they were honest. People patronized Quakers because the customers knew what they were getting.
And while it's already been said that Oprah is "protecting her brand," it's not her brand alone that would benefit from a little bit more truth in advertising-what Quakers might call plain speech. The practice of plain speech meant tell the truth, the exact truth, without exaggeration or embellishment. It flows from our relationship with God, who is described as the Inner light or Truth. In championing this principle, Oprah could be a leader. Maybe others will follow.
Still, not everyone has taken Oprah's side. Her detractors seem to have multiplied overnight-among her own fans. If Frey got his just desserts from Oprah, Oprah is getting lambasted at her website. This place where Oprah-lovers congregate is a surprising place after the show. More than 12,000 posts have piled up in 24 hours, a rapid-fire volume of opinion. Many defend Frey and say Oprah is the one who's wrong. More precisely, they say she is an egomaniac who shredded a vulnerable man. Oprah's fans are saying she needs to have compassion--they're used to her going easy on the troubled. But is the author Frey her, or anyone's, victim?