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 Facts have been replaced by "creative nonfiction."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.
Her fans expected something different...
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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?
Though vulnerable is not a word that fits her, Oprah runs a certain risk. There is a tension between Oprah as champion of "everywoman"--with better shoes, as she likes to say--and Oprah as too big for her nicely tailored britches. Suddenly her own roots, her own American dream story--born in modest circumstances, a victim of abuse who rose to self-made billionaire, a story that "resonates," to use Oprah's word about Frey's tale--have been obscured. One day she represents for many the American dream, the next she is for some an egomaniac.
I worry about neither Oprah nor Frey. Oprah will outlive this. Unlike Martha Stewart, Oprah didn't do anything wrong. She's not going to jail. On her show with Frey, Oprah made an interesting distinction between lying (Frey's) and mistakes (hers), a distinction that may be too subtle for all but ethicists. She made a mistake in initially backing Frey, but he lied. I would hope that if publishing, or the media more generally, gain more fact checking and transparency, that will serve the public good. We all need more truth, and more publishers of truth.
Personally, I want to believe in Oprah. I'm tired of trying to figure out who's conning me, from the president to the novelist who says his research is true to the telemarketer. I think Oprah has her finger on a weary, confused, distrustful hunger for truth.
Oprah has said that TV is a place of accountability--no secrets--and this week she held Frey accountable. The truth does matter. I'm a journalism teacher, and I teach my students something simple: Tell the truth. It's the best defense against libel. The truth is also easier to remember.