Thumbs Up for Oprah
I don’t normally watch Oprah Winfrey’s television show. Nor do I usually tape it. In fact, I don’t even know how to set the VCR timer on the television I recently acquired. Though it’s a hand-me-down from its previous owners–my generous parents–it’s still much newer than my truly “old” television and includes ultra-modern “built-ins” for VHS cassettes and DVDs.
But knowing that James Frey would appear on yesterday’s show, I found a solution. I simply left the tape running while I was out. And last night, after I fast-forwarded through preliminary scenes from General Hospital (Oprah follows the soap on the ABC station here in Boston), I settled down to watch.
I didn’t take any comfort in Frey’s obvious suffering. But I was heartened and impressed by Oprah herself. It takes a lot of courage to apologize and to tell your critics that they are “absolutely right” (in this case, for criticizing her impassioned defense of Frey and his book during her now-famous call-in to the Larry King show). Which is what Oprah did.
And she did more. She explained exactly why she is “embarrassed” and upset, and she emphasized the responsibility of publishers (and authors) as they present nonfiction to the reading public. At the same time, she showed Frey compassion, acknowledging that she knew this wasn’t an easy time for him and saying she appreciated his presence on the show.
I also noted her comments about her next book club choice, Night. I’m glad she clarified the history of this choice–that it indeed preceded l’Affaire Frey. I’m one of those who had been a little skeptical about that, and I’m happy to learn that I was wrong. I agree with the commentator who noted the particular importance of yesterday’s show and its emphasis on the primacy of truth given the fact that Night is coming next.
There’s one (hopefully last) point I want to make. I’m not sure I’ve ever understood where people have come up with this idea (still floating around) that a memoir is by definition less “true” than, say, an autobiography.
Way back when I started learning about memoirs, I learned that what differentiated them was scope, not degree of veracity. A memoir examines a portion of a life, an aspect of a life. It doesn’t provide a birth-to-old age chronological account. But the account it provides is, theoretically at least, true to the best of the author’s recollection. It’s not “embellished” just to make the story “better,” meaning, of course “more marketable.”
I’m not entirely alone in my understanding of what defines a memoir. There’s a Brooklyn schoolteacher who’s telling her pupils the same thing: “a memoir is a piece of our personal history highlighting a real-life experience in a specific point in time.” So thumbs up for Mrs. Clarke, too.