Raised by Sewer Rats

The Foxtrot cartoon strips published on several consecutive days starting Monday January 23, 2006 have been a brilliant satire of the publishing industry and Oprah Winfrey’s influence and taste.


The strips allude to Winfrey’s endorsement of a book, supposedly a true memoir of James Frey’s struggle with addiction, A Million Little Pieces on her show in October 2005. On January 8, 2006, The Smoking Gun published “A Million Little Lies” which claimed the memoir contained several fictional elements. The Minneapolis Star Tribune followed up with a story “Is Minnesota memoir a million fabrications?” on January 11, 2006. Steve Johnson at the Chicago Tribune has followed the story – he says that Frey tried to sell the story as fiction and had to present it as autobiography to get it published. Wikipedia has been running an evolving entry on James Frey’s story which reports that for the next several days, Frey and his publishers and publicists issued denials, qualified denials and explanations. On January 12, CNN reported that Winfrey was disappointed because she had relied on the publisher for the “authenticity” of the work but also felt: “… the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book.” Frey is supposed to appear on her show today (January 26, 2006) to confront the critics.
The fact that writers overplay or invent stories of degradation and redemption tells us something about personal insight, writing and the publishing industry, and it brings us back to the question of bullshit. Some writers don’t have a clear grasp on their own story, and they dramatize it because they they feel their story is dramatic, and that the truth can be bent in the service of the ego. And while ethnographers and historians may be interested in ordinary lives, commercial publishers aren’t. A personal memoir has to involve celebrities, or it has to be pathetic or inspirational.
That is the precisely what Bill Amend nailed about Oprah. Her persona is the middle-class everywoman. Whether she has a special talent for recognizing and playing to mass tastes, or actually sets tastes is a complicated question, but she is clearly an influential player in the culture industry. She is an arbiter of American middle-class female taste, and the taste runs to stories of degradation and victimization, but with some kind of uplifting message.
The disturbing thing is that people feel that the truth should be bent if it makes for a more fulfilling and sentimental story.

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