Amid Oprah's on-air crucifixion last week of one of her own Frankensteins -- pseudo-author James Frey -- virtually every culturally significant truth was passed over. First and perhaps foremost is the truth about truth. While truth is stranger than fiction, fiction pays better, especially when dressed up as truth. In a culture where reality shows are further from reality than soap operas, the truth is often highly overrated. If the truth is so important, when was the last time you saw a photo of a casket coming back from Iraq?
Word of mouth used to mean more than Oprah's mouth. Folks used to have at least three or four friends who, from time to time, read a book or two. Today, millions of desperate housewives -- the real kind -- have made Oprah Winfrey into a cult figure. Oprah could tell them to read the February issue of Swank, and there would be a back order of 500,000 the next morning. When these mindless devotees aren't dog-earing books by the James Frey du jour, they're always a hair away from spiking Kool-Aid with cyanide, lacing up the Reeboks, and blasting off to the mothership.
The media's cynical preoccupation with falling off the wagon and getting back on is enough to drive one to drink. These days, nothing can propel a writing career, or for that matter almost any career, like addiction and recovery. It's never too late to start. Before you put down that crack pipe, think twice. This could be your ticket to literary superstardom. Are you willing to blow all that for a fleeting fling with sobriety? Only the seemingly fallen and risen enjoy the nation's public adoration. Ask George W. Bush. The glass ceiling for clean, steadfast, reliable, productive individuals rests firmly at the lower echelons of middle management.
If you are a frustrated novelist, fraudulent memoirs may be just what the script doctor ordered. Your worst, most hackneyed, forced material may find new life as fact. And, as that wack job Mathew Lesko might explain, the government can help. There are great opportunities opening up every day for fake journalists abroad. The army is looking for a few good mendacious headlines. Armstrong Williams had a good thing going for a while as a walking billboard for the U.S. Department of Education. No fake journalist left behind. If you play your lies right, you may find yourself minister of information for the Sudan.
There is a proud and growing tradition in this country of fake journalism that dates back at least to the late 1990s. Stephen Glass was too liberal with the facts for the liberal New Republic. Jayson Blair gave the Gray Lady a few extra white hairs by writing all the ruse fit to print. Our nation's paper of record was briefly transformed into The Onion. Jack Kelley added even more color to USA Today by playing fast and loose with the war in Kosovo.
Of course, not everyone is cut out to be a fake journalist. Novices, faced with long hours, tight deadlines, and waning late night creativity, often lapse back into the truth. This may work as a stop-gap measure, but getting busted for reporting fact is only a matter of time. Complicating matters somewhat is the reality that you may have to put in several months as a legitimate journalist to build up the kind of credibility necessary in today's competitive world of fake journalism. Too many upstarts are simply unwilling to pay the kind of dues their illustrious charlatan peers have paid. That's the problem with today's crop of fake journalists, who are largely ignorant of the road paved for them by outrageous liars of the recent past.
Then there's James Frey himself. He is the great white hope of media outlets hungry for innocuous suburban drug addicts. But as we all know, you Jimmy, are a lightweight. I've passed more dimebags in my stool than you can fit in three bogus sequels. Out of curiosity, I paid for and began reading the first in the series, and I have a million little regrets. You are no bad-ass. Try candy-ass. Please, log some time with Marion Barry. Do something.
It could be just me, Jimmy, but you don't really look like you've been around the block a couple of times. Frankly, I don't think you've made it to the free alternative weekly newspaper box at the corner. Yes, you are a criminal of sorts, and now and again that works with the ladies. Unfortunately, literary fraud isn't too high on the list of universal turn-ons.
You fancy yourself a sort of protege of Hunter S. Thompson and even get a gig writing a screenplay about the Hell's Angels. But while Thompson was punched out for giving a biker unsolicited advice regarding his wife, you will be beaten to within an inch of your life simply for being a wuss. Forget hanging with Sonny Barger. You couldn't make it through an episode of "American Chopper." At best, you are Richard Simmons's evil twin.
By contrast, my friend "Vin" found himself and his wayward drug buddies stranded in the 9th Ward of New Orleans in early September. He described the first few days as anarchist's dream, where your biggest worry was whether there was still any Percocet behind the pharmacy counter at CVS. But as the waters rose, so did Vin's social consciousness. He and a friend went roof to roof with a canoe, broke through with pick axes, and pulled out dozens of frightened flood victims. Later in the week, they learned a half-dozen women -- ages seven to 70 -- were being held in a local house as sex slaves. Vin and company went in, guns ablaze, and freed the slaves. Along the way, they blew off a head or two. True story. Word to Judith Regan. You feeling me, Oprah?
But the media machine and its blind followers won't touch my heroin addict pal's saga with a ten foot syringe. They're too busy beating dead horses. Say it ain't so, Jim. When some little kid finds out you never really turned tricks for crack, what is he supposed to think? The sad truth is, James Frey is now the suped-up Milli Vanilli of the literary world -- a brand name that has only begun to rake in the dollars.
Negotiations on the follow-up are ongoing. Stephen Glass's meta-fake-exploitation novel, The Fabulist, points the way. The original Frey concept just needs a little tweaking. If literary fraud is a disease, then it too can be recovered from. Hey, how about a new twelve-step program? Apologize to all talk show hosts you've duped. Learn to footnote. Admit that the only real source of recovery is thesmokinggun.com. Strike the bogus Columbia J-school reference from your resume. Stop protecting sources that don't exist. Cease journaling during acid trips. Surrender your phony White House press corps credentials ...