When the American Dialect Society recently named "truthiness" to be its 16th annual Word of the Year, the choice sounded like a joke. New revelations about James Frey's partly made-up best-selling drug addiction memoir make "truthiness" sound timely and downright prophetic.
Frey admitted last week that he embellished some details of his life in "A Million Little Pieces," such as serving time in prison. He actually served a few hours in a lockup for traffic violations and DUI. The Smoking Gun Web site blew his cover, reporting that he "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw 'wanted in three states'"
Frey says that he tried to sell his manuscript as a novel and more than a dozen publishers turned it down. After he called it a memoir at his agent's suggestion, according to Newsweek, Doubleday bought it and it went on to sell more than 3.5 million copies. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but "truthiness" apparently sells better.
The American Dialect Society defines "truthiness" as "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true." The society credits Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert for the neo-word, which he use to describe the appeal of certain blowhard cable TV pundits and their alleged no-spin zones.
Some disappointed fans of Frey's book are not amused. A Chicago woman, Pilar More, has sued Doubleday, the book's publishers, alleging consumer fraud in Doubleday's reported decision to sell the volume as a memoir instead of a novel.
Yet, the controversy is not expected to affect the book's future sales, except to increase them. As the old show-business adage goes, any publicity is good publicity, especially in a book business that looks more like show business with each passing year.
Oprah Winfrey helps. Her book club endorsed the book in September, igniting its rocket climb up the non-fiction best-seller lists, and she did not turn against the book when it turned out to be less than the whole truth. During an on-air telephone call to CNN's "Larry King Live" on which Frey was appearing last week, she offered a novel defense of the semi-novel: Even if some of its facts are false, its truths are too compelling to be ignored.
"That underlying message of the redemption of James Frey still resonates with me, and I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read the book," Winfrey said.
Can't handle the truth? Try truthiness, Oprah seems to be saying, especially if its embellished story of struggle further confirms the feel-good, live-your-dreams message you want it to provide. The truth may make you free, but the truthiness will help you to feel better about yourself.
A similar reaction has protected the late Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Roots," an admittedly fact-based-but-fictionalized account of his family's history. "Roots" became a runaway success as a book and one of the most-watched made-for-TV movies of all time. Its popularity has survived for 30 years, despite Haley's being sued for plagiarism (he settled two suits out of court) and accused of simply making up large passages.
When challenged, Haley called his work "faction," a blend of fact and fiction in an effort to give his people some myths to live by. That effort worked. After years of having our national memory of slavery shaped by the mythologizing of "Gone with the Wind" or "Mandingo," Haley's "faction" fed a national curiosity about a black family's side of the story. The "truthiness" of "Roots" seemed more real than fiction, even though it was essentially fiction based on fact.
Is this, then, the dawning of an Age of Truthiness? In fact, that age began long ago in the movie world with the all-purpose disclaimer: "based on actual events." The disclaimer guarantees us nothing, yet lends amazing weight to movies as varied as "JFK," "Jarhead," "Munich" or "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." Regardless of how near to or far from the truth such films may be, they soon become the perceived reality shared widely by millions of viewers, far more than would be reached by the books or articles upon which such films are based.
Movies are not books. If publishers can get away with marketing fiction as nonfiction simply because fudged facts sell better than reliable ones do, what is to become of history? What becomes of serious journalism? Audiences are confused enough about whether they should trust major media without book publishers adding to the confusion.
Before their industry's credibility deteriorates further, it would be better for publishers to follow Hollywood's example with books like Frey's memoir: Prominently display the Hollywood disclaimer, "Based on actual events," across the cover. Otherwise, the truthiness hurts.