Surprise Hits: 'A Million Little Pieces' shocks readers, Oprah -- and the author

Six years ago, a young memoirist named James Frey smacked the rarefied literary world with A Million Little Pieces, a down-and-dirty memoir of addiction and recovery whose hard-boiled prose spurted his blood and broken teeth into startled readers' cappuccinos. As he threw elbows at popular peers like Dave Eggers -- "I hope I'm a bullet in the heart of that bullshit," Frey told The New York Observer in early 2003 -- Random House imprint Doubleday ordered a confident first printing of 50,000 copies. "Mr. Frey said he originally shopped the book as a work of fiction," the Observer reported, "but Ms. [Nan] Talese and Co. declined to publish it as such."

As a memoir, A Million Little Pieces stormed the august New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. And then things really got shocking -- for James Frey.

In September 2005, Oprah Winfrey knighted A Million Little Pieces for her popular Book Club, instantly expanding the book's audience from thousands of Frey fans to millions of Oprah fans. Frey appeared on Oprah's couch, and women across the country wept. But in January 2006, the website TheSmokingGun exposed numerous factual inaccuracies, sparking the book's rapid implosion. Oprah defended her star author at first, but soon turned on him, ambushing Frey in a second appearance onstage at Harpo Studios. Frey had angered not a reader but a corporate juggernaut, and Oprah, her innocence lost, banished him from her Garden of Eden -- a place he never thought he belonged in the first place.

Frey clearly didn't write his memoir for Oprah's audience, nor did he expect it to withstand the scrutiny of a million little fact-checks. Today, he says, the public reaction to his book astonished him as much as his book had stunned the public. "The whole experience was a bit shocking," Frey said in an IM chat with DailyFinance. "The book was designed to be a gob of spit in the face of the self-help business -- a serious work of literary art, shocking and offensive. And all of that got lost when Oprah chose it."

The incident left Frey feeling frustrated and defiant. "That year sucked," he says. He worried that he'd lost his chosen career. But the Oprah-annulled book still sells 2,000 copies a week, he says. "The controversy didn't move overseas at all," he notes. "The Europeans laughed at it. They make a distinction between literature and journalism, and I am not a journalist. They don't expect fact in literature. They expect truth, and they are different things."

Frey is grateful to Oprah's audience for embracing his book, however briefly. In fact, Oprah came away more burned than Frey; her book club lost its unimpeachable armor while Frey's career has flourished. Last year he published a novel, Bright Shiny Morning, to some favorable reviews. Today, he's writing another book that he hopes to publish next year. Another novel? "Yes, sort of," he says. "Just a book. A work of literature."

When I asked Frey if he would have agreed to allow A Million Little Pieces into Oprah's Book Club, had he known everything wonderful and terrible that was going to happen to him and his first book, he replied: "I don't know."

Todd Pruzan is a senior editor for DailyFinance and a contributor to Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. You may follow him on Twitter at toddpruzan.

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