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Truthiness in Advertising

Lucky are the people who can talk about their lives as if they were actually interesting. People lacking this gift are obliged to lead lives that truly are, often at great personal risk and inconvenience. Or they can settle for being bores.

James Frey has the gift, and it’s bedazzled literary types such as his publisher, Nan Talese, and his popularizer, Oprah Winfrey. For them his “truthiness” will suffice–to apply the American Dialect Society’s word of the year: “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” A truthy life is the life most people live, even the raconteurs. Especially the raconteurs. Wherever a truthy life runs thin on content, it’s spackled with confabulation.

Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph Ellis lived most truthily. Until the facts were clarified a few years ago, it was understood around Mount Holyoke College, where he taught, that he’d been a paratrooper in Vietnam and served on the staff of General Westmoreland. As fate would have it, these stirring chapters of his past did not occur, but Ellis assumed a biography true to the stuff he knew himself to be made of.

For the last ten years of his life Roger Keith Coleman lived truthily on death row as an innocent man. If he’d written the book that was obviously in him–about injustice, anger, and personal growth–Talese and Winfrey could have taken him under their wing and given his nightmare a chance to galvanize the nation. And last week when DNA testing finally told us that Coleman had indeed committed the murder in 1981 that he was executed for in 1992, they could have protested indignantly that for millions of readers Coleman’s memoir “remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story.”

Actually, that language showed up in Doubleday’s defense of A Million Little Pieces, Frey’s 2005 best seller that recently flunked an old-fashioned true-false test administered by thesmokinggun.com. Doubleday, which produces the books Talese personally oversees, reminded us in a state-ment that a memoir is “highly personal,” and Frey’s “was his story, told in his own way . . . true to his recollections.” As Frey was being interviewed live by Larry King, Winfrey got on the horn and told King, “The underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people.”

As a teenage ambulance driver in World War I, Ernest Hemingway was hit in the leg by machine-gun fire. Recovering from his unremarkable wounds, he was smitten with a nurse, who eventually let him down easy as much too young. He couldn’t afford to describe the experience the way it really happened, so in The Sun Also Rises Jake Barnes stoically endures a wound worse than death, and beautiful women adore him anyway. In A Farewell to Arms Frederic Henry not only wins the beautiful nurse but eventually buries her.

Hemingway lived in a different time, a time when he could call his books novels and people would read them anyway. Frey told King he originally tried to sell A Million Little Pieces to publishers as a novel but when Doubleday bought the book “they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.” Talese insists the book “was never once discussed as fiction by me or anyone in my office.”

If you think Frey did wrong–well, that’s fine. If not, you might be interested in my latest idea to restore newspapers to public favor–a regular feature to be known as Mythellanea. Readers will be invited to contribute first-person accounts of dramatic, character-building travails. Documentation won’t be necessary so long as contributors can assure readers that the story is truthy–that is, the redemptive moment is being described the way the writer wants to remember it.


The parents of John Egan have a lot to answer for. Because they arranged for him to be born white, the national-champion Loyola Ramblers basketball team of 1963 didn’t field an entirely black starting lineup and therefore aren’t the subject of the new movie Glory Road, which instead recalls the 1966 Texas Western team, which did. On second thought, Loyola wouldn’t have interested Hollywood anyway. Texas Western defeated all-white Kentucky in the NCAA finals, while Loyola vanquished Cincinnati, which had three black starters of its own and–as the Sun-Times’s Ron Rapoport pointed out in a January 12 column–had won the NCAA championship the year before with four. The only moment in the Ramblers’ championship quest with cinematic potential would be the regional triumph over an all-white Mississippi State team, which had been ordered by the governor not to play the game but sneaked out of the state.

Glory Road captures a legendary moment when race relations in America changed forever blah, blah–a moment America failed to appreciate when it happened. Why was America so obtuse? Well, civil rights battles were being fought in venues that at the time seemed more consequential than the basketball court, black basketball players were already a common sight, and everyone knew that Texas Western, win or lose, wasn’t the strongest college team in America. The best was the UCLA freshman team, led by Lew Alcindor and Lucius Allen, both of them black.

Rapoport said Glory Road “distorts the facts.” Bill Mayer of Kansas’s Lawrence Journal-World recalled black-dominated San Francisco (Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Hal Perry) winning two straight national titles in the mid-50s and dismissed the movie as “baloney.” Let’s be fair. Glory Road is a truthy classic.

Books Bind

The Tribune’s books section carried an announcement last Sunday that as of January 22 it will become a tabloid. The unstated reason is to save money by cutting the amount of newsprint required to produce the section. It’s one of only five freestanding book sections in American newspapers, and the Tribune, with a well-deserved reputation to protect as a friend of literature, wants to keep it. But it doesn’t attract enough advertising to pay for itself.

The Tribune had intended to announce in December that in January the section would

move from the Sunday to the Saturday paper. This was an interesting idea: while the Sunday paper is too enormous for its own good, the Saturday paper is too thin. But the big reason the change appealed to the Tribune is that Saturday’s press run is some 400,000 copies smaller than Sunday’s. The annual savings in newsprint alone would reach half a million dollars. At the last moment the Tribune remembered that its contracts with its distributors would require it to pay them extra to stuff another section into the Saturday paper. The switch wouldn’t be worth it.

Books editor Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t excited about moving to Saturday, but she says she’s happy to go tabloid, even though she’ll wind up with less space. Readers also prefer a tabloid, she tells me: “It feels more bookish.” She hopes to find new advertisers. The traditional advertisers, the publishing houses, won’t pay the freight, but she’d like to think colleges and cultural institutions would enjoy the company of literature. Even the occasional movie ad for a literary adaptation wouldn’t be out of place.

News Bites

“Plenty of critics fault Alito for his judicial philosophy,” allowed the Tribune, in an editorial endorsing him for the Supreme Court even before he testified. “Democrats who reject his judicial philosophy will have no trouble voting against Alito.” That said, “when it comes to his qualifications, though, Alito is about as good as nominees get.” The Tribune applauded his intelligence, diligence, civility, and intellectual honesty.

In the Tribune’s view Alito’s qualifications had nothing to do with his judicial philosophy, so it didn’t waste a word trying to tell us what it was. Other publications considered Alito in terms of originalism and the unitary executive theory. Whatever, said the Trib.

Tribune readers who spotted a prissy January 14 item about a Metra conductor suspended for uttering a “vulgar sexual epithet” over the train’s PA system must have wondered what it was. Fortunately, the Reader’s Don Humbertson was on the scene. “The cocksuckers say you can’t smoke on the train platforms anymore” is how he heard it. Humbertson says that the following Monday the conductor, who’s popular with passengers, walked through the train in civvies apologizing.

Which story would you read? Sun-Times, front page, January 4: “Ryan to O’Malley: Expletive Deleted.” Tribune, page one Metro, same day: “Ryan reply was curt, jury told.”

Jim Romenesko recently posted a letter on his media Web site asking for the names of “solid, unheralded metro columnists.” James O’Shea, the Tribune’s managing editor, promptly responded. “John Kass of the Chicago Tribune,” he wrote, presumably honking off all his other columnists. “The way I read the request, they were asking for one local columnist,” he told me, a conclusion I have no idea how he came to, “and since John focuses almost exclusively on local politics, I sent in his name. That doesn’t mean I don’t think Mary, Eric, Rick and others are equally talented and worthy of recognition.”