Memoirs and Money Back

Freyoprah Most of you probably know by now that shamed memoirist James Frey recently settled a series of lawsuits by angry readers who want refunds on A Million Little Pieces, the Oprah-annointed memoir that was later revealed to contain fictional events and characters.  Anyone who bought the book before January 26, 2006 — the date that Frey and his publisher, Random House, announced that the book was not entirely non-fiction  — may ask for a full refund of the cost of the book, paperback or hardcover.  Frey and Random House have agreed to pay out no more than $2.35 million, which covers payments to readers, lawyers’ fees, and a donation to charity.

I haven’t read the book, but I did catch Oprah’s public flogging of Frey on her show, which was one of the more uncomfortable programs I have seen in a while. In case you missed it – Frey just sat there, mostly silent, while Oprah and others (including Nan Talese, the book’s publisher) scolded him and let him know just how personally let down they were.

My question is this (and it is one that was posed to me by a EDIWTB reader a few weeks ago): Does a memoirist have an obligation to be 100% truthful? At what point must an author warn readers that parts of the book may be embellished or fabricated? If a book is entertaining, engrossing, or compelling on its own (which is what I have heard A Million Little Pieces was), does it matter if the author took liberties in the storytelling? Or should any book that’s not 100% accurate be labeled a novel, instead of a memoir? Why do readers feel so betrayed when they learn that a memoir was not necessarily accurate?

I’d love to hear your views on this. Please comment!