Oprah Winfrey and Nan Talese are giants in their respective fields. Talese is a publishing legend whose imprint at Doubleday includes such prestigious authors as Margaret Atwood, Pat Conroy, Ian McEwan and Antonia Fraser. Oprah Winfrey is, of course, Oprah. The last time the two women met was on Winfrey's show in January 2006, when one of Talese's authors, James Frey, famously apologized for the lack of veracity in his book A Million Little Pieces as Oprah berated him and withdrew her Book Club's lucrative endorsement of the book. All the while, Talese sat next to her author, stunned and sidelined. The event made for great television. And it may now be ready for a sequel.
At a literary convention in Texas last weekend, after a speech by novelist Joyce Carol Oates on the nature of truth in memoirs, Talese took the opportunity to go after the queen of television. In an earlier discussion at the convention, Talese had already called Oprah's slap-down of Frey on television "mean and self-serving" and described it as an ambush. At the Oates event, she was even more outspoken, and her remarks were captured by C-SPAN cameras. The show may air as early as this weekend.
Talese had apparently come to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest in Grapevine, Texas, ready to rumble. In an afternoon discussion on Saturday, Talese brought up the issue of Frey's memoir. Saying she was unapologetic about publishing the book, Talese said in her genteel, mid-Atlantic accent that it was Oprah who needed to apologize for her behavior in the affair. Talese argued that Frey, in the gripping manuscript he submitted, had described himself as a liar, a cheater and an addict, and under those circumstances she did not believe she was reading "the New Testament," where every word was avowed truth. She described Oprah as exhibiting "fiercely bad manners."
Talese's comments produced a buzz in the audience, made up of budding writers and journalists as well as successful authors and national magazine writers who are drawn to the annual conference as speakers or participants. (Talese has been a good friend of the conference through several years, which is sponsored by the University of North Texas, the Dallas Morning News, Texas Monthly and others.)
But her afternoon comments proved to be just the opening salvo before a much bigger blast later in the day. The keynote speaker for the evening dinner was Joyce Carol Oates. who delivered a lively speech about her book Boxing, preceded by a long, esoteric meander through the history of the modern essay. In the midst of her lecture, Oates appeared to make a subtle criticism of Winfrey, whose book club has had a huge effect on the book-selling business. Musing on what truth is within the context of a memoir, Oates seemed to be questioning how Winfrey could pass judgment on the literary worth of an individual's own truth.
But in the Texas heartland, where many consider truth a constant and not a variable, not everyone agreed. In a question-answer session that followed, a self-described "Oprah fan" rose to attack Frey, claiming he had lied, embellished and fooled those who believed in the truth of his book including Oprah, who told her audience she had been duped and betrayed. (A judge recently ordered Random House, Talese's publishing house, to refund $2.35 million to readers.) The question prompted Talese to take the microphone. She pointedly turned toward the C-SPAN crew that was filming the event and launched into a diatribe against Oprah that was even stronger than her afternoon comments. The mood in the room turned from culture to clash, as participants watched in delicious horror as the verbal grenade rolled across the room.
Talese said she was led to believe Oprah's January 2006 show was going to be a panel discussion with Frank Rich of the New York Times and Richard Cohen of the Washington Post on "Truth in America," but just before air time she was told by a producer that the show had been changed and would now be titled "The James Frey Controversy." She said she was bothered by the sanctimoniousness of Oprah Winfrey and the way the talk-show host attacked Frey, whose work Talese believes has great value for anyone who must deal with a loved one who is an addict. The publisher said that when she took responsibility for the publishing of the book on the show she said Oprah "didn't ask me another question," but turned her attention and wrath on Frey. After the show, Talese said Frey told her Oprah pulled him aside and said, "I know it was rough, but it's just business."
In response to emailed questions from TIME, Oates clarified her stance, saying, "the tradition of personal memoir has always been highly 'fictionalized' colored with an individual's own 'emotional truth' and that the James Frey memoir would seem to be in this category. It would seem that Oprah Winfrey was judging the memory from a more literal perspective, but this makes sense since the great majority of her readers would expect memoirs and autobiographies to be 'true.'" She says that she has never read Frey's book and that she chooses to write fiction because memoirs today "strain credulity." The novelist added, "This is an ethical issue which can be debated passionately and with convincing arguments on both sides. In the end, Oprah Winfrey had to defend her own ethical standards of truth on her television program, which was courageous of her; and Nan Talese had to defend her standards as a longtime revered editor, which was courageous of her."
Talese continued her verbal barrage via e-mail Sunday with Dallas Morning News book critic Michael Merschel, a panelist at the conference, who detailed the exchange on his blog and in a column Monday. Talese was unapologetic for publishing the book, Merschel said, and she described Winfrey to him as "holier-than-thou" and her talk-show audience as reminiscent of a "Roman circus." The upcoming C-SPAN BOOK-TV show is certain to stir the waters. Winfrey, so far, has declined to comment. With reporting by Laura Fitzpatrick/New York