Critic’s Notebook: Bending the Truth in a Million Little Ways
he book sold more than two million copies because it was endorsed by Ms. Winfrey, and because it rode the crest of two waves that gained steam in the 1990’s: the memoir craze, which reflects our obsession with navel gazing and the first person singular; and the popularity of recovery-movement reminiscences, which grew out of television-talk-show confessions (presided over by Ms. Winfrey, among others) and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials.
These two phenomena yielded the so-called “memoir of crisis” - a genre that has produced a handful of genuinely moving accounts of people struggling with illness and personal disaster but many more ridiculously exhibitionistic monologues that like to use the word “survivor” (a word once reserved for individuals who had lived through wars or famines or the Holocaust) to describe people coping with weight problems or bad credit.
They also coincided with our culture’s enshrinement of subjectivity - “moi” as a modus operandi for processing the world. Cable news is now peopled with commentators who serve up opinion and interpretation instead of news, just as the Internet is awash in bloggers who trade in gossip and speculation instead of fact. For many of these people, it’s not about being accurate or fair. It’s about being entertaining, snarky or provocative - something that’s decidedly easier and less time-consuming to do than old fashioned investigative reporting or hard-nosed research.
[...] This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like “credibility” and “perception” replace the old ideas of objective truth - a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability, a climate in which Ms. Winfrey can declare that the revelation that Mr. Frey made up parts of his memoir is “much ado about nothing.”