WASHINGTON -- When the American Dialect Society recently named "truthiness" its 16th annual Word of the Year, the choice sounded like a joke.
New revelations about James Frey's partly made-up best-selling memoir about his addiction to alcohol and crack and arrests make "truthiness" sound timely and downright prophetic. Mr. Frey admitted last week that he embellished some details of his life in A Million Little Pieces.
The Smoking Gun Web site blew his cover, reporting that he "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw `wanted in three states.'"
Mr. Frey says he tried to sell his manuscript as a novel and more than a dozen publishers turned it down. After he called it a memoir at his agent's suggestion, according to Newsweek, Doubleday bought it and it sold more than 3.5 million copies. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but "truthiness" apparently sells better.
The American Dialect Society defines "truthiness" as "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true." The society credits Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert for the neo-word, which he used to describe the appeal of certain blowhard cable TV pundits and their alleged no-spin zones.
Some disappointed fans of Mr. Frey's book are not amused. A Chicago woman, Pilar More, has sued Doubleday and a host of other publishers alleging consumer fraud in Doubleday's reported decision to sell the volume as a memoir instead of a novel.
Oprah Winfrey's book club endorsed A Million Little Pieces in September, igniting its rocket climb up the nonfiction best-seller lists, and she did not turn against the book when it turned out to be less than the whole truth. During an on-air telephone call to CNN's Larry King Live on which Mr. Frey was a guest last week, Ms. Winfrey offered a novel defense of the semi-novel: Even if some of its facts are false, its truths are too compelling to be ignored.
A similar reaction has protected the late Alex Haley's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots, an admittedly fact-based-but-fictionalized account of his family's history. Roots became a runaway success as a book and one of the most-watched made-for-TV movies of all time. Its popularity has survived for 30 years, despite Mr. Haley being sued for plagiarism (he settled two lawsuits out of court) and accused of simply making up large passages.
When challenged, Mr. Haley called his work "faction," a blend of fact and fiction in an effort to give his people some "myths" to live by. That effort worked.
After years of having our national memory of slavery shaped by the mythologizing of Gone with the Wind or Mandingo, Mr. Haley's "faction" fed a national curiosity about a black family's side of the story. The truthiness of Roots seemed more real than fiction, even though it was essentially fiction based on fact.
Is this, then, the dawning of an Age of Truthiness? That age began long ago in the movie world with the all-purpose disclaimer "Based on actual events." The disclaimer guarantees us nothing, yet lends amazing weight to movies as varied as JFK, Jarhead, Munich or The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Regardless of how near to or far from the truth such films may be, they soon become the perceived reality shared widely by millions of viewers.
Movies are not books. If publishers can get away with marketing fiction as nonfiction simply because fudged facts sells better than reliable ones, what is to become of history? What is to become of serious journalism? Audiences are confused enough about whether they should trust major media without book publishers adding to the confusion.
Before their industry's credibility deteriorates further with books like Mr. Frey's memoir, it would be better for publishers to follow Hollywood's example: Prominently display the disclaimer "Based on actual events" across the book cover. Otherwise, the truthiness hurts.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.