When ‘Reality’ Isn’t, Readers and Viewers Must Be Skeptics

So okay, I rarely get around to the extracurricular reading of so-called serious books. But even my ign’ant ass noticed earlier this month when the book industry went berserk over a mighty precious little detail, proving what a turbulent ripple a little trifle like truth can make.

A prince of these literary times, the highest-selling, Oprah-lauded ex-addict author of last year, James Frey, turned out to be a fake. Many of the events of the so-called memoir of Frey’s effusively drugged-out and crime-prone youth, “A Million Little Pieces,” are considerably fuzzier than merely embellished history. They are basically complete fiction.

Not so shocking: Frey’s book — originally shopped to publishers as a work of fiction — didn’t sell at first. So Frey reworked it, supposedly taking out the untruthful parts, sent it to Doubleday, and got a $50,000 advance. I sure would love to see how Frey or his lawyer managed to draw a rhetorical line between truth and fiction in a piece of literature — a line that, with these revelations, only seems to matter less to us.

In this era’s best-seller recipe, the plot is the tasty meat. The “reality” label is just the MSG-laden sauce.

Which is why the public isn’t as outraged as some journalists are about the total fictions in Frey’s memoir. I confess that I haven’t read it, but I get the sense that the book — in which Frey racks up 14 arrests, recounts blood/urine/vomit/spit-soaked airplane rides, running over a cop while driving drunk and beating up a priest who sexually assaulted him when Frey was on his way to commit suicide in Paris’ Seine river — relies on an unfazed presentation of a sensational plot more than depth or aesthetically advanced technique to hook the reader.

As part of the same soaking of plot into a spicy sauce, reality television works exactly the same way, and achieves probably about the same adherence to actual truth. I naively assume that everyone who watches it realizes that much of it is constructed, scripted and dramatized by the producers and editors to a point of seriously challenging its label. Many readers of Frey’s book claim they realized it wasn’t true a few pages in. But as the popularity of these forms proves, no one cares. It’s not our job as consumers to bother thinking about the subtleties of “reality” when we’re supposed to be having a good time.

Let’s do it anyway.

Reality TV and Reality Fiction (haha) aren’t supposed to be about actual reality in the end; they merely employ it as a device to enrich the viewing/reading experience. There isn’t a label at the bottom of your screen saying “this really happened.” Jeff Probst doesn’t say, “we’ll be right back on our real island with our real people to continue our real contest,” before every commercial break to make sure you know.

The reality in reality TV is constructed by the way the story is told — the documentary film style, the intersplicing of interview footage, the creation of elaborate formal ceremonies where “reality,” in effect, catches up with the characters.

The judgment is the most important part, after all. What that “reality” label achieves for television, more than anything, is the thoughtless and instant transposition of the viewer into the action of the scene. Because all the characters are presumably real (and even if the situations are admittedly less than), the viewer can imagine himself exactly in the scene as it unfolds and can therefore judge the characters and their actions based on what we believe our own would be.

Think about it. The fun of sitcom fiction (I’ve heard) is the characters doing the same silly, stupid things in all different situations. We don’t judge them for being immoral or unfaithful or superficial — we enjoy the freedom of it.

Conversely, the thrill of true stories is that we’re able to compare ourselves to their characters more easily, to judge them more quickly, and thus to have a stronger emotional reaction to their lives and to the message (if any) of the narrative as a whole.

In the case of Frey’s memoir, written in the past tense, with judgment and reality having been sentenced and served, we are supposed to believe in his transformation. Frey has turned his supposed life story into a platform for his own faith-based addiction rehabilitation philosophy, aimed squarely against programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, called “Will to Power.”

Reality television usually takes smaller bites. For it, the “true” label is like a license to turn up the volume on the maddening everyday trifles of modern life, things too petty and domestic for serious fiction or film to dwell on. It uses its own crude, documentary storytelling style to get away with spending hours observing been-there celebrities struggle with weight loss or interviewing insecure twentysomethings about which roommate stuck their finger in the peanut butter.

Amazingly, dramatizations of the small battles of basic social life survive public knowledge of their profound exaggeration; whether or not Frey’s book will is yet to be determined — although I think its safe to say his self-help school (where the real money is these days) won’t be graduating a class anytime soon.

But his story, along with the rise of reality TV, show that instead of getting suckered into the treacherous whirlpool of wholly accepting televised drama or literature as truth, the only sane course of understanding for modern expression is to heartily disbelieve everything, and enjoy it anyway.