On her October 26, 2005, television show, Oprah Winfrey praised James Frey's book as being "like nothing you've ever read before."
The resulting well-known Oprah Effect vaulted A Million Little Pieces from relative obscurity to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Just a few months later, investigations by The Smoking Gun and others revealed that Frey's purported "memoir" detailing his substance abuse and criminality was partly (or largely) fabricated.
The ensuing furor caught the attention of Adam Miller '08, a senior English major who is minoring in Literary and Cultural Studies (LCST). "I'm not all that interested in the text of Frey's book – for the record, it's pretty poorly written. My concern is how this particular piece of literature has been oriented in a cultural context. In this case the cultural context is Oprah. I'm applying the lens of cultural theory to understand why people got so mad about the whole thing," Adam said.
"The real 'text' I'm analyzing is Oprah, and her audience, her ideology, and so forth."
Adam's research has been accepted as an honors thesis in LCST tentatively titled, "The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake at Night: How and Why We Read the Lies of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces."
With Oprah, Adam says, "her own autobiography is told every time she goes on TV - she sells herself." His idea is that what caused the media and Oprah's fan base to go crazy over the Frey incident is not Frey's lying per se but rather that Oprah is "based around truth, self-improvement, and the personal in her show," and her support of Frey calls into question Oprah's "truth."
Adam will also consider how gender politics played into the Oprah cultural context. "Oprah and her audience are predominantly female, as are the majority of readers in her book club. Frey is male, so there may be dynamics there worth exploring. Especially when one considers that the 'life story' is an important component of Oprah's ideology. All the people on the show, in the audience, and Oprah herself tell their life stories in one way or another. The difference between how a woman tells and receives these kinds of stories may differ somewhat from how a male does."
How does an English major end up writing an LCST honors thesis about Oprah? Adam admits that he pushed his way into the LCST program. "If you find something you're interested in, don't let red tape get in the way," he advises. "My path to doing this thesis was unique, and William & Mary was the best place to do it."
Part of what makes William & Mary a unique place to do research, at least for Adam, is its dedication to cultivating faculty-student relationships: "Working with my advisors has been fantastic. It's as if I got to play at being professor, only that my 'students' are highly knowledgeable and trained in academia and challenge me far more, I'm sure, than I challenge them."
More sage advice from a seasoned senior: "Always a rule of thumb, pursue your professors. After two or three years of school, every student ought to have the opportunity to explore a specific academic interest of their choosing. Professors are the people who can help you make that happen." Also: "Don't plan out your GERs ahead of time" and "Don't be afraid of messing up your academic schedule."
Next up for Adam: "Grad school is my ideal destination."