Monday, January 30, 2006

BOOKS: The Writer Who Cried Wolf

Like many of you, I'm sure, I have this stubborn streak about wanting to be impervious to some aspects of our popular culture. I'll arbitrarily fix on some thing or person that the media is in a dither over and steadfastly choose to remain ignorant about it, no matter how many opportunities for watercooler chatter may pass me by as a result. And I'm a person who loves me some watercooler chatter.

Past examples have included
Britney Spears, whose face I could proudly not have picked out of a line-up for some years. Ms. Spears's celebrity, alas, proved to be an unstoppable force that mowed down the immoveable object of my ignorance. Or something like that. But I tried, goddammit, I tried.

Likewise the
Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Did I want to know what he did with that cigar? No, I did not. I really, really, really did not. For days, weeks, months, I did the visual equivalent of putting my hands over my ears and singing "LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!" every time a newspaper or website tried to sneak up on me with that particular tidbit. But to no avail. It took a while, but popular culture, she is an insidious bitch.

But I'm always optimistic about these things, which is why, when the television and internet first started muttering about one
James Frey, I had high hopes that I could continue to wallow in the mire of ignorance that is my natural milieu. Ha. HA. Without ever reading an article, watching a TV report, or talking with an actual human being about Frey, here are thirteen pieces of information that have seeped into my reluctant brain via some sort of vile cultural osmosis:
  1. James Frey is a writer.
  2. He wrote a book.
  3. The book is called A Million Little Pieces.
  4. The book purported to be a non-fiction account of the life of a hardcore drug addict who made good. (All together now: "Awwwww...")
  5. Oprah read this book.
  6. Therefore millions of people bought and read this book.
  7. Then they all learned that the book was made up.
  8. Everyone got mad.
  9. Oprah got really mad.
  10. Oprah invited Frey on to her show and scolded him.
  11. He gave some excuses.
  12. Oprah is still mad.
  13. More books were sold.
This is what I know. Do I care? No, not much.

I mean, I could analyze this scenario in detail and go on and on about how, on one hand, what Frey (and quite possibly his publisher; what role did they have in this?) did was dishonest, but how, on the other hand, it was understandable that they did it given that, these days, non-fiction is flying off the shelves faster than fiction.

And then I could go back to the fact that marketing this book as non-fiction was a pretty cynical move, but when you think about it, pretty much all media marketing is cynical. And then I could counter-argue that maybe that's true, but for some reason, even in this young yet jaded century, people are still idealistic about books, that they believe that writers and books and publishers somehow conform to a higher standard of honour than newspapers and movies. And I could smirk derisively and say, "Well, that's pretty naive, now, isn't it?" But at the same time, I'd sort of be agreeing with those people because I, too, have always considered books better -- in the fullest sense of the word "better" -- than any other media.

And then I could go back to my corner, mop my brow, confer with my manager, and come out swinging at the people who read Frey's book and are pissed that it wasn't "real."
What's wrong with you? I'd ask. Isn't good writing enough for you? Aren't you happy that all these horrific things didn't actually happen in real life? Aren't you amazed and impressed that someone has this rare gift that lets him write so convincingly about things that he made up inside his own head? Don't you know that the best fiction is "real" in that it's even realer than real? And don't you know that all non-fiction becomes fictionalized in the process of passing through the filter of its author's mind? Is your high-minded anger at being denied in your quest for "objective truth" just masking your hunger to look under people's gory bandages and watch them vomit blood for an audience?

And I'd wonder to myself, what if Frey writes another book and frankly declares it fictional, and what if this book is amazing and has the power to inspire and change people's lives or at least temporarily elevate their souls as all great novels do, and what if nobody reads it because they still have sour grapes about his first book, and no one gets to have this transformative, transcendental experience, and Frey says to himself, "Shit, I should've said this book was true, too."

But I'm not going to write about all that. If people can't figure out these things on their own, they're not going to feel like hearing it from me. So instead I'm going to dig my cubbyhole a little deeper, retire to it, and wait and see what new, unwanted pop-culture meme manages to find me here.


Anonymous said...

I think the issue with Frey's book is that people are pissed off for getting duped into thinking it was real. They feel conned, which makes them feel stupid and gullible, so they're mad. Of course, what's funny about all of this is that the book is far more popular due to this backlash than it would have been just with Oprah's approval; so this has all worked in Frey's favour, I think. There's no such thing as bad publicity, eh.

I'm reminded of how pissed off I was when I found out I'd been fooled into believing that S. Morgenstern was the author of The Princess Bride. In an upper-level English class in university. Grr. I felt pretty sheepish after, so I kind of understand how these people feel, except that they should really get over it already.

Anita said...

My question for Frey's readers who are ticked off is:

Since when do you expect a memoir to be 100% truth?

A memoir is one's life as seen through your own eyes. I don't know about the rest of you, but if I had to write a book about my life I'm sure the incidents would look quite different than if say, God, were to write it. Or if it were recorded on home video.

Frey was a drug addict. I suspect his memories are more dilute than most.

What's even more astounding is how many people are participating with great vigor in this argument when they have not read the book. The book is excellent and definitely has truth at its heart even if some incidents are fictionalized.

Do I think memoirists should intentionally skew their memories for the purpose of drama? Not really. But I also am not so deluded as to think all non-fiction books are truth. Look at diet books or books about religion or pretty much any non fiction book with a viewpoint. If every diet book was actually true, we'd be eating 5000 gallons of cabbage soup while simultaneously trying to avoid the carbs it contains.

Truth is an elusive standard, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

I was going to read A Million Little Pieces, but after several pages I realized that the writing sucks. I skipped around and found more of the smae super sucky writing. It just is not good writing. In fact, it's horrible writing. I guess you could say this is subjective, but then I would say, pull a passage from the book where the writing is a "good" example of Frey's amazing and powerful style. Because I don't know if it can be done.

Claudia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I was told before all this fooferaw that it was a great book and that I should read it, but the little I know about it reminded me of Running With Scissors, another "memoir" that I doubt would hold up against serious fact-checking scrutiny and which I hated because it was such an obvious load of crap. But what I really want to know is whether all this attention being lavished on the falsity of Frey's memories will be brought to bear on Dave Peltzer's A Child Called "It"; you know THAT is a tissue of lies.

Dave said...

Maybe now would be a good time to publish that novel I've been working on: The Book That Pissed Off Oprah. There's money to be made there is what I'm thinking.

Mike said...

In response to anita:

I think Frey crossed the line when he implicated himself -- falsely -- in the train death of that girl. That's not some kind of memoirial (I made that word up) license thing; that's just an outright lie. I don't know that we need to even mention creative history or anything -- that fact alone damns the whole piece irrevocably.

That train death scene? Was not fictionalized. It was a lie, and it should always be identified as such.

Anonymous said...

I was kind of "meh" about the furor, and why it was such a big deal that he faked parts of his memoirs, until I read a post on the subject on the blog belonging to someone who is REALLY a recovering addict; they stated that the whole thing about recovery is confronting and being honest about your past, whether you've over- or under-exaggerated what happened to you. If he really had honestly been in recovery, they argued, he wouldn't have made ANYTHING up. As it was, he came across as a guy who drank some in the past but came up with a whole story of an "addict made good" by blowing things up to make it more graphic, thus exploiting ACTUAL addicts to make a quick buck.

- Kim

Anonymous said...

I think that it's not fair to say that a "good" memoir and "good" fiction have the same requirements. You can get away with more crazy plotting in a memoir -- it doesn't have to be quite as believable, honestly, because you've already SAID that it's true.

I'm not expressing myself very well. But saying that something's true (by calling it non-fiction) removes the burden, in a way, of having it be plausible. In fiction, the reader is often ready to say, "Oh, THAT couldn't happen," but in non-fiction, the response tends to be more "Wow, I can't believe that HAPPENED!" So you're cheating, and making things easier on yourself, by calling something that's actually fiction a memoir.

Anonymous said...

I have issue with Frey and his book for three reasons:
1) It feels like knockoff Hemingway, and I hate the real Hemingway. Personal preference stuff, I totally admit, but not the kind of writing for me.

2) How Frey wrote the train accident and how the town's reaction accelerated his downward spiral. That town? Is my hometown. That train accident? Was our tragedy. He's exploited it and twisted it and lied about it. He lied about it. But, he does have a habit of that...

3) Listen, one of Frey's biggest selling points was "memoir as inspiration." This is my Truth, blah blah, this is how I came through My Adversity, blah blah. What adversity? When he sells it as a phoenix-style rise from the ashes, encouraging others to be inspired by him, he is peddling pure chicanery. And when people, including my college roommate (an alcoholic and cocaine abuser) read "A Million Little Pieces" and say, screw the 12 steps, James says you can do it through sheer force of will...well, that's problematic to me.

Because what James says can't be believed.

Oh, and it's a crap Hemingway knockoff. But again--that's just me :)

Anonymous said...

I can forgive passing fiction off for one's memoirs in the interest of selling more copies. I can't forgive "shit" writing, and this author is a shit writer.

Anonymous said...

You know the problem with the whole thing for me isn't that he lied or embellished parts of his book, which I've read and loved, but it's more that the ridiculous amount of press this has gotten, not because he lied, but because he lied to OPRAH. And now she took him to task on national television for lying. Poor James Frey is now responsible for the "truth" as we know it -- and poor little Oprah's embarassed because she got duped. It's less and less about the book and about the form of the memoir than it is about this particular memoir. Very annoying.

Unknown said...

It's hard to know what to say about this issue. I've never read A Million Little Pieces, really; I mean, I've thumbed through it at the bookstore, but like others I found the writing substandard and didn't want to invest my hard-earned money in it. I'm glad I didn't, too. The whole Oprah's Book Club thing usually turns me off of books.

I think people really liked this book because of the horrific events it contains. It's like, if this guy can get through all this suffering, then you can do anything type of a message. And a lot of people need that message to get through pain and suffering in their lives, so I can understand how it touched so many people. Those same people are now questioning the faith the book inspired; if this is all a pack of lies, then where does that leave them?

There's already a genre that blends fiction and nonfiction---it's called a semi-autobiographical novel. The Bell Jar springs to mind, but there are others; countless others, I would imagine. They could've called it that and saved themselves a lot of trouble.


Anonymous said...

I agree that memoirs are never 100% objective truth. However, there is a difference between altering the space-time continuum to streamline a story, misremebering details, recreating dialogue, etc. and out-and-out fabricating entire events and people. This isn't a memoir with some fudged details - it is a work of fiction loosely based on this guys life, and written with him starring in a blatantly self-aggrandizing, wish-fulling hero-role. And the writing sucks.

Rachel said...

I really don't care whether it's totally made up, sort of based on things that maybe happened, or what.

I sort of shrug at this whole kerfluffle because the book has been out for like, three years and only NOW is anyone questioning anything about it. Had Oprah picked something else, none of this would ever have come to light and I *still* wouldn't care.

And when I write MY memoirs, you can bet that 85% of it will be embellished in some way. Otherwise? Boring!

Dimestore Lipstick said...

Oprah owed her book club an apology, all right. But more for saying it was a good book, than for saying it was a true book.

Joshua said...

Hey, I haven't read all the comments posted here so maybe I'm covering covered ground, but since I did run this story into the ground on my own blog, I feel like I might as well run it into the ground on yours too!

What bothers us about Frey is that he has passed a work of fiction off as nonfiction. It's not appropriate to dismiss this as minor even if the book is well written. A nonfiction history book that lied would be rightly vilified as worthless. The same standard must apply to literary nonfiction.

For those above who say "who expects a memoir to be 100% true?" I say, "Nobody. But most of us probably expect that when a man in actuality parked his car on the curb and got a stern talking to by a cop he not claim to have run the cop down with his car and shouted 'Fuck you you motherfucking pig!'" This isn't a matter of poor recall or of mere exagerration for effect, it's a matter of systematic fictionalization. Frey spent no more than a few days in jail and yet his second book contains explicit details of a three months sting in the hoosgow reading "War and Peace" to a double-murderer.

And that gets to the heart of the other problem. The book may or may not be great (I have no idea) but someone above has written that it hadn't been questioned until now. That's not true. Various journalists and book critics have questioned the book, though none went as far as "The Smoking Gun" in exposing the lies. Many, many critics felt the book was too "cinematic" in its scheme and that various parts of it seemed implausible at best. This is a book that appears not to have been all that convincing (not nearly as convincing as the best of fiction can be) and managed to do well only because it was portrayed as a "real event." It's like "Running With Scissors." The only reason that rather bluntly and crudely written book is popular is because it "really happened" (though a law suit threatens to expose it as a partial lie too!) Or take JT LeRoy, who never existed but published "his" works as fiction. This is more acceptable to me (in fact, inventing a persona is a legitimate artistic and narrative process with a rich history) because the publisher never pushed the works as autobiography.

The real problem for me, more than Frey, are the publishers. He attempted to sell this book as fiction, then Nan Talese said she's buy the book if it was nonfiction. So he "de-fictionalized" it and she took his word on it, didn't even bother to do the simplest of fact checking.

Furthermore, the stunning series of events in autobiographical fiction/literary memoir (Burroughs (minor), Frey (big event), LeRoy (really weird) and also another guy named Nasdijj) may be deeply damaging to legitimate memoir. Of course, legitimate memoir was already overtaken by these whole genre of too-weird-to-be-true-but-it-is memoirs, which all happen to fake!

Anita said...

I've enjoyed reading all the comments here - - many of which disagree with my perspective.

Joshua, I actually found yours quite persuasive (and I'm a very stubborn girl . . .). There is a difference between blatent fictionalization and merely embellishing an incident slightly. On the other hand, I personally didn't expect a great deal of truthfulness from a former drug addict because former drug addicts have spent their lives lying.

For those who glanced at the book and decided they didn't like the writing style, I did find it took me a couple of chapters to adjust to it, but then I realized that is so fit the subject matter.

In my mind, MLP is kind of like a book version of say, The Soprano's (which I also love). Raw. And out of the rawness emerges some humanity, and it shocks you.

Sadly, I'd have happily read and loved this book as fiction. In no way did it need to be a memoir. Like any good work of fiction, it made me feel something deeply, and I would have felt it even knowing it wasn't true. The story is very engrossing and scary.

It is a shame that they didn't just sell it as a novel and avoided this whole mess.

As an aside, I read Running with Scissors as well and thought that book had way less merit on all counts.

Joanne said...

It makes my brain burn that everyone is so up in arms about James Frey when Frank McCourt lied like hell about his family and people in his town too.

Joshua said...


I understand that many people find the book moving on its own merits aside form it's "this really happened!" imprimatur. I haven't read it, so I really can't judge, but I think Talese, as a publisher, knew that running yet another druggy-novel wasn't going to make money. But publishing a gruesome "memoir" just might (of course, it took Oprah to really send this into the stratosphere.) Frey's narrative may or may not be effective but it IS covered ground -- we can go back to "Tropic of Cancer" or "junky" or the entire oeuvre of Bret Easton Ellis, just to scratch the surface. So, publish it as a true memoir and you're more likely to get some recognition!

Incidentally, "memoir" is one of the silliest artistic genres. Made up as it is of self-deluded dairies and bland, auto-hagiographic celebrity "tell-all" books that launder the past for the sake of one's image, it seemed rather brilliant when a number of young writers began publishing evisercating, painful, honest accounts of their troubles lives (even if some were a bit melodramatic like "A Boy Called It.") To find out that virtually all of these writers either don't exist or never did half of what they say they did is rather disheartening.