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Out of the FREYing Pan and Into the Firing Line
2006-01-26 19:30
by Scott Long
Notes:
Scott Long is now blogging at NSFWsports.com.
Will Carroll can still be found at Baseball Prospectus.

In late 2004, I picked up an audiobook at my library by an author named James Frey. Generally, I don't pick up a book from just looking at the front cover, but the artwork was interesting. I proceeded to read the back cover which had a blurb that intrigued me.

A Million Little Pieces is this generation's most comprehensive book about addiction: a heartbreaking memoir defined by its youthful tone and poetic honesty. Beneath the brutality of James Frey's painful process, there are simple gestures of kindness that will reduce even the most jaded to tears. A remarkable performance.

-- Bret Easton Ellis

I figured if Ellis, author of one of the best novels on drug use, Less than Zero, would rave about this book, it was worth checking out. I had no idea how much.

A Million Little Pieces is the most dynamic book I've ever heard. I really recommend picking up the audio version, as the performance that Oliver Wyman brings to the book matches the intensity of the words on the page. This is a book that stylistically has the punch to the gut power that only a few authors have managed to accomplish (Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey, Chuck Palahniuk come to mind).

The magic that these authors have been able to deliver during their writing careers haven't had the burden of relying on the complete truth, as they mainly have produced novels. This is where the moral issues come into play, as Frey wrote a book that he initially shopped as fiction, only to discover that the book world is looking for "the truth." I'm guessing that Frey figured, "Hey, most of the book is true, if this is the only way to get my story published, no big deal."

Now why he might have thought it would be no problem in calling his book non-fiction is that many books classified as memoirs have a fair bit of artistic license running through them. There has been a slate of memoirs focused on the dysfunctional lives of it's author and it seems like the element of darkness needs to be ratcheted up, as readers demand just a little more to feed their dark fixes. Subjects like rape (Lucky by Alice Sebold) and incest (The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison) that would have been too taboo to discuss 20 years ago in a memoir are now the basis for spectacular books on survival.

While taking in James Frey's tale, I did question some of the absolute truth to the story, but his storytelling ability overcame my reservations. Actually, another recent memoir which I loved almost as much, Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, seemed more fanciful in its tales. While knowing that these books were completely true would be my choice, both Frey and Burroughs (who is being accused of similar fictional elements) are such great storytellers that I'm not willing to throw them on the fire.

While we live in an entertainment world where the word reality needs to be reexamined, at the same time, I'm not sure if in the book world it's any worse than before. I'm sure many authors of memoirs published 25, 50, or 150 years ago would have similar problems, if they faced the modern media glare of Frey. On Oprah's show, Doubleday's editor, Nan Talese basically said (I'm paraphrasing) that she trusted the author's version of the story and it seemed truthful to her when she decided to publish it.

The media has gone after James Frey like he's the first person to use some fiction to punch up non-fiction, which is a bit unfair. Coming from a journalism background, I believe that the media has a duty to always try to tell the complete truth to the best of their ability. I'm not sure that memoirs fall under the same rules. The Frey case seems to have changed the rules on memoirs, so I'm all for some kind of new classification and a more stringent vetting process by the publishing houses, if that makes everyone feel better. Just don't expect to read memoirs that will reach such high levels. Just like 100 meter times in the Olympics after tighter drug testing, the new restrictions will make it hard to break the old records.

I'm not saying that James Frey doesn't deserve some of the bloodletting he's receiving, but eventually the guy needs to be let out of the stocks set in the middle of the world's town square. Guess what, we all lie to certain degrees and there is no group that is more proficient at this skill than drug addicts. Maybe his lying skills are his best proof that he used to be a hardcore drug addict.

A Million Little Pieces helped many people in dealing with their own or a loved ones drug addiction. Many of these same people are angry feeling duped by not getting the whole truth. I would say to these people that it's time to get over yourselves. One of the main tenets of A Million Little Pieces is that no one, not even a higher power can heal you of your own addictions. It ultimately comes down to taking personal responsibility for your own actions.

The one person who I do have some empathy for in the "scandal" that has followed thesmokinggun.com revelations is Oprah Winfrey, as she was called out by so many in the media for perpetuating a falsehood. Her response today on the show to the controversy and the subsequent interviews she did with Frey, Talese, and other media figures like Richard Cohen and Frank Rich, was the best hour of television of her career.

Because of Winfrey's power as the most trusted figure in the United States, she needed to take Frey to the woodshed, as her credibility is the most important thing she has. While I agreed with her tone towards Frey, the hissing of her henchwomen (the audience) was a bit much, as there was little difference between it and a Jerry Springer audience. Frey wasn't smooth and didn't seem to be completely honest, but he was willing to face the heat. James Frey's "crime" was he wrote a book that he pitched as something it wasn't; he didn't get us involved in a war with flawed reasoning. Perspective, people.

While we know now that it's not completley true, A Million Little Pieces is still heartfelt and amazing in many ways. Its biggest mistake just might have been that it was so good that Winfrey heard about it and made it her book of the year. (Maybe Johnathan Franzen knew what he was doing. Considering that Frey and the publisher made a mint after Winfrey's book club selection, they would be wise to donate the profits from this point on to charity, as it would take some of the sting off of the "crime."

Like most truly talented writers, Frey has a healthy ego, which became a bit unhealthy after the suceess of his debut novel. Let the whole experience after writing A Million Little Pieces serve as a cautionary tale. I know if he writes a book about it, non-fiction or fiction, I will look forward to reading about it.

Comments
2006-01-26 22:17:57
1.   The Cheat
I picked up pieces about 18 months ago when I somehow gotten drawn into the genre via my Amazon recommendations.

I had read AHWOSG by Eggers -- Non-fiction. -- Brilliantly different. Great book.
Then picked up YSKOV also by Eggers -- Fiction -- Somewhat tedious. seemed like it tried to hard to be AHWOSG.

I moved onto Burroughs, first reading Scissors, but only being able to finish about half of it; then plowing through Dry. Scissors seemed to me to be too far out there, and since I didn't come from such a troubled childhood, I found it hard to relate. Dry was different. It's the essentially the same story as Pieces, following Burroughs into his addiction, but continues until after he is out of rehab. Even though I had no experience with addiction or rehab, I found that I could relate to many of the themes Burroughs presented.

Frey's Pieces like YSKOV and Scissors, just didn't ring true with me. I got about 3/4 of the way through it, but I had been questioning stuff presented in the book for some time, and just never finished it by the time it was due back at the library.

I don't know why I just felt the need to give my history with the genre, but I've typed it out; I'm not going to delete it now.

The Oprah show was delayed here in Chicago by Bush's lies/press conference, so I just got finished watching it. I don't agree that it was Oprah's finest hour.

She went from calling the book a must read in November, to defending Frey on King despite incredible evidence that the story was just a story, and tonight she was attacking the author. She's the queen of asking fluff questions. I wonder why this one was different.

Frey didn't look good either. He would have been fine if he just said "Look. I was a struggling writer, with one crappy movie to my credit (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120723/), I tried to shop it as a work of fiction, but nobody was biting. I repackaged it as a memoir, and suddenly it was much more worthy of people's time. Once the ball got rolling downhill it's hard to stop it. And once you (Oprah) stepped into the pitcure it got completely out of control. I'm sorry that I had to deceive people to sell my story, but I'm not sorry that it resonated with so many of you."

All Oprah had to do was guide him down that path and they both could have come out looking great, earning more publicity and more sales. I can't figure out why Fry was the first person she decided to grill.

He'll still get his sales, but he'll do it with far less respect from the masses now.

2006-01-26 22:18:59
2.   Agronox
I haven't read the book, but I really, REALLY liked the review of it over at the Exile.

http://www.exile.ru/2003-May-29/book_review.html

2006-01-26 23:09:30
3.   Scott Long
I rate Dry very highly, but I don't think its that similar to A Million Little Pieces. Burroughs can be funny like Sedaris at times, while at other times he reminds me of John Irving, when Irving is at his most high concept.
I'm sure growing in a very dysfunctional family makes me find these stories more appealing and give them more of a chance, as there is stuff from my childhood that many people would think is made up.

Agronox- If you read the book and felt the way that this cat felt, I could deal with it, but the masses that are now claiming that the guy sucks just doesn't ring true.

As regular readers around here know, I can savage something if I don't like it, but I'm not someone who automatically thinks that anything popular can't be good. A Million Little Pieces is a great book. If you can't get past the issue that many have that a memoir should be a 100% fact, well then I can see why you can't deal with it.

2006-01-27 00:18:12
4.   Chymberleigh
I read A Million Little Pieces, then My Friend Leonard, then reread the first. Quite simply, I loved the books. More Now Again by Elizabeth Wurtzel, Junky by the esteemed William S Burroughs, How to Stop Time by Ann Marlowe, are but a few of the similar subject books in my collection. Sure, I considered that the chances of going into rehab and getting "adopted" by a kind but deadly mobster seemed incredibly unlikely, but it certainly made for good reading. I sell books by profession, have for over 8 years now, and Oprah's endorsement or not, I will still tell people that the stories are intense, emotional, and satisfying. Everyone should stop and think about things that happen in their lives, and how they retell those stories. In every day conversation, most people alter facts about what a friend or enemy said to them, what they overheard, how they spent their weekend, etcetera etcetera, whether by calculation, faulty memory, or a desire for attention. (Frey should use the former President Clinton's reasoning when asked why he did it: Because I Could.) When I first started my job as a bookseller in 1997, there was an article posted on the employee bulletin board about an author who wrote a very famous book about growing up with his Native American grandparents, a book that is now required reading in many classes in America's public schools. Turned out that the author took his pseudonym from the name of the founding father of the KKK. The Education of Little Tree, by Asa "Forrest" Carter was also made into a movie starring the most prominent Native American actors in Hollywood. Surely, if Mr. Carter can be forgiven, so can James frey.
2006-01-27 05:36:12
5.   Erik Siegrist
"It ultimately comes down to taking personal responsibility for your own actions."

As the Cheat alluded to, Frey could have avoided most of this if he'd followed exactly that course of action from the moment things started to unravel in the media.

Instead he denied and ducked and squirmed and, well... acted like a junkie covering up the fact he was back using. I suspect that at least for a few people, that's why they've turned on him so viciously.

2006-01-27 09:39:23
6.   LPrice
I've always been an Oprah fan. I TiVo her program every day. In most cases, I find her to be inspiring. It wasn't until this whole Frey debacle that I've been disappointed with her. I think this whole situation is about perspective, or a lack thereof.

A few shows prior to the Frey fray, Oprah interviewed parents who hired a stripper for their son's 16th birthday party. She soothed, and coaxed, and was kind to the mother who hired the stripper for her son despite the fact that the woman showed no remorse. She plainly said that she didn't regret hiring the stripper for minors only having the party photos publically processed which led to her getting caught and charged with a felony. Throughout the show, Oprah was kind. Oprah was supportive. Oprah gently tried to get her to see the error of her ways, and, in classic Oprah style, tried to put words in her mouth about being regretful and sorry and still being a good mom. Rest assured Oprah never took the woman to task. She never was harsh with her. She just sort of let it go.

In contrast, on the Frey show yesterday, she was absolutely self-righteous and self-involved (the debacle was all about HER) and she never let the author explain himself. She talked over him, she was not listening, she cut the guy no slack whatsoever and she made her case again and again and it wasn't to get the truth about the book out. It was to get HER story out and make sure SHE came out with her integrity in tact. She pounded him needlessly and he took it so well. His publisher took it well. Oprah, it was overkill.

I was angry with Oprah by the end of the show. The guy made mistakes and he owned them yet she kept beating a dead horse... as if we all hadn't gotten the point that, yes, Oprah was wronged. Repeatedly she tried to stuff the word "lie" down his throat. It was too much.

Everyone needs to have a little perspective. Writing is about perspective and creative license and, of course, memory. I'm in no way saying it's a good idea to lie, but I think he did have a responsibility to protect the people in his life by changing things about them. They didn't ask to be in his book. Think about the people in your life. Imagine writing your memoir and being painfully honest about THEIR lives in order to tell the story of yours. How would you handle it?

A memoir is a sketch of a person's life as that person sees fit to tell it. I don't think the book gained much with changing the length of time he served in jail. That was a mistake by the author that his publishing house should have caught. Should he be hanged for his mistakes? I say no.

I imagine when Oprah is writing her memoir, it will be HER perspective on this event that shines through. It will be her truth. I respect that and know that any story anyone tells is that person's truth.

In the meantime, I think she's helped the guy sell millions more books -- it was the least she could do after the way she treated him as a guest on her show yesterday. Oprah lost perspective.

2006-01-27 11:16:45
7.   Voxter
Ah, Winfrey can sit at home with her billions and feel morally superior. At least this time the book she picked was all right, even if it wasn't what it sold itself as. Usually the books in her book club suck balls.
2006-01-27 12:26:57
8.   Scott Long
The James Frey story since thesmokinggun.com story came out is more illuminating about the human condition than even the drug addiction and recovery story told before it. It's a textbook example of a lynch mob coming after someone who has done something so many others have done in the past: Playing loosely with the facts in their own memoir. Memoirs are not journalism in my book, but it appears like for awhile that will be the new standard.

While Oprah played the self-righteous victim beautifully, I still feel she had the right, as her seal of approval on a book has helped revitalize the publishing industry.

Frey and Talese should have turned down the Oprah book of the month offer, as they had to know the great chance of getting busted on its validity. Before Oprah even heard of the book, others had raised questions about its validity. It would be tough to turn down the millions of little dollars that would come their way from her seal of approval, but they should have done it, knowing the consequences. Becuase they decided to deal with the devil, I don't feel sorry for them, but I do think some perspective should be shown in regards to Frey not being alone in his memoir duplicity.

2006-01-27 12:43:12
9.   Agronox
Scott,

Actually, it's that review that made me consciously avoid reading any of Frey's books. John Dolan is a pretty good critic, and always a fun read. He isn't part of the lynch mob; in a way, he was ahead of his time. That review was written two years ago.

The interesting thing is that Dolan went ahead and read Leonard, and soon thereafter posted on the Exile site that he'd offer a reward for anyone who could prove that Frey's claims were bullshit (as he suspected). And that, too, predated the smoking gun investigation.

There's embellishment, and there's wholesale fabrication. We expect the former in memoirs, and are aghast at the latter, understandably.

2006-01-27 12:54:05
10.   Scott Long
While I don't agree with Dolan's review, I had no problem with him stating it, as he had written it in 2003. My larger point was that many are now reviewing the book and savaging it because they know how easy it is to join the lynch mob.

"There's embellishment, and there's wholesale fabrication. We expect the former in memoirs, and are aghast at the latter, understandably."

I can't disagree with this statement at all. Frey made a deal with his own personal devil (the truth) and by not reigning in his growing celebrity status, he deserves much of the heat he is catching. The larger point to me is that we need to be cognizant that he follows in a long list of excellent writers who have created memoirs that are filled with fiction. The media and the public's portrayal that he's the originator is going overboard.

2006-01-27 13:08:26
11.   Noodles
I haven't read the book ... I don't feel the need. I find it interesting that everyone lauds Frey's "heartfelt" writing style and his "great storytelling" ability, but despite that over a dozen publishers turned his fiction away until Talese made the observation that it would be better (i.e., sell) as a memoir.

That mere fact gets completely overlooked by the Frey-heads and is totally the point of the outrage. The fact is Frey was another run-of-the-mill hack as a fiction writer, but as a Talese-influenced memoirist, and thanks to a duped Oprah ... he became the owner of a multi-million dollar Manhattan apartment, a summer home on the Island, he's a friend to celebrities that would otherwise have never looked twice at him, and sold the movie rights to Brad Pitt's production company with either Tobey MacGuire or Jake Gyllenhall as the liar ... what a scam! Hey, there's the title of his next memoir, The Fleecing of America. Nice.

I agree with The Cheat. He shoulda come clean ... I'd have respected that a lot more than the damage control he's attempted up to this point.

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