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.