Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, pt. 3

This is part of a series about James Frey—
Introduction (why this guy?), Part 1 (on the memoir), Part 2 (on the novel)

For those of you just joining us, here's my thesis again: James Frey is a despicable hypocrite.  He says he cares about literature, but he only cares about money, and in fact, his main way of making money has been to repeatedly, unapologetically, and viciously curb stomp everything that a legitimate champion of literature would stake his life on trying to protect.  This thesis is supported by a large body of evidence primarily consisting of everything James Frey himself has said and done throughout his entire career to date.  Yet, even with the blood splatters of all that is worthy gleaming on his sneakers and the pavement at his feet, James Frey attempts to explain away his behavior by claiming that it's all part of his "art," assuming -- perhaps correctly -- that most Americans are either too stupid or too easily intimidated by "artistes" to follow this line of logic any further.  We cannot allow James Frey to get away with this.

Because this matters.  I'm not saying that in jest.  We live in an era of anti-intellectual fatalism, an era where appearing on television is taken for a symbol of divine right to power and riches, an era where a refusal to compromise one's work or morals is taken for simple naivete about the machinations of capitalism.  But it is not inevitable that fraudulent douchebags will get huge book deals and dominate the literary landscape, all the while exploiting younger, poorer, and in all likelihood, more talented writers.  And if this circumstance does come to pass, due to the human errors of the cynical and feeble-minded, the least the rest of us can do is say something about it.

Or so was my thinking a little over a month ago, when I first saw this harrowing and well-written piece in New York Magazine about James Frey's fiction factory.

On the Fiction Factory

Full disclosure: I'm a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Columbia University (although I don't know the author of the NY mag piece or anyone featured in it), and I've ghostwritten a couple of books myself.   So it's fair to say that the scheme described in this article hit close to home.  Although I'd certainly be repulsed by Frey's behavior regardless of what vulnerable population of writers he chose to prey upon, the fact that he chose this particular community -- a community that in my recollection was made up of wildly ambitious, dizzyingly insecure individuals, most with no business training and the daunting apparition of 5- or 6-figure student loans forever looming over the flip screens of their buggy laptops, a community both energized and lightning struck by the buzzing voltage of the industry surrounding it, a community of writers who may claw each others' eyes out in workshop but will still start a bar fight to protect one of their own -- well, let's just say it intensifies my ire.  And the fact that I actually have some first-hand experience with book packagers and the deals they usually cut with ghostwriters intensifies my suspicion about Frey's plans and motivations.

So let's start with the business end of things.  Here's the deal offered to ghostwriters, according to author Suzanne Mozes:
In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.
Later in the article, Conrad Rippy, a publishing attorney, points out another unusual aspect of this deal: there's no audit clause in the contract, meaning that there's no way to verify the amount that the writer is to get 40% of.

In a normal book packager's ghostwriting contract, the writer gets no credit and a flat fee in the thousands.  When I was ghostwriting, I wouldn't have had it any other way.  To me, writing trash that I didn't own was as faintly disgusting as it was amusing, the occupational equivalent of reaching into a toilet for lost ring; it might make a good story later, but it wasn't the first image of myself I wanted to present.  The upside of the deal consisted entirely of being able to walk away afterwards with a check in my pocket and my intellectual and artistic reputation intact.  It worked out okay for the packager too: they got their books on time and, after paying me, were able to stash the royalties with no further computations.

What Frey is attempting to do here is something very different.  He wants to own the work, sure, but he wants to own the writer too.

Why doesn't Frey just write these books himself?  Well, first of all, that would take work.  But second, the contract, at least as it is here described, is a contract for the writer as cash cow, or writer as scapegoat.  If the writer's career takes off down the line, then Frey is free to plaster the dude's face to the book's jacket and put a stop to lucrative deals the writer might try to make with other packagers or publishers.  If the book is a legal disaster (which has been known to happen), Frey can denigrate the writer and have him foot the bill.  And if the book is a success but Frey sees no particular benefit in giving credit where credit is due, then Frey can just take that credit for himself.

Moreover, the fact the writer is paid only $250 up front puts all of the risk on the writer as well, despite the fact that the company has all the creative control.  Let me repeat that one more time.  All of the risk is on the writer, despite the fact that the company has all the creative control.  So imagine the following scenario: Columbia MFA Pollyanna Goodheart writes a salable YA novel.  Over a period of weeks or months, James Frey makes her change everything about it, then makes further changes himself (perhaps inserting a subplot involving evil motorbike riders).  Editors everywhere patiently explain that the book, in its current state, is a piece of shit.  Pollyanna Goodheart no longer owns any version of the material she spent months writing, and 40% of nothing is still nothing.  She returns to her Morningside Heights studio apartment with $250, fifty of which she immediately needs to spend on antidepressants and rat poison from her local Duane Reade, while at the end of the day Full Fathom Five presumably still has greater assets than two hundred dollars hidden in a Frito bag and a birthday check from Grandma.  As Suzanne Mozes puts it, "So there's nothing to lose?  Except my time?"  Frey's reply -- "I have nothing to lose" -- seems right on the money.

I fear that here we've returned, once again, to the Kingdom of the Obvious, but since this is where Frey's culpability resides, we may be spending quite a bit more time here during this post.  Because this man is almost cartoonishly villainous.  And the worst part of his villainy, at least for me, is the fact that he won't own up to what he's doing, which is squeezing young, unpublished, desperate writers for the few valuable things they have: their talent, their time, and their reputations.  James Frey instead claims that he is trying to make an "art factory," the literary equivalent of the "factories" created by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.  Let's examine that claim a little further.

The first prerequisite of an art factory, I'd submit, would be that it, you know, make art.  "Well, how do you judge what art is, that's so subjective, art can be anything, it can be a urinal in a gallery, remember you love that movie with the plastic bag blowing in the wind -- you could say it's garbage, but maybe to him it's art," says the dippy sixteen year old me, who still sprawls on a beanbag chair somewhere in the backrooms of my mind, listening to Fiona Apple on her headphones and sobbing herself to sleep.  After smacking her around for the better part of an hour, here's how I'd reply. 

Art can be successful or unsuccessful, but what defines it as art is the attempt, on the part of the artist or artists, to convey a truth about the human experience.  What makes something not art but artistic prostitution is the attempt to pander to the audience in order to separate them from their money.  (Remember the cruise ship essay I mentioned?  DFW says it better than I ever could.)  And although there are occasions when the status of a work as art or not art can be subject to debate -- Castaway: auteur film or extended Fed Ex commercial? -- this is in fact not one of them.

I haven't read the books produced by Full Fathom Five because life is too short.  But even if I did, you could argue that I'm biased against them anyway, since I would be reading them with the sole intention of tearing them apart for this post.  So let's go with the opinion of someone who is, if anything, biased in favor of these books.  Yes, that's right.  Let's start with how James Frey himself defines literary art.  Here is a list of statements he's made on the subject:
  • Frey told us, he wanted to write in the tradition of Tropic of Cancer, “A Season in Hell,” and Paris Spleen—transgressive works by transgressive authors. As he pointed out, heavy hitters never write like the established writers of their own time. Hemingway used short, declarative sentences; Miller wrote about sexuality in the first-person present tense; Mailer blurred the line between fact and fiction. These men created their own styles. (from Suzanne Mozes)
  • "I’m a big fan of breaking the rules, creating new forms, moving on to new places... In literature, you don’t see many radical books. That’s what I want to do: write radical books that confuse and confound, polarize opinions." (direct quote, NY Mag)
  • His goals as a writer are "to play with genres, to play with truth and reality, play with the rules people place on writing and art, which I wholly reject.” (direct quote, Vanity Fair)
  • "I spent ten years teaching myself to write.  I spent ten years trying to find my voice... Throughout that time, one of my goals was to remove any and all signs of obvious influence from my work.  I did not want to be a clone.  I did not want to be the next version of someone else." (direct quote from "Music and Talking: An Essay" by James Frey)
OK, so based on these statements, what sort of projects would one expect to come out of an "art factory" headed by James Frey?  Well, we'd see books that are risky, innovative, and shocking, both in terms of form and content -- maybe something a little like the list published by a press like Akashic or featherproof or even Melville House, but really too inimitable, explosive, and new to compare to anything currently on the scene. 

So how does Frey describe the kinds of projects he wants to see his laborers tackling?  Here is a list of the statements he's made on the subject:
  • Frey believed that Harry Potter and the Twilight series had awakened a ravenous market of readers and were leaving a substantial gap in their wake. He wanted to be the one to fill it. There had already been wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Aliens, Frey predicted, would be next. (from Suzanne Mozes)
  • Frey said he was interested in conceiving commercial ideas that would sell extremely well. (from Suzanne Mozes)
  • “I’m sorry, but we’re looking for high-concept ideas that we can pitch in one sentence. We know it sounds cynical, but it’s what we know we can sell.” (through his assistant, NY Mag)
  • In the meeting, Almon handed me a two-page outline, something that Frey said he uses in all his projects, to help my book with pacing. It was a classical Greek three-act structure, with suggested page numbers and advice on tracking the emotional narrative of the book, similar to a redemptive Hollywood movie. (from Suzanne Mozes)
Interesting: an "art factory" that, by Frey's own definition, doesn't produce art.

Interesting... interesting...

What am I saying?  "Interesting"?  Like hell it is!  There's nothing interesting about this at all!  The guy is a liar and a fraud!  He started as a hack screenwriter, wrote a memoir full of stuff he made up, got a 1.5 million dollar book deal for something that reads like Raymond Carver on Robitussin, and now he's exploiting writers to produce garbage so he gets even more money for DOING SHIT THAT IS WRONG.  Am I the only one who can see this?  Am I the only one here who is sane?  Listen, American literary culture: stop picking on Jonathan Franzen.  Here's the dude whose glasses you need to steal.

And if he isn't wearing his glasses, knock the contact lenses out of his eyes!

OK, OK, I'm not advocating violence here.  But really, guys.  Stop checking your Amazon ranking, minimize your grant applications, close Publishers' Marketplace for just one second, and listen to me.  This is worth getting upset about.

Because here's the thing.  We all want to be read.  We all want to have enough money to keep writing.  And we're all aware of the nonsensical demands of the industry that can provide us those things -- an industry all too often populated by soulless dreameaters who care nothing for the survival of our art.  But we do not have to become like them.  The one thing we have going for us, the only thing that makes our struggle worth doing, is the fact that we're right.  We're the ones who give and don't just take.  We're the ones who value something more than money.  We're the ones who question the status quo.  And that doesn't just make our lives bearable -- it makes the lives of the people who read our work more bearable, too.

So let me end this on a positive note.  There's nothing we can do to stop James Frey.  But there's also nothing he can do to stop us.  We just have to remember not to believe his lies: about what happened, what he's doing, or what matters, on the page or off, in a writer's life. 

There's more I could say about this -- there's always more I could say -- but for the time being, I consider James Frey properly chewed out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, pt. 2

This is part of a series about James Frey—
Introduction (why this guy?), Part 1 (on the memoir), Part 3 (on the fiction factory)
On the (new) novel

BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, which is either James Frey's first published novel or his second, depending on when you started the meter, is made up of several loosely connected narrative threads, featuring a diverse collection of characters in the LA area.  Frey includes all types, and believe me, they are all types: a vain and secretly gay movie star, a sad but hardworking Mexican-American maid, a struggling but upwardly mobile African American couple (whose mamas got their backs), a philosphical hobo and the teenage runaway he takes under his wing, and a couple of crazy-in-love kids who go to the City of Angels to seek their fortune, only to incur the wrath of an evil gang of motorbike riders.

Yes, you heard that right.  An evil gang of motorbike riders.

One could argue that the prose here invites comparisons to Raymond Carver.  Here's the one I would make.  Imagine an uneven short story collection by Raymond Carver.  Now imagine that Ed Wood writes a screenplay based on that short story collection.  Then imagine somebody hires James Frey to write the novelization of that screenplay.  That would be the book BRIGHT SHINY MORNING.

Such a comparison is the only way I can think to explain the rapid tonal shifts of this book.  Every few pages, the writing veers from the effectively sentimental ("It took four surgeries to put his legs back together.  His football career was over.") to the half-baked hardboiled ("Young, angry men, often without stable homes, are given money, guns, a sense of respect, a sense of belonging, and turned loose to buy, sell, rob and kill... There is little the police, or anyone, can do about it.  Arrest one and there are ten more, twenty more, fifty more.") to the sexploitational ("He is an American hero.  Amberton Parker.  Symbol of truth and justice, honesty and integrity.  Amberton Parker.  Public heterosexual.  Private homosexual.").

Yet these shifts in tone are rarely accompanied by the other shifts -- in diction, in sentence structure -- that we might expect in a book that delves into so many different lives and subcultures.  Frey's voice, the same "tough guy tells it like it is" tone of his memoir first novel whatever, doesn't allow us to access the inner worlds of these people, the intricately woven threads of their internal logic.  Frey announces their emotions in quick cliches -- "it broke her heart," "he was reduced physically and mentally," "she did what she could to bolster his spirits" -- and sometimes we get a character's stray thought (for example, the Mexican-American maid contemplates saying fuck you to her boss, though that "would go against everything her parents had taught her").  But the self-awareness is missing.  The characters that Frey holds up as admirable here are selfless strivers who never look inward; they're forever single-mindedly focused on doing honest labor to get ahead, sure, but more importantly (and without exception) to support dependent family members.  No one -- except for bad boy Frey himself, of course -- calls bullshit on the system.  The characters' occasional retreats from contemporary culture, always into inarticulate depression, are self-indulgent fugues that they eventually snap out of, for the good of their loved ones.

At times, these characters remind me of the characters in the great social-realist novels of the 20th century: Sister Carrie by Dreiser or The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.  Those novels were content to depict ordinary people primarily as the unwitting fuel for the cruel machinery of capitalism, rather than as complexly thinking individuals.  Yet what machinery is Frey protesting against here?  It doesn't seem to be capitalism, at least not exactly.  In the world of BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, the busy worker bees confront obstacles, but as long as they don't set their sights unreasonably high, they're able to achieve their dreams.  Illegal immigrants raise their daughter up right; despite a sports-career-ending injury, the African-American football player and his wife have an idyllic marriage and a small home; the Mexican-American maid finds love and a job at Staples; even the crazy-in-love kids have a cute wedding (though they shouldn't have crossed those motorbike riders).  And it's abundantly clear that the hobo's status on the outskirts of society is the result of his alcoholism: his primary virtue is in trying to help his meth-addled charge avoid the same fate.  The game isn't easy, but it also isn't rigged, and hard work, however humbling, results invariably in the spiritual payoff of contentment.

What Frey does see as nasty, demeaning, and fruitless is the attempt on the part of any ordinary person to enter the glittering world of LA's entertainment industry.  In what I see as the novel's iconic scene, Maddie (Crazy-in-Love-Kid: Female) whispers to her lover, "I think I want to be an actress... Yeah, I want to be a movie star."  "Really?" he replies with some chagrin, and then, "If that's what you really want, give it a shot."  But of course she's just kidding: "It's not what I really want...I got what I really want."  What's that?  "I'm pregnant." 

OK, so this girl isn't exactly a fount of intelligence, imagination, or ambition, and I can't say I expected her to do anything much more interesting (April Wheeler she's certainly not).  But what is Frey actually trying to say here, and in the rest of this novel, which he has set so squarely and insistently in Hollywood USA?  It seems to me that the main theme of this novel is that creating art, creating entertainment, is inherently vain, selfish, and false.  The pure of heart don't allow themselves to be drawn to its artificial glow; instead, they keep their eyes on the things of this world: the broom in their hand, the baby on their lap, the time-tested rituals of graduation, marriage, the keeping of a home.

Nowhere in the book is this theme more clearly explored than in the section -- starting on page 229 of the paperback edition and continuing through page 240 -- that lists dozens of aspiring entertainers, the age at which they arrived in LA, the age that they are now, and sometimes, their day jobs, which range in quality from lousy to tragic.  Here are a few examples (direct quote).
Katy.  Actress.  Left her husband and three children to become a star.  Works at a grocery store.  Cries herself to sleep every night. [...]

Lee.  Actor/model.  Moved to Los Angeles at 21.  Waiter and occasionally a bartender.  He is now 27. 

Brad.  Actor.  Moved at 20.  Works as a bartender.  He is now 27.

Barry.  Singer.  Moved at 18.  Works in the ticket window at the Wax Museum.  He is now 31.

Bert.  Writer.  Moved at 24.  Bartender.  He is now 50.
And this doesn't even include the ones who have turned to prostitution.  Oh, they're victims, and it's sad, so sad: Frey practically orders us to pity them.  But there's something more going on here.  If we're to assume that, despite their time downwind from the fragrant streets of San Francisco, these folks are still capable of rational thought, then they can't just be victims.  They're chumps. 

And Frey's pity for them is well seasoned with condescension.  By choosing to list their ages or their menial day jobs, rather than, for example, why they love the movies, what inspires them, or what their greatest creative achievement to date has been, he's implying a couple of things.  First, he's suggesting that the time spent in pursuit of their dream has been entirely wasted; that the quest itself (for an acting career, or a screenwriting career, or a directing career) has resulted in no personal artistic satisfaction for these people; that it's impossible to produce anything of value without being successful, and that success always means industry recognition and more important, fame.  Second, he's suggesting that their perseverance is not admirable, but pathetic. It may be sad for a 20-year-old to want to direct films, but it's even sadder for a 30-year old to want to, and when a 40-year-old is still trying, it's flat out heartbreaking.  Third, he's making these characters interchangeable with each other, and with anyone else who has the same aspirations.  "It is estimated that 100,000 people a year move to Los Angeles to pursue careers in the entertainment industry," he gravely informs us, in a paragraph that reads like a PSA.  "They come from all over America, all over the world.  They were stars at home, they were smart or funny or beautiful.  When they arrive, they join the 100,000 that came the year before they did, and they await the 100,000 who will arrive the year after, the year after, the year after."  In other words, these people aren't making a conscious choice to live their lives pursuing their passion.  Instead, they're stunted, they're delusional.  They're losers who either can't or won't grow up, who aren't willing to accept the self-evident truth that they aren't special.  Because their work has been deemed unworthy by the industry, because they haven't been chosen, they deserve our pity but not our ear. 

And that's the thing: unlike, say, Jonathan Franzen, who locates someone very like himself in an unsuccessful screenwriter in his novel THE CORRECTIONS, or John Kennedy Toole, who allowed us to see both the lunacy and the majesty of his crank writer's prose, Frey does not bother giving even one of these wannabes a subplot. I think of a line from Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for The Social Network: "If you'd invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook." This seems like something Frey might say. In the aforementioned passage and others, he comes across like the self-defeating voice in the back of every creative person's head. If you really wrote a screenplay, he seems to say, if you really knew how to act or sing, if you really had a vision as a director, wouldn't we have heard of you by now? Those people with regular 9-to-5 jobs, with marriages, with families -- those people really have something. What do you have? 'The work'? Give me a fuckin break.

Let's face it: not every creative person will achieve something like this in his lifetime.

And what about the successful entertainment-people in this book?  Well, they're even worse, because the only way to that type of success, as Frey sees it, is through a mile-long shit-filled pipeline of total ethical corruption and megalomania.  The novel's one villain (OK, except for those pesky motorbike riders) is Amberton Parker, the "public heterosexual, private homosexual."  A matinee idol along the lines of a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise, his entire life is about keeping up appearances -- to others, but also to himself.  He's obsessed with the way he looks, his clothes, his hair, and obsessed with being loved.  As the novel progresses, he uses his wealth and power to enslave Kevin Jackson, a young agent at the talent management firm that represents him, in a kind of bizarre sexual servitude.  But even as he blackmails this dude into sleeping with him, he's still not satiated -- he still wants Kevin to admit that he does, in fact, love Amberton, despite all appearances to the contrary.  "Do you love being with me?" he asks.  "Do you love making love to me?... Do you at least love my body?"  Kevin's responses are "No," "No," and "No," but Amberton is unfazed: "You're hot when you're angry," he says, and forces himself on the guy once again. 

Amberton, the only character in the novel who has chosen to make a life in the arts, is a kind of vampire.  He doesn't care about the work itself, just about how big an ego boost it will provide; he chooses projects based on the fawning letters that accompany the scripts, or on the basis of "which movie will make the most money and take the shortest time to shoot."  We never see him actually at work on a movie set or thinking about acting.  All we see is the opulent life this fame has given him, and the fact that for Amberton that's still not enough -- it still feels empty.  And it's empty, at bottom, because it's founded on a lie. 

In Amberton's case, that lie is his supposed heterosexuality.  But I don't think Frey is really interested in the fact Amberton is gay; what Frey hones in on is the falsehood.  In the passage that introduces Amberton, Frey hits us over the head with this again and again.  Amberton dates "the biggest!!! actress in the world.  Dates a model who goes by one name.  Dates a debutante, an Olympic swimmer the winner of six gold medals, a prima ballerina."  Amberton even gets married to a woman and has three children.  And because of all this -- and ONLY because of this -- is he allowed to become a major action star and romantic hero.  Long before Kevin arrives on the scene, we see Amberton is corrupted: he's betrayed his true self, sold his soul, and as he roams the world searching for someone or something to fill the void inside him, he's aware he's done it knowingly, that he's brought this on himself.

I mean, the guy even "wr[ote] a memoir."

So, in the world of BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, creative people are one of two kinds: chumps or vampires.  And although we pity the chumps, we can't exactly hate the vampires either, because fame, once tasted, cannot be untasted; the ego's mad craving never stops, and nothing is ever enough again.  Or so James Frey would have it.

continue to Part 3...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, pt. 1

I want to be rich and I want lots of money / I don't care about clever, I don't care about funny / I want lots of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds / I hear people die while trying to find them / And I'll take my clothes off and it will be shameless / 'Cause everyone knows that's how you get famous... / I don't know what's right and what's real / Anymore...
- Lily Allen, "The Fear"
This is part of a series about James Frey—
Introduction (why this guy?), Part 2 (on his recent novel), Part 3 (on the fiction factory)

James Frey is not personally responsible for the excesses of contemporary literary culture, but in his work and his career, he has come to stand, for me, as a symbol of all those excesses taken to their worst extreme. Everyone knows that James Frey is a liar -- that's a statement of fact, not a value judgment.  He's lied in print, on television, and on the radio.  But lots of people lie for all kinds of reasons, and the simple fact that someone lied does not, in my opinion, make that person permanently contemptible.  The reason that James Frey is permanently contemptible is because he's also a hypocrite.  When he calls himself a writer, an artist, he is not affirming a commitment to truth and beauty, a commitment that at times comes at great personal cost.  He is offering an alibi for actions that are clearly, nakedly motivated by a desire for money and fame.  Someday, when sentient robots inspect the dross of our ridiculous civilization for clues as to what, exactly, went so terribly awry, they will come across the moldering archive of Frey's contributions to the world of letters, and those robots will weep until their face plates are streaked with rust.

Who is James Frey, anyway?  He's most famous as the guy whose addiction memoir, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, a runaway bestseller and Oprah Book Club selection in which he referred to himself as a Criminal with a capital C, turned out to be heavily fictionalized, despite the author's public assertions that the book was accurate and had even been fact-checked by Doubleday, his publisher (which, obviously, it never was).  Despite the subsequent media storm and an avalanche of hate mail, Frey kept writing, eventually publishing the novel BRIGHT SHINY MORNING with HarperCollins in 2008.  His most recent project is Full Fathom Five, a young adult book packaging company.

To keep this post manageable, I'm going to divide it up into three chunks: the first about Frey's memoir, the next on his novel, and the last on his book packaging company.

On the Memoir

I haven't read A MILLION LITTLE PIECES cover to cover, and the scandal surrounding it has been discussed to death elsewhere, so I'll do my best to keep this short.  But I do think the debate over this book provides a good illustration of the kind of "controversy" Frey has courted over his career. 

Because the thing is, in my opinion, there should be no controversy, at least not literary controversy.  What happened with A MILLION LITTLE PIECES had nothing to do with art and everything to do with money.  Frey was financially motivated to publish the book as memoir, not as a novel, and then, when the factual inaccuracy was discovered, he claimed to be an artist fighting the good fight.  The fact that anybody listened to him, that anybody took him seriously, says to me that our national debates about literature have degenerated to the point of total incomprehensibility.  In the 1950's, Americans asked more of their game shows than we do of the literary world today.

Consider this: according to an article on Frey in the Guardian, Frey's agent submitted A MILLION LITTLE PIECES to seventeen New York publishers as a novel, and all of them rejected it, including Doubleday.  Only when it was resubmitted as a memoir did Doubleday make an offer.  The words in the book were the same, but the categorization was different.  So what exactly did James Frey think was going on?  If he believed the accuracy of the book didn't matter, why did he think they changed their minds?

I would argue that there are two basic modes of reading.  One is to read for aesthetic pleasure, and the other is to read for information.  The concept of the "found poem," or of appropriated text in fictive works by postmodern authors like Donald Barthelme, hinges on this division of reading modes.  With a found poem, readers approach text that was intended to be read as information -- instructions in a grammar book, poorly translated warning signs around a swimming pool -- in an aesthetic mode.  And of course, approaching a book in a search for information can grant value to aesthetically questionable material.  Everyone's familiar with the old saw, "Truth is stranger than fiction"; we say that because we allow nonfiction writers liberties that we wouldn't give their fiction-writing counterparts.  Coincidences, freak accidents, out-there statistics might seem "unbelievable," but we believe them anyway if we're given to understand they've been verified.  What frequently makes nonfiction interesting is the very thing that makes fiction uninteresting: it seems implausible, farfetched, too perfect -- like someone made it up.

Fiction sometimes contains kernels (or more) of information -- historical details, geography, the nuts and bolts of a character's profession -- and nonfiction can offer aesthetic pleasures, too.  Naturally, the reader often switches back and forth over the course of the book, sometimes enjoying a well-crafted turn of phrase, sometimes learning a new fact.  But for a book to "work," it doesn't have to provide an equally valuable experience to readers in both modes.  For example, I would strongly advise against reading CHRONIC CITY for factual information about the life and death of Marlon Brando, or most of the other pop culture subjects it touches on, even though the aesthetic pleasures it offers are off the charts.  And I haven't read Obama's DREAMS OF MY FATHER, so this is not my opinion, but I've heard several (hugely Obama-supporting) folks comment on its overdone sentimentality and unpalatable earnestness; at least one rabidly Democratic yet perhaps painfully astute reader told me it "sucked."  But a book of its kind at least has the potential to convey information that could be useful to voters: factual information about Obama's background, and the added bonus of some insight into his values and reasoning.  Unless it was ghostwritten.  In which case I'm going to have to vote for Palin next time, because everyone knows she writes her books all by herself.

My point is that evaluating the quality of a book is always partly dependent on knowing if it's supposed to be read as nonfiction.  And whether or not Frey saw his own book as having enough artistic merit to draw an audience primarily motivated by aesthetic pleasure, the rejections must have made him realize that the publishers who had read it didn't agree -- that they believed it would be valuable to readers only for the information it contained, presumably the life lessons gleaned from his battle against addiction.  This meant that he had three options.  
  • First, he could have tried submitting the novel to small, independent presses and first novel contests as it was, or with minor revisions, "sticking to his guns," trusting his original vision.  If he was unable to sell his first book, he could put it in a drawer, write another one, and go through the process again.  
    • Let me point out two obvious things about this: first, it would not have made him rich and famous, and second, it would have been sincere and honest, both factually and artistically.  Our culture values wealth and fame and does not value factual or artistic sincerity and honesty, so in the story of James Frey, many people have concluded that the mere possibility of wealth and fame, the simple temptation of it, must have been utterly irresistible -- that no further explanation is needed to understand why Frey did what he did. 
    • Maybe this would be more plausible if James Frey was straight out of rehab, couch-surfing and freegan, so that publishing a book looked like the only possible golden ticket to save him from his depressed existence.  But that was not the case.  James Frey was a successful screenwriter who penned the 1998 David Schwimmer vehicle Kissing a Fool, among other scripts, and the advance Doubleday ultimately offered him for the book was $50,000 -- not chump change, by any stretch of the imagination, but not big bucks by Hollywood standards either.  One might, in fact, argue that he had already sold out, so doing it twice was unnecessary.  In any case, they made him an offer, to misquote the Godfather, that he certainly could have refused.
    • Let me point out another obvious fact: many, many talented writers -- writers much more talented than James Frey -- have penned loosely autobiographical first novels and found themselves in a situation similar to the one he was in at this time.  Most of them have not falsely published those novels as nonfiction, instead choosing to go the route described above (sticking to their visions, etc.).  What happens to these people?  No one puts them on TV, or gives them bags of money with which to purchase tasteful modern art.  No one publishes their second books with a huge publicity campaign, fueled by the controversy over their first, or reviews those second books in the New York Times, just to give them another chance ("He got a second act. He got another chance. Look what he did with it. He stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park.").  These people are left, at best, to a small readership, second best, to their pleasures of their art, and at worst, to the prospect of a life in which that art lives on only in a diminished aspect.  Rejection is horrible, those editors' terse emails like a spam virus of the soul, stalling everything that once opened with ease, closing every window.  Yet it's a reality too, one that sorely tests the author's commitment to what he claims to hold dear -- a reality Frey wasn't willing to face.
  • Second, Frey could have tried to "fix" the novel, to make it more palatable to commercial editors. Although memoir was a popular genre when he was submitting his book, first novels were -- DUH -- still getting published.  They're still getting published now, with the economy in the toilet!  Frey could have studied up on what sold and tried to make his book conform to those narrow standards.
    • But that would have taken work.  Next pls.
  • Third, James Frey could have rewritten the book as a memoir, adhering as closely as he could to the reality of his past while still making the prose, structure, and overall vision beautiful, engaging, and insightful.  Because -- and again, here, we enter the Kingdom of the Obvious -- people do, in fact, write memoirs that are actually true, and actually literary nevertheless.
    • I imagine that, like every issue of the New York Times, all memoirs contain some factual errors -- "honest mistakes," the kinds of slips of memory and detail or even occasional, minor, intentional embellishment that we all make when recalling our lives.  I am not arguing for raking authors over the coals for these kinds of errors. 
      • However, the errors in A MILLION LITTLE PIECES are not these kinds of errors.  Frey recalls, for one example, that he spent three months in prison, when in fact he spent no months in prison.  That would probably be the first thing I'd suggest he edit out.
    • But again, doing this would have taken work.
What Frey decided to do instead was not one of the three options I would have presented to him. He decided to do something that no ethical person would consider an option at all, which was to sell a largely fictional book as nonfiction.  He did so knowing that the book's primary selling point in the eyes of the publisher was the fact it was supposedly true.

Frey has pointed out that the publisher must have also known the book was untrue, because the revisions his editor suggested -- shifting timelines, altering characters -- were geared toward improving the story, not toward accuracy.  I have no idea what actually happened, but this certainly seems plausible, since a lot of sleazy people work in publishing.  But the fact that someone else allowed or even encouraged him to lie doesn't make sense as an excuse for lying.  To me, this reads a bit like Bernie Madoff blaming the feeder funds.

But here's the thing.  People make mistakes.  Sometimes they exaggerate or lie or get pretentious.  Sometimes they sell out, and not even for so much money that it makes any sense.  But this, in and of itself, doesn't mean they've entirely thrown their craft under the bus of their own greed, because sometimes they're also honest and repentant about their motivations.

For example: in his excellent essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," David Foster Wallace tears into what he describes as an "essaymercial" by Frank Conroy, author and chair of the Iowa Writers Workshop, which numbers among the promotional materials for a luxury cruise.  Wallace writes: 

The really major badness is that the project and placement of 'My Celebrity Cruise...' are sneaky and duplicitous and far beyond whatever eroded pales still exist in terms of literary ethics.  Conroy's 'essay' appears as an inset, on skinnier pages and with different margins than the rest of the brochure, creating the impression that it has been excerpted from some large and objective thing Conroy wrote. But it hasn't been. The truth is that Celebrity Cruises paid Frank Conroy up-front to write it, even though nowhere in or around the essay is there anything acknowledging that it's a paid endorsement...Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we reserve for coming to an essay. 
Yet, after being found out for his complicity in such a depressing, monetarily motivated scheme, what is Conroy's reaction?  Does he blame the limited literary-essay market?  Does he blame the brochure's publishers?  Does he call it a "coping mechanism"?  Does he say he "struggled with the idea of it"?  Does he claim he was bending genres?  Does he defend the essay as essentially sincere?  No. Instead he admits, with what DFW describes as "the small sigh that precedes a certain kind of weary candor":

"I prostituted myself."

What.  A.  Guy.

continue to Part 2...