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...

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