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.

1 comment:

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