by Catherine Harrison
Author Daniel K. Moran has said, "Actors are good liars; writers are good liars with good memories." And, as The Smoking Gun discovered, James Frey is a good liar, a best-selling liar.
His “memoir” A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah's Book Club selection, recounts Frey's drug addiction, crimes, and eventual recovery. However, according to the Gun, most of the crimes range from being greatly exaggerated to complete fabrication. His rehab experiences have also been called into question.
And now his literary reputation has been shredded. His literary agent has dropped him; his book deal is gone. His movie deal has disappeared. Oprah has turned against him. And he is being sued by numerous readers for literary fraud.
One Washington lawyer claims that his clients “wouldn't have read [the memoir] if they knew it wasn't true.” That's an interesting point, for a few reasons. Frey's book was not factual, but that doesn't mean that it contains no truths. I have found universal truths in various novels and short stories. The events did not actually occur, but their depiction felt real, felt true, and were even didactic. Truth is subjective—facts are black and white, but our interpretations of facts, how we feel about facts, are gray.
It might seem like I'm rationalizing here—clearly, when the lawyer said “true,” he meant “factual.” His clients did not want to read fiction.
In fact, many people do not want to read fiction. And I suspect that Frey was well aware of this. From reading The Smoking Gun article, it seems clear to me that Frey wrote Million as a novel and tried at first to sell it as such, but no publishers were interested. Thus, he had two options: he could either figure out a new marketing strategy for his book, or he could set it aside and write something new. Since the novel was at least in part loosely based on his own life, he chose to try to sell it as a memoir. And just like that, he found a publisher; he had made his book sellable.
Ask any aspiring writer, and he or she will tell you that it is incredibly difficult to get published. Publishing is a business, and publishers are generally interested in books that will sell well. Memoirs tend to be very marketable—particularly memoirs about recovering addicts/criminals. Just ask Augusten Burroughs.
Frey's decision to call his book a memoir was grossly dishonest and ill-conceived. But the thing is, lying in memoirs is nothing new. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway uses the truth as his shield while he eviscerates Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos. Lillian Hellman is now probably best known not for her plays or her stand against communism during the McCarthy hearings, but for lying in her series of memoirs, most infamously in Pentimento, a section of which was the basis for the 1970s film, Julia. And there are plenty of authors (including Hemingway and Hellman) who write stories and novels about real-life people and events, and call their works "fiction."
Nevertheless, Frey should have come clean to his publisher; barring that, as soon as Oprah took interest in Million, he should have confessed to her. Because when The Smoking Gun took down Frey, all memoir writers took a hit. Because, at least for now, "James Frey" and "memoir" are inextricably linked in the minds of the public, and thus in the minds of publishers. All memoirs will now be examined; the veracity of memoir writers will be doubted. Thus, it will be that much tougher for writers to get their work published.
But in addition to offending Oprah and readers who only buy nonfiction, and hurting the reputations of and opportunities for other writers, Frey has also damaged the efforts of many recovering addicts. In the book, he eschewed the 12-step recovery program. Instead, he just had a simple mantra: “Hold on.” And apparently some of his fans tattooed themselves with that mantra. His plan became their plan. But now some of them feel betrayed. Honesty is an essential component of rehabilitation, and some of those in recovery feel that Frey's lies cast aspersions on all recovering addicts.
This whole imbroglio is a Catch-22, a paradox. Frey's book was effective because it was shocking, but he is now being flayed because the shocking events never actually happened and he misrepresented himself. To me, what is saddest about Frey's predicament is that his lies overshadow the literary merit of his work. He still has supporters and his books are still selling (for now, at least). But he will forever more be known as The Man Who Lied to Oprah, just as Jonathan Franzen is known as The Man Who Said No to Oprah (you can find his book The Corrections on the bargain shelf at most bookstores).
James Frey's book is no longer seen as literature. It's just a crime scene and a train wreck.
In the end, I think that, while literary writers must write for themselves, they must publish, at least in part, for their audience. Because if there is no audience, a book will not be published. To some degree, when reading a book, the reader has to have faith in the writer, just as a listener must have some faith in a speaker. After all, whether you are trying to make a sale or instruct or entertain, there must be some trust and some loyalty. Artists are not required to be role models. But if they want to be respected, they need to respect their audience.
Catherine Harrison is the Senior Fiction Editor at JMWW.
Previous Home Next