1.13.2006

James Frey, gnawing that bonehead one more time

I didn't see the Larry King interview -- personally I don't think JF deserves my viewing time!But I'm curious to know what everyone thinks of this quote from Publishers Weekly: "Robert Gottlieb, of Trident Media Group, said he thought this event is something of "an anomaly" and that, in spite of it, publishers still need to rely on "the truthfulness of an author" as opposed to teams of fact-checkers."um, so like, what are the fact checkers for?

There are no "fact checkers" in book publishing. There are lawyers who vet a piece for libel or other actionable (ie something that might lead to a lawsuit) statements, but no "fact checkers".

In fact, it's not illegal to lie. It's not actionable to say you're a multiple felon if you're not. I can lie like a rug and call myself...well.. Miss Snark for example, and it's not illegal. But when you publish that, you call it fiction. Or indicate in some way that maybe it's not all quite "true".

But, what is truth?

Is it true that James Frey remembers things differently than other people? Most likely.

Is it true that he wrote things that can't be verified independently? yup.

Is it true he said he was convicted of crimes but cannot produce any substantiation for that? yup.

Is it true he was a liar and a cheat? no. It's true he IS a liar and a cheat, no past tense about it.

Is it true this will make no difference in probably a week, and for sure a year? Yup.

so, what is truth? The truth is that James Frey wrote a much better novel than a lot of editors gave him credit for.

17 comments:

Mark said...

Not according to Seth Mnookin. He wrote a cliche-packed diatribe full of fictional roles and characters passed off as factual, thus appealing to the emotion of readers on a false premise. It's doubtful they would have granted that kind of sympathy for a novel. He rooked em deliberately. And Mom is so proud.

Stephanie said...

For what it's worth, there are indeed fact checkers in publishing, just not in trade publishing. I worked for Houghton Mifflin and always had lots of fact-checking work to do, even as I moved up the editorial ladder.

Kelly G said...

Surely it's a contract issue - or at least may become so? I've never seen a non-fiction contract, but perhaps, if they don't already, publishers will begin to ask for a warrant that facts are indeed facts, just as fiction writers have to affirm that our fiction is original?
Then it's a breach of contract issue, and the publisher can deflect liability.
Is that already standard in non-fiction contracts? Would there be other implications or nasty side-effects for writers?
If I were a publisher, that's what I'd do - then at least if someone makes millions by defrauding the reading public and blackening your name, you can recover any resulting legal expenses and cover the fact that the book is not going to get any backlist sales.
Memoir, I understand, is a grey area (travel writing is, too). But it's easy enough to make clear in a piece of writing when you are "romancing the truth" (as my grandmother would say) for effect. False representation of yourself and your experience is an entirely different thing, if hard to measure.

Anonymous said...

Trickery isn't new to humans, nor should we be startled by deceit for a single purpose. Even God had deceived Abraham to sacrifice his only son for a reason (Gen. 22:1-18.)

So Frey's deceit is shameful, maybe his purpose was trickery, but did he not sacrifice one sin for another?

npetrikov said...

Getting a warranty from the author, as kelly suggests, would be cold comfort to a publisher. The publisher can't escape liability to anyone injured by a falsehood; it can only get indemnification (a legal term meaning "passing the buck") from the author, who by now has probably spent ever penny received from the publisher and has nowt wherewith to indemnify.

stephanie is right about fact-checkers, at least in the recent past: the mother of a chum of mine was a fact-checker (at Houghton Mifflin, I think), and was, with the exception of Miss Snark, the brainiest person I ever heard of. And modest? She treated me as if I had a brain in my head, bless her!

Anonymous said...

If Po Bronson had used anonymous or fictional characters in "What Should I Do With My Life?", I seriously doubt he would have been published. I think that's one of the reason the book used b&w pictures, as bad as they were. He was careful to point out he changed the names of only two subjects at their requests. Selling fiction as fact is just plain fraud. Just write fiction. It has more of a chance of getting at the truth anyway.

jamieford said...

"I'm going to try to write the best book of my generation and I'm going to try to be the best writer." --James Frey

The Globe reported that Random House will be offering refunds.

Diane said...

I would have enjoyed the book just the same had it been labeled as fiction. It would be one thing had he never been in rehab, but the criminal part of his life was only a small portion of what mattered in the story. And yes, I believe there was a story there.

That Girl Who Writes Stuff said...

So what SHOULD Frey have done?

What would you do?

I think most of the people reading this blog know what it is like to send your manuscript out to agents/publishers and hear “it’s not right for us” again and again.

What if a major publisher told you that they would publish your book . . . if it is a memoir?

I think running around telling the world you are a “Criminal (sic)” to make your project look sexier is crap. But, what if you were given that choice? Do you take the millions of dollars/millions of readers etc. or do you shove yet another manuscript in your closet?

I don’t think the world of publishing is going to change all that much after the Frey debacle.

This could happen again. And what if it’s you?

(And don’t say ‘the plan is not to get caught’ . . . that’s my answer.)

Ski said...

I'd guess there are two groups who are not offended by Frey's actions. The first are those who stand to make money on his book and future earnings from his fame. The second is that ever present bunch that never seem to have enough spine to draw a line in the sand. Everything is relative to them, they're perpetually intimidated at the thought of taking a stand.
I can understand the first, cash does funny things to people. It's the second group that I don't get. Oprah should be doing squat jumps on this guy's chest. She was clearly deceived, too bad she doesn't have what it takes to look us in the eye and admit it. Before this I've admired her for all she's accomplished. Today I see things a bit differently.

Rgds.........Ski

Rob Gregory Browne said...

It may not be illegal to lie, but it's now illegal, under federal law, to annoy on the Internet without disclosing your identity.

So it seems that Miss Snark and other anonymous bloggers may be in for trouble -- should anyone find their posts annoying....

I'm making no judgments. Just reporting. :)

http://news.com.com/Create+an+e-annoyance,+go+to+jail/2010-1028_3-6022491.html

Anonymous said...

I don't care if it's true or not. I've been in rehab, and that was a great book.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who has published about 30 non-fiction books--a couple of them bestsellers. She recently took on the role of a regular contributor to a big national women's magazine. She told me that in all her years of book publishing, nobody every questioned her. Her magazine articles, on the other hand, are fact-checked to death. And so it goes...

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark, I hate to contradict someone I so enjoy reading, but...

While indeed there are no official fact checkers in book publishing, and while it is the stated position of every legal department in book publishing that publishers do not "fact check," indeed some form of fact checking is done on those books deemed to warrant backup. It's done on an ad hoc basis. Sometimes it's an editorial decision; sometimes it's requested by authors themselves. A thorough fact checking is certainly not done on every book. I have, however, seen it done on fiction as well as nonfiction.

To clarify: It is not fact checking of the type done by, say, The New Yorker, whose fact checkers call the subject of an interview and read back their quotes and ask for verification. Nor is it the kind of process that would have prevented, er, exaggerations from littering James Frey's book.

As Nan Talese said on Larry King last night, no editor is going to ask an author: "Are you sure that really happened to you?" And no publisher-hired fact checker is going to dig around in someone's past to make sure he's telling the truth about his life.

The kind of fact checking I'm talking about is done to avoid the embarrassment of publishing mistaken facts (i.e., names, place names, dates, etc.). Depending on the complexity of the work in question and the sensitivity of the project and the profile of the author, the fact checking can go pretty deep. It's done mostly to protect the author.

I would venture to say that the plug has been pulled on other potential James Freys. Why it didn't happen here is interesting to speculate about. It may have been deliberate; it may have been an oversight.

Bottom line, though: people are going after Frey because he made tons of money off his storytelling, not because he lied about his life.

I don't see a movement anytime soon to delve into the "truth" of the hundreds of non-bestselling memoirs published in the last ten years.

ScaramoucheX said...

This case reminds me of the furor over the novel/memoirs of Jerzy Kosinksi,whose life was intentionally lived out by him as an inseparable intertwining of fact/fiction...ultimately, who cares? His books made good reading, in their time,but they do not date well...indicative of the influence of his personality upon his work. He dies, no one reads his work anymore...Also reminds me of Johnny Cash writing 'Folsom Prison Blues' without ever having been in a prison or convicted of a crime, yet he forever benefitted from the image that song made for him in the public imagination. Like Joseph Campbell said of myth - true, but not necessarily real.

nix said...

Two things:

1) Even in journalism, and even with every form of instantly available media sources, untruths are stated and then repeated as if fact.

I read the Larry King transcript. He repeatedly asks Frey and Frey's mother if they've spoken to Oprah, what they think Oprah would say, if they've tried to contact Oprah. Oprah Oprah Oprah.

Meanwhile, King fails to ask even medium-hitting questions. Did you spend 3 months in jail? Oh, it's subjective recollection? You are telling us that you recollected 3 months in jail when you spent not one night in jail?

Then, quel surprise! Oprah calls.

The whole interview was a setup for Oprah's vindication. Her call was hinted at in every way except a commercial promo promising "Next, Oprah weighs in!" King didn't nail Frey to the wall because it wouldn't look good for him to attack someone Oprah still supports. King and Oprah created a little make-em-sweat morality play, on live television, for Frey. Did you see how tense he looked as Oprah began to speak, and the small smile of relief he allowed himself at her supportive words, and his mom's more overt, hand-clasping joy? It was a mini-trial with King playing the DA who knew the judge would weigh in on the side of the defendant.

BUT...journalism covering the CNN interview invariably repeated the media con: "Oprah's surprise call"; "a surprise call from Oprah"...

King's segment ran overtime. there was nothing inherently riveting going on in the interview. Frey just stayed on message ad nauseum. They were holding for Oprah's call.

For me, the news pieces about the Frey interview are rewriting history in real time. And there's so much of that.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Oprah could have devoted five minutes at the opening of her show and destroyed Frey's career, if not his life.

Why didn't she? Oprah's audience looks to her for her oracular wisdom. Nobody wants to admit they were fooled, least of all somone who millions look to as some kind of demigod who they think is infallible.

Oprah is all too human, and it would be hard for anyone not to want to have her every word hung on to by her followers as gospel. If Oprah admitted she was mistaken, her credibility suffers and she might see her audienc erode. Public taste is so fickle.