1.09.2006

More on James Frey

The tenor of the comments trail on my "I told you so" post is best summarized by:

Whoa. Wait a minute. Are you saying that a junkie and thief did something dishonest?No way.


My disgust with this whole foolish mess is not that James Frey lied; it's that no one in publishing caught him, and now that he is caught, no one seems to care. Doubleday is "standing behind their author" according to Publishers Lunch.

Consider this: James Frey would have lost his job at the New York Times if he'd written that story for them. The New Yorker would never have run it. Why? They check things. Fact checkers.

For those of you who don't know what fact checkers do, go watch Cameron Crowe's "based on a true story" movie ALMOST FAMOUS wherein the fact checker at Rolling Stone pulls a story when the band denies the events happened.

Consider this as well: The Smoking Gun web guys didn't start out to verify MLP. All they wanted was Frey's mugshot.

It's beyond stupid as a business practice to not verify facts. Contracts have clauses that authors can't libel someone, can't infringe copyright, and god forbid publish anything detrimental to the work in the contract, but "make it all up cause it sounds better" isn't mentioned.

So, you ask, what's the problem? People make up stuff all the time. To quote Ira Silverberg -- who's discovered the hard way this week -- "a good hoax can be fun".

And James Frey isn't solely blame for this. Why would he expect to get nailed for this stuff, when nobody asked for verification before 1. handing him $50K; 2. booking him on Oprah; or 3. READING THE MANUSCRIPT.

So, what's the problem? This kind of fast and loose with the facts makes us look like nitwits. And by "us" I mean every publishing professional working in the industry today. We ALL look like nitwits when some guy gets fifty thousand dollars for turning a novel into a memoir and NO ONE QUESTIONS ANY OF IT.

Here is the little dirty secret: we knew. Oh ya. We all knew. We didn't have the smoking gun (ha!) but we knew. And no one did anything. And in letting this slide by, we look like exactly what we are today: sleazy nitwits.

Robert Parker talks about people who know "how to act" in his Spenser novels. He means people who have a core sense of integrity, who believe in and value some immutable things.

It's probably a mark of naivete that I'm disappointed we failed to meet that standard. But I am.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

A very long post...

1) MLP would NEVER have been this kind of bestseller as a novel. Period. I just finished MLP--was not attracted to it much, but I am a memoir junkie and wanted to see what the fuss was about. I didn't love it nearly as much as Oprah and a lot of it is totally gross (and I skimmed those parts), but what compelled me to finish it was the belief that this all really happened. That Frey could survive a root canal without drugs, live through all that constant vomiting and bleeding, and gotten sober through sheer force of will was amazing. I believed it all until I got to the end and he described his heroic rescue of his girlfriend in a burning crackhouse while she was in the middle of a bj to earn money for crack. Just seemed a little too "this would be perfect for the movie version" for me.

2) If the publisher continues to print this as a "memoir" they should be ashamed. In memoirs, conversations, memories, subjective parts of a story are up to the author--the old "what is reality anyway, but perception" argument. When FACTS like court records are falsified to create drama and presented as the truth, the author has commited fraud. If Frey wanted to embellish to this extent, he should have written a "based on a true story" like the Lifetime movies or Titanic.

3) Somebody at Harpo is getting fired! I can't believe that Oprah got duped like this. Several years ago I was a guest (reader, not author, unfortunately) on Oprah's bookclub and her staff was relentless with the fact checking. I didn't claim anything out of the ordinary--I just liked the book. Still, her staff insisted in faxes of my marriage license, my children's birth certificates and I can't remember what all else, just to make sure I was who I said I was, which was just a regular gal--nothing outlandish.

4) If you want to read a magnficent memoir by a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist, run to your local (independent) bookstore and buy "The Tender Bar." The author spent years tracking down people, verifying records, and the result is a fabulous memoir that is funny, touching, generous and insightful.

5) Miss Snark rocks!

Voix said...

One thing that I know for sure about drunks is they love to brag about how awesome they are and how terrible their very own tale of woe really is. If things like facts get in the way, there's no way for them to win! Silly facts, they don't really matter. . .

We know that if Miss Snark had represented this book, it wouldn't have gotten this far.

Deran Ludd said...

While the James Frey memior irregularities is interesting. The lid being totally blown of the whole "J.T. Leroy" scam as discussed in the NYT of Monday 01/09, is particularly outstanding, as scandals in the literary world go. What of the up coming movie? Not nearly as exciting when it is not based on a book by a former teen prostitute. And all the money paid out by publishers. I feel just a bit of the old schadenfruede coming on! Bartender; another very dry double martini!

Anonymous said...

Hope it's ok for a downtown literary agent to crash the party, saying only that we wish Miss Snark was OUR client! About the Frey flap - our dismay is that this may scare off St. Oprah (the patron saint of publishing) from recommending any more books: she's tried fiction, dead authors, and now non-fiction. What's left?

Bernita said...

And Miss Snark's post exemplifies why I admire Miss Snark so much.

Steve said...

This whole Frey thing reminds me of Norma Khoury, who was also outed as a lier by the Australian Sydney Times. Whatever happened to her? She just slipped under the radar and disappeared. Same thing will happen to this guy and things will be calm again until another similar stroy pops up. Sometimes I wonder if the publishing industry allows this to happen every so often to make more sales. Then again, I think everything is a conspiracy.

lady t said...

The real fallout will hit any new memoirists out there who will probaly be under more scrutiny from reviewers(and some publishers)to verify the facts. If Oprah's people
had some sense,they'ld encourage her to read Jeanette Walls'The Glass Castle,which is a wonderfully written and credible family memoir,and get
Ms. Walls on the show.

James Frey is going to be remembered as the Vanilla Ice of memoirists,word to your mother:)

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful occurence for the industry. We can only hope that it prompts a post-Blair/Miller bout of soul-searching for publishers. As Killer Yapp's associate points out, Frey's book isn't even internally plausible.

In my opinion, the success of Frey's memoir, along with that of the only book to out-sell it last year, represents a sad fact about American publishing: semi-literate writers often sell more copies than literate ones. I'm not talking here about literary fiction vs genre fiction or somesuch silly distinction. Frey is simply an appalling writer; sure, he has a good story to tell, but it's presented in sixth-grade English. Is this a failure of education or of marketing?

Stacy said...

Now this is what I meant. In Publishing, we are responsible for our own reputations, not the authors. They are trying to make a living, and if they are dishonest, as many people are, industry professionals need to take steps to protect themselves and their companies, just as authors need to protect themselves against unscrupulous Publishers and agents.

Somebody would be roasting over a blazing fire if it happened where I work, I can promise you that. And it would probably be the head of the department.

Grady said...

John Dolan at exile.ru has been railing about this Frey stuff for a while, accusing him of lying and plagiarism:

Frey got those anecdotes the no-risk way: he stole them from a real druggie/criminal author. A much better and more honest one, a guy named Eddie Little-specifically, Frey looted Little's great debut novel, Another Day in Paradise.

Dolan's original review from May 2003 is highly worthwhile, too:

This is the worst thing I've ever read.

A Million Little Pieces is the dregs of a degraded genre, the rehab memoir. Rehab stories provide a way for pampered trust-fund brats like Frey to claim victim status. These swine already have money, security and position and now want to corner the market in suffering and scars, the consolation prizes of the truly lost. It's a fitting literary metonymy for the Bush era: the rich have decided to steal it all, even the tears of the losers.

Anonymous said...

I work in an independent book store and we've been selling a few copies of this due to Frey's run on Oprah. For some reason, I read the first few pages of A Million Little Pieces yesterday morning and knew immediately it was chock full of lies.

The first 3 pages of the book are about how he wakes up and he's sitting near the back of a plane that happens to already be in flight. He has a hole in his cheek, he's bruised, beaten etc and covered in vomit, urine & spit. He has no clue where the plane is going. So he calls the flight attendant and asks where the plane is headed. She says "You mean you don't know? It's going to Chicago." And she mentions that a doctor & 2 attendants put him on the plane. As the plane lands, he tells her he can't get up on his own. She says can you make it to the door, it's not far. Once you're at the door, I can get you a wheelchair. When she asks him who is meeting him in the terminal, he has no clue.


I've lived this. My family had to fight like crazy to get my father on a plane following a severe illness while on vacation. The doctors & hospital had to sign off on it. The airline was understandably freaked out about letting someone who had left the hospital 1 day before get on their plane. We had to promise like crazy that my mother would be there with him to make sure he was okay at all times. And he was awake, alert and conscious.

I've seen almost every episode of Airline on A&E. If you've ever watched the show, you'd find youself questioning his statements about being on the plane. Should we really believe they'd put a dude on their plane who is unaccompanied, unconscious, covered in vomit & urine and has a hole in his cheek? No. Sorry. They don't let people on planes who are mildly inebriated and are fully conscious.

As for getting off of the plane and not being able to do it. The airlines have lovely devices known as aisle chairs for people who cannot walk to the front of the plane -- it's like a wheelchair in the aisle. Can you imagine that? Why wouldn't they use it?

And I would add, how much memory does someone have of these specific events when you've blown your brain out with coke? Hmmm.....

If he had actually been allowed on the plane in that condition -- why would the flight attendant be somewhat clueless that he was unconscious and didn't know where he was going? The flight attendants come by how many times and check your seat belt etc? Wouldn't someone notice the stinky, unconscious guy in the back?

Needless to say, I came home yammering that Frey's book is a big fat lie and that it's a work of fiction.

So much to my surprise, when I found all of the controversy online last night.

Wow.

Dave Kuzminski said...

There has been a recent discussion over at Absolute Write concerning a book that was being blatently promoted by means of reader reviews that were at first viewed with skepticism because the "author" was promoting an MLM product as a cure to cancer. That caused some writers to notice that one of the reviews was posted by a medical expert who's been dead for years. Then someone thought to do a search and compare on one of the reviews because the context slipped in and out of clarity. Turned out the reviewer had cribbed part of the review from the review of another book. Then more of the reviews were checked and those also turned out to be plagiarized. One writer actually ordered the book and has reported finding a number of passages that appear to be plagiarized from other books without any attribution leading one to the conclusion that those are also plagiarized since someone given permission would know to use footnotes and such in stating where the information came from.

Sadly, the publisher might be protected by their contract clause stating that the author warrants that he is the author and that there is nothing libelous or stolen in the accepted manuscript. We can only hope that if this ever goes to court that a judge will rule that the publisher should have noticed the lack of attributions and is thereby equally guilty. I'm sure that would make a civil suit worthwhile since PublishAmerica has much deeper pockets than the believed-to-be 19-year old who claims to have written the book.

Anita said...

I guess I'll swim against the tide here and mention that:

1. There's plenty of books in the non-fiction category that contain lies, half-facts and exaggerations. Just check out the weight loss category for starters.

2. I really, really liked (and recommended to friends) MLP. Frey's voice was completely original, and I was intrigued by the story he had to tell. I would have happily bought and read the story as fiction, although I don't think it would have been quite as gripping. There's a market for "raw" - - look at television a la The Soprano's.

Do I think he should have lied - no? Do I blame him - no? He's an ex-drug addict for goodness sake. I pretty much guessed that some of the story had to be exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Is it really that much different then the creative editing that goes on in documentaries or "reality" television?

Anonymous said...

Re: the Frey fray:
Fact-checking is actually alive and well....but only if you dare say something unflattering about someone who might get it in his head to sue. My memoir was published by a major New York publisher and it was fact-checked and vetted by the legal department within an inch of its life. Indeed, the lawyers were so thorough I was asked to change a harmless description of my step-brother. I called him "A 40-year-old who worked as a temp." Even though these facts were easily verifiable, the description was deemed to be potentially libelous because the SUB-TEXT suggested he was a loser. In this day and age, the legal departments of publishers are only concerned when an author might be INSULTING SOMEONE WHO CAN SUE, not if the author is lying about something in his own past. Obviously, he's not going to sue himself for defamation of character.

Nora McCrea said...

Another similar case was dramatized in "Shattered Glass" where a Washington Post correspondent falsified all his human interest stories, excellent movie co-starring Chloe Sevigny I might add. I don't remember the correspondent's name, but he went on to publish a novel titled "The Fabulist." Of course, unlike Frey, he really could write.

Miss Snark said...

Re: Eddie Little and ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE. Eddie is a great guy. I had a chance to meet him and spend some time with him when that book came out. It was riveting. It's also a novel, not a memoir. Therein lies the difference.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark, What do you think of the whole JT Leroy brou ha ha?

Kafaleni said...

My friends and I have been doing a LOT of emailing about this, and the basic consensus is

1. Facts should never get in the way of a good story.

2. If they do and you decide to change them, don't market your book as NF!

3. If your publisher wants to market the book as NF, don't sit back and say "ok, guys, whatever you want.." TELL THEM IT'S FICTION.

Now, once upon a time, my brother was an addict. There's about 6 years of his life that he barely remembers, and what he does remember has nowhere near this degree of clarity. My brother pulled himself free (and I'm immensely proud of him), but he'll never be able to write a book about it, because there's barely anything there that we haven't told him happened.

I haven't yet read MLP, and I'm pretty sure that I won't change that now.

bordermoon said...

PS -- here's how one enamoured reviewer describes RIGOBERTA in an Amazon.com review:

as a "biomythography"

I now go to fling myself from the highest paragraph....

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Dear anonymous,

Are you suggesting that readers are simpletons who don't understand that memoirs are the author's interpretation of fact?

Certainly somebody should have checked it out and avoided all this egg tossing, but even in a court of law the ultimate culpability of a liar does not rest on the publishing company who failed to expose the lies. It rests on the liar.

If the publisher continues to print the book, it most certainly should NOT be ashamed because it will most likely be an economic decision based on the number of readers who are, based on exposure of the fraud, now rushing out to read the lies.

Now if you'll pardon me, I'm in the middle of reading Errol Flynn's "My Wicked, Wicked Ways" and I am about to find out if he single handedly abolishes slave trading and launches the career of Castro.

nix said...

Um, Anonymous, as a 42-year-old temping as we speak, let me assure you that your description of your stepbrother (""A 40-year-old who worked as a temp") is not "harmless." I felt like a loser reading it, and I'm not even emotionally invested in you. It's a put-down. If my family thought of me or described me that way, let alone in print, I'd be distraught.

And about all this hoaxery...isn't it sort of a cultural fascination with bad boys, with the media elite playing the part of the "good girl"?

Anonymous said...

Is this the same James Frey who wrote the books, How to Write A Damn Good Novel and How to Write A Damn Good Novel II? I have to admit, I love those books. I love books on writing anyway, but those two, especially the second one, are real keepers.

Feisty said...

Anonymous: I also published a memoir that was fact-checked to death and I was also asked to change some things I said about my step-mother. The concern was people who could/would sue. Not whether my story was true or not.

Because my step-mother was a former legal secretary and could talk the talk, the book was nearly canceled. To save it, my editor asked that I make it anonymous, names and places changed. Along with that went any plans for promotion. (Thank you, Step Mother.)

No one in all that time ever questioned whether my story was true orfalse. It was just accepted that it was true because I said it was.

And this was a big publisher.

Anonymous said...

Anita - don't be so sure that frat boy was even an addict. As a child of privilege, he might have have gone in to rehab after Dad found him with an half a gram of white, naughty boy. He smacks, no reeks of poseur and I found the excerpts laughable.
Nora - you're thinking of Steven Glass, and Frey is most certainly another "fabulist".

Anonymous said...

According to Frey's website he will be appearing on Larry King Live tomorrow night.

Anonymous said...

You can't falsify the truth and then call it a novel. It doesn't work that way. In a nonfiction story, if a character spends close to $10,000 on medical care for a cat (to borrow an example from a colleague's essay), it's important because it's a central fact that really happened. In a short story or novel, that detail would probably be over the top.

Frey could have written a novel, but he would have to understand the difference between lying and invention. As a writer, I'm NF to the bone--I couldn't make up a fictional detail at gunpoint--but as a reader, I do understand that much about fiction.

Anonymous said...

-----
Doubleday suggested on Tuesday it was unconcerned about the book's accuracy. "Memoir is a personal history," the publisher said in a statement. "By definition, it is highly personal."

"He represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections," Doubleday said.
-----
The last line is Doubleday's out, can't you see? If it turns out that he _purposefully_ wrote things that were _contrary_ to his recollections (AKA he lied) then Frey is fried. I just can't wait to see what Oprah and his publisher do to him.

Anonymous said...

Anyone want to check to see if Dave Eggers' parents are really dead?