James Frey: A Million Little Dollars, others

James Frey sells novel for two million to HarperCollins. Emily Gould at Gawker does a lovely job of explaining why she’s pissed:

Frey didn’t just pull an Augusten Burroughs—it’s not like the lies were “discrepancies” attributable to “we all have our own personal truths,” though he did use nearly that exact lame line. He blatantly wrote about factual things that never occurred as if they’d happened to him, and in doing so, made his readers feel sympathy and vicarious pain. He toyed with our emotions, and when we found out we’d been lied to, we felt betrayed. I did, at least—and, hey, Oprah did! And everyone who said, “well, it’s still a really well-written book” seriously has something wrong with them.

She also uses this excellent George Saunders quote in the same piece to punctuate just exactly what has her worked up:

Working with language is a means by which we can identify the bullshit within ourselves (and others). If we learn what a truthful sentence looks like, a little flag goes up at a false one. False prose can mark an attempt to evade responsibility, or something more diabolical; the process of improving our prose disciplines the mind, hones the logic, and most importantly, tells us what we really think.

I’ve had people around me make every kind of argument that’s displayed down in the comments section accompanying this piece. People I really respect have defended him and the book, which. . . I couldn’t read at the time because of the lack of indented paragraphs and the odd paragraph justification–that seemed so arch. So very bogus. My vision was blurred red by all the flags. I also worried that I would now have students doing this sort of punctuation, just when I finally got them to stop with the footnotes. And when the people I respected defended him, I thought, You have no boundaries.

I’ve have a lot of friends who’ve struggled with addictions and besides being offended by the above, much like Emily Balk, Frey’s book struck me as particularly hurtful for its whole ‘I don’t need a program to get sober’ thing. It’s exactly the sort of lie a recovering addict tells right before you find him or her at home, in an apartment full of empty liquor bottles. And the sort of thing that can get some people to avoid getting the right help.

My first reaction to seeing this was, Well, at least it’s a novel. He’s in the right business for what he does now. But the interesting will be whether he really IS a good writer, or whether he’s only good at lies when he thinks you believe it’s true.


  1. I didn’t know about this. It’s so infuriating that the little worm can get a novel published after what went down. No wonder we writers are half insane.

  2. I agree. But yesterday a piece by Stephen Elliott appeared in the SF Chronicle books section; the title says it all: “Focus On the Words, Not On the Writer.”

    In the piece, Elliott says the focus on writers’ personalities and the insistence on validating books based on whether the author is pretty/transgressive/famous enough obscures the value of their books. To wit, he said it didn’t matter that there was no real J.T. LeRoy.

    I don’t agree with that at all. It was good to see your post.

  3. I agree with Elliott that the focus on writers’ personalities is bad—I agree entirely with him there. But the problem is to say that people who’ve sold things based on personal myths, like Frey and JT LeRoy, shouldn’t then also be judged when those myths don’t align with the work—when they are shown to be, in other words, fraudulent.

    If JT LeRoy’s work hadn’t been accompanied by the personal myth, would there have been as much interest? And in Frey’s case, he did sell a memoir—in a modern way, establishing his career in fact on performing his chosen and in this case invented personality in public, in print. Memoirists of his kind run the risk of having to always be that adored public figure, and as Frey discovered, when he was seen to be fraudulent, there’s a price to be paid when you aren’t that person, or you don’t want to be anymore. While we shouldn’t judge these works on their author’s personalities and looks, we also shouldn’t then sell these works on them also. And yet marketing is what it is.

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