Monday, January 09, 2006

This Is James Frey. He and Oprah Say he Wrote a Memoir. Turns Out It's Really a Novel. Is He Going to Give Everyone Their Money Back?

Something very interesting appeared on-line today. The Smoking Gun website, which usually runs funny mugshots of ridiculous suspects doing ridiculous crimes, today published a 6-page expose on the author James Frey and his Oprah Club book, A Million Little Pieces. Though it's sold as a memoir, according to what reads as a damning piece by TSG, not much of it's true.

I first noticed this book during my first visit to the excellent Los Angeles bookstore, Book Soup. I picked it up and checked out one of the blubs on the back of the dust jacket: Pat Conroy had weighed in with his opinion of the book. I forget the first part, a sentence or two of good stuff, really admiring, but then closed with, as though he were thunderstruck by the level of Frey's prose, "And the writing. The writing, the writing, the writing." I thought to myself, what a great frickin' blurb! You could write your own ticket with a blurb like that. I opened it up and read the first few lines and quickly put it back down, unimpressed. It opens with him on a plane covered in his own blood, piss, and vomit. It wasn't what he was saying that made me actively disinterested in the book, it was the how. Three words, period. Next line: four words, period. Next: ten. Next: one. You get the idea. Every short, staccato sentence was a new paragraph. If you'd done this with say, a James Ellroy novel (who also writes in the same, rapid-fire style), the book would bloat to a 6 or 7,000-page book really quick. It's a good read for some people, I guess, but whenever I see it, I can't deal with it. So the hardcover comes into bookstores with a lot of fanfare but meets a brick wall of reader disinterest, and promptly goes away. Trade paperback arrives a few months later, but it disappears pretty quickly, too. But then, like a year or two later, the damn thing gets picked for Oprah's Book Club. It becomes the best-selling Oprah Book Club book ever. He makes millions off of it. He buys himself a 2.5 million dollar apartment in New York because Oprah chose his book. I see it once more on the bookstore's all-important front-of-the-store tables, at the drugstore, the grocery store, everywhere. I'm tempted to buy it up to see what all the hubbub's about (I'm a sheep like that). I give it another try and read the first 3 pages or so, and still, the style just kills me. I think, if he'd written a real book, this thing would be about 100 pages, tops. Something about buying a 448-page book that should be 100 pages for $15 just gets to me. And it's still going strong. Even though Oprah and Frey already had their Let's-Everyone-Talk-About-the-Book episode back in October, it's still number one on Amazon as of... right now. No joke.

Anyway, the article's long, and written in that, smug, bitchy style that characterizes all of the Smoking Gun's stuff, but it's clear they did their homework and it looks like they've got Frey dead to rights. For example, he writes about an incident in his memoir in which he accidentally hit a cop with his car at about 5 mph one night out in front of a bar, the cop calls for backup, the backup comes, Frey doesn't get out, calls the cops "pigs", tells them to come get him out, they do, they beat him with nightsticks, and as the cops are dragging him away, he calls to the gathered crowd and tells them to fight the cops and free him. They don't. He ends up doing time for three months. What really happened, according to the Smoking Gun, is that, one afternoon, Frey drove across the street very slowly and parked in a No Parking Zone. When the cop came over, he noticed an open bottle of Pabst's in Frey's car. Frey was arrested and was, according to the arresting officer, polite and respectful during the entire process. He posted bail within hours and paid only a fine. No jail time. This is just one example of a major discrepancy between the book and reality. In the article, Frey cops to a lot of the things he lied or exaggerated about when TSG interviewed him which would lead one to believe he lied or exaggerated about lots of stuff in the book. It's almost like he didn't know the Smoking Gun was out to expose him as a fraud. The thing is, if he'd been truthful about his life, it's doubtful Oprah would have considered his book for her book club. Part of the appeal of his book is how crazy and messed-up his life was, and how amazing it is that he survived it all. The fact that the actual events are much less amped-up and interesting is a big deal for Oprah and her devoted readers because they were lied to. They read it as truth as the book cover directed them to ("A Memoir"), and now it turns out it was actually fiction. Oprah has got egg on her face. I'm very interested to see how it all plays out, especially since she's planning another James Frey show about how A Million Little Pieces saved some people's lives, or something like that.

One interesting note from the article that I think may be most telling -- Frey initially shopped A Million Little Pieces to publishers as a NOVEL. He made some changes and it became a memoir, and that's how it got published. I wonder if he just changed the facts surrounding the fictional characters so that they seemed like real people, but also impossible for an enterprising journalist to check up on (an example: an illiterate cellmate to whom Frey purportedly read War and Peace aloud to, has only a nickname in the book. Conveniently, Frey can't remember either a first or last name for the guy. Like I said, hard to check up on).

In any event, thought that was interesting. Hope everyone had a good weekend. More tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

more than 100 pages= BORING!

Peggy said...

just leaving a mini-comment from Hong Kong . . .


blankfist said...

This is Crane. He and Harwell say he wrote a life story. Turns out it's a really boring blog. Is he going to give everyone their time lost back?

Just kidding, Crane. I have some catching up to do on your blog, but I haven't had time recently. That's good! Because now I have plenty to read when I do in fact have time to catch up.

Fried Pepperoni said...

Damn you, Crane. Just when I thought I had left the nerdy literary discussions behind in grad school, here comes your blog to pull me right back in...

To be honest, the whole matter is ridiculous. There is no such thing - and there likely never will be - any narrative non-fiction book that is 100% accurate. Impossible. I doubt the Smoking Gun checked up on all the dialogue in Frey's memoir to make certain that when a person is quoted as saying "a", they weren't really saying "the" instead. Somehow, this term memoir has been applied to the genre of a particular form of narrative non-fiction and somehow it has been implied that everything within is entirely true. But I doubt very seriously this is even remotely the case. Do we really think every word of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is true to life, or even intended to be true to life? Nah. Or This Boy's Life? Nah. Capote pegged it: the genre should be called the non-fiction novel. Even he with his 94% recall knew that passing a retelling of the event AS the event is bullshit, if only because of the 6% missed.

This guy's getting singled out only because he was on Oprah. If he'd told the truth, people who've read it would've been disappointed just as I was kind of disappointed to hear Tim O'Brien tell that one of the great vignettes in The Things They Carried never happened to him - even though it says Fiction on that particular book and I read it as such. I think, in such cases, it's all about perception.

If this guy had waited ten years and then spilled the beans he probably would've been hailed for creating something "so real."

As always, blame Oprah.

blankfist said...

Yeah, everyone thinks this book is an honest to God true telling of the events in his life. My girlfriend read it and couldn't believe all the stuff he went through. Hell, she kept reading excerpts to me, and I remember thinking, 'wow, that's really messed up.'

But, can you really criticize him? I mean, if you had a novel that was loosely based on your life, Crane (which might not be all that interesting being that you don't have any run-ins with the law outside of an occassional ticket here and there), and you couldn't get it published, what's wrong with marketing it as a true account of your life? Is it dishonest? Yes. But, at least you'd have a 2.5 million dollar apartment in NY.

That's what you should do with your novel: market it as a memoir. I think it would work!

Brian 'Frey' Crane!

Rock on.