The Lie Behind the Lies

Fact-fudging memoirist James Frey is being hung for the wrong crime

This is no news, really. Any barmaid will tell you that men can mythologize themselves and each other like nobody's business. Really, though, these young men are simply protecting their soft centers with layer upon layer of braggadocio, like drowning out Roy Orbison with the Scarface soundtrack. But to write from this point of self-ignorance is to send out a false report. Frey clearly wanted to write not of, but as, the person he wanted to be. His agenda was to glamorize himself, make himself look clear-eyed and potent at the expense of other people. Frey's mistake is one that all writers, even good ones, make when they're starting out. The self-glorifying or blame-dodging impulse is easy to spot. "No more misunderstood waifs!" I remember one instructor yelling in a writing workshop. And yes, he was yelling at me. I was 18 years old, and if anything I had written then were to be published now I would use it as a valid excuse for a major relapse.

What sickened me about Frey's book was not that he wrote it, but that it made its way through the supposedly literate gatekeepers in Nan Talese's headquarters. He had, it seems, tried to publish it as a novel several times, but found it more expedient, or succumbed to pressure, to call it a memoir.

I have my own two-penny version of this story. I had sent in a piece of autobiographical fiction to a good-paying national magazine that had previously accepted some of my work. Every week my editor would pass on suggestions made by various unseen parties as to how I might change the manuscript. This went on for three or four weeks. Since there was no guarantee of payment if they didn't take the story, and I desperately needed the money, I tried to follow every "suggestion" to the letter. At one point they suggested that they'd be more likely to print the story, and therefore pay me for it, if I were to call it a memoir rather than fiction. Frustrated and anxious, I said I didn't care what they called it as long as they called it accepted and paid me. (They didn't.)

So, was it more untruthful to call the work fiction or memoir? Perhaps there were too many facts to call it fiction, even if I'd changed names of things and people, but there were an almost equal number of condensations, composite characters, and apocryphal events. Why don't I feel bad about acquiescing to the magazine's troublesome categorizing? Well, for one thing hardly anyone ever read the piece and I didn't get on Oprah. For another, I tried not to present the material with an agenda, whereas Frey's self-glamorizing wafts off every page of his book. It's this scent that The Smoking Gun picked up, and careful critics sniffed it out immediately.

Oprah and her readers can be excused for their inability to smell a rat--who doesn't want to believe in self-wrought redemption? And even though Frey himself is something of a braying, bragging jackass, he's not a bad man, just a very silly one. But the publishing industry is another matter. It's not full of gullible people. They are supposed to be well read and are, after all, professional readers, the sort of people who know that something so artistically phony might very well be factually incorrect. But what really rankles is not the marketing strategy employed, but the fact that it seems to have been taken at face value. The fact that fellow cokehead frat boy Bret Easton Ellis gave it a blurb seems to have tipped few people off. Instead of being called out for what it was--something that seemed self-published, to put it kindly--it was greeted seriously and reviewed on its merits. Even the reviews that noted the bloviated prose didn't come right out and call it a hoax, which, aesthetically and morally, it is. Again mediocrity, mendacity, cliché, and cynicism triumph over integrity. This is particularly galling if you've read a lot of what might be called "recovery lit." Off the top of my head I can name at least two books that soar above Frey's. Read one passage of Ellen Miller's Like being Killed or Cupcake Brown's upcoming autobiography and you will never forgive the fact that Frey's book is a best seller. In fact, reading the review copy of Cupcake Brown's book, there were certain small facts I questioned, but never the truth of her tale.

Admittedly, this is an ancient, adolescent whine: "The world is unfair, alas for art, etc." But that doesn't make the pill any less bitter. I can't help thinking that if aesthetics were properly valued in both the public discourse and market, A Million Little Pieces wouldn't have made it through the door. Unlike the people who opened that door, Mr. Frey is guilty of nothing more than being both obnoxious and successful, for which he is not exactly going to go to hell. As for the people who marketed him, they're on their own.

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