Why I hate James Frey

…and what that his scam-artist scheme means for literature. In case you haven’t tuned into the controversy, I’ll fill you in, but I’m not going to play journalist. James Frey, an ex-junkie, wrote a book called Million Little Pieces. He tried to publish it as fiction and was summarily rejected 17 times. Miraculously, some powerhouse publisher decided to take him on with the stipulation they print the tome as Nonfiction memoir. Enter Oprah and her book club. The daytime diva found the book “heartbreaking” and “inspirational”, stamped her seal on the trade paperback, and made Frey an overnight millionaire. Soon, he was touring the country with cliched slogans, the new poster boy for overcoming addiction.

The book reads like the livejournal of a half-drunk fratguy (which is ironically what Frey was), and this review pretty thoroughly shreds any molecule of artistic merit hidden within. However, the controversy doesn’t stem from the sad truth trash got printed and made millions. No, as The Smoking Gun uncovered, Frey is a fraud and took Oprah (and her disciples) for a ride.

The nonfiction genre has been under assault for some time now: Hunter S Thompson and gonzo journalism, ultra-biased agitprop Michael Moore pieces, Fox News and its ilk. And I could just as well ignore the slimy huckster Frey – a con this big is right up his ally.

But the thing that bothers me most is the entire twisted cycle between Frey’s celebrity and the popularity of the book. It’s downright disheartening when literary success stems on the flamboyance of the creator, all the mindless meta-objects that latch onto pop culture’s sticky amoeba. Of course we’ve always had writers with a public image – Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Capote. But at least Hemmingway had scars from bullfighting and war; Fitzgerald sipped cocktails with America’s elite; Capote spent ten years investigating Hickock and Smith. At least those guys had artistic merit and a degree of integrity. Frey gets a DUI for bumping a lamppost and turns it into 3 month multiple-felony prison sentence. Complete with a stream of conscious profanity binge. 400 pages of it.

It’s telling that the “reading” demographic would slurp up such fluff, although Frey is an interesting addition to the cannon of Dan Brown and J.K Rowling. But the fact is, writers are not movie stars. They are not rock stars. They are recluses – introspective grindhouse factories of the written word. They should honor those words with the promise not to become marketing whores – another cog of the IP “franchise”.

Brett Easton Ellis doesn’t need a homicide conviction to make American Psycho a chilling read. And Nabakov can stay perfectly non-pedophile to construct Lolita. It’s called fiction. We are creators, not regurgitators.

That’s the sad part: not that fiction was billed as truth, but that somehow the work gains power from that farcical reversal. Frey is a true writer of fiction, and we’ve frauded ourselves.

Show Comments