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James Frey, in case anyone still cares.
September 17, 2006 11:24 AM   Subscribe

James Frey, in his first interview since the whole I-sold-a-memoir-about-my-non-existent-life flap and extremely public Oprah smackdown. (previously mentioned in various posts)
posted by nevercalm (56 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
This was much discussed in the past on MeFi, so I figured a post was in order. I don't think much of the man, never read the book, but I think the implications could be important. Money quote from the article:

This interview with a self-confessed liar, a proven fabricator, is bewildering for both of us, and the only certainties that lie between us today are our dictaphones, his half-eaten pasta, and our mutual suspicions.
posted by nevercalm at 11:26 AM on September 17, 2006


*yawn*
posted by parki at 11:27 AM on September 17, 2006


Yawn all you like, this is a well-written article even if the subject matter has been trod like a deer run.
posted by CRM114 at 11:42 AM on September 17, 2006


You know, I went through some crazy stuff in my youth -- enough that as I was reading the book I was silently calling "bullshit" to a lot of it. There's no way he could have survived some of the stuff he claimed to in the book, so I wasn't all that surprised to find it had been embellished, myself. I do think he sort of betrayed the people who held it up (and he had to have known that many would) as an inspiration, and I can understand their anger. Having already been through my own recovery, it wasn't an inspiration to me whatsoever, but more a sort of curiosity, like a clown show of sorts, but in a hollywood movie sort of way, where the hero keeps taking blows that would kill most people, and gets up, straightens his hair & fights back again and again. Not very realistic.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:14 PM on September 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


So now we're posting stuff we don't even care about, just because it's been "much discussed in the past on MeFi"? I foresee troubled times ahead.

"Well, I think that, doing it over, I would probably do certain things differently," he says. "I would be more clear up front about the fact that it was a manipulated text, that it was a text that was not a work of non-fiction."

"Not a work of non-fiction," eh? I wouldn't buy a nickel from this guy even if he were selling it for four cents.
posted by languagehat at 12:25 PM on September 17, 2006


I posted it and I care, in that I think that the implications for publishing are huge. He has, however, become something of a punchline and I seek/sought to avoid as much snark as possible by saying, in effect, that "I know this guy is a lightning rod, he is much-discussed (if not over-discussed) and he may be a no-talent hack. But this is interesting. To me. Even though I know it's a dead horse which has had its share of abuse."
posted by nevercalm at 12:29 PM on September 17, 2006


Thanks for the link, nevercalm. Don't sweat the grumpy post-bashing wankers.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:33 PM on September 17, 2006


Well, I didn't think it was much of an interview. Nor was it much of an insightful commentary on the issues involved. Seemed pretty scattershot to me.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:37 PM on September 17, 2006


Thanks for the link, nevercalm. Don't sweat the grumpy post-bashing wankers.

Agreed!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:43 PM on September 17, 2006


the whole I-sold-a-memoir-about-my-non-existent-life flap

First, it wasn't his "non-existent life," it was his slightly fictionalized life, and yes I do think there's a huge difference (the kind of difference that, for example, makes Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas a work of nonfiction despite - maybe even because of - its overstatements and hallucinations).

Second, I thought it was an excellent book, one of those books where I was excited to pick it back up the next day and the day after till it was done. I assumed when I read it (well before the Oprah fiasco) that it'd been heavily embellished - no one is that hard, that iron-willed, and if as a reader you couldn't see the cartoon shades, I think that's your problem. (I mean, in the opening scene he's on an airplane with a bleeding hole in his cheek! How could a reader's reaction be anything else but "Hmm, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't get past security in that condition, guess this thing's a bit hyperbolic, heckuva read though.")

The ugliest part of all this, to my mind, is the grotesque, self-serving, hypocritical breast-beating of his publisher and agent and the book-business folks generally. I'm a writer, I know a bit about what the inside of a publisher's office looks and sounds and thinks like, and I'm reasonably certain that many houses would publish an illustrated edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion if their lawyers said it was no problem and the sales guys were anticipating a million copies in pre-orders.

James Frey is a bit dishonest? Dear me, what shall we do? Why, we must remove those books from the nonfiction shelves immediately, they'll sully the intergrity of Ann Coulter's new collection of flawlessly fact-checked essays and utterly ruin the reputation of all those politicians whose selfless, revelatory recollections of their inspiring relationships with good honest American people are in stores just now.

The real crux of this Guardian piece was this comment from Frey toward the end:

"I mean, that's sort of the irony, y'know? My agent said her integrity was questioned, but it wasn't questioned enough for her to stop taking the money."

Abso-frickin-lutely. Your integrity was questioned? Then stop taking your 15 percent. Give it to charity. Give it to one of those impeccable investigative reporters you're so goddamn keen to represent. Or else shut the fuck up and let the guy tell stories, and judge them on whether people want to read them and whether those readers find something true in them.
posted by gompa at 1:18 PM on September 17, 2006 [2 favorites]



The root canal without anesthesia business is a profoundly harmful and offensive piece of inhumane claptrap and it is disgusting that he still claims that it happened.

For one, the idea that addicts are so hideous and so at risk of turning back into demons that we deny them anesthesia promotes inhumane treatment and is patently false. Which is more likely to make someone want to get high-- unbearable pain or numbness? If you vote for the former, you have brains in your head.

Addicts can safely have any type of anesthesia and can even safely take opioids without relapsing if they are necessary for pain treatment. The idea that addicts should be denied pain relief for fear that it automatically produces relapse is based on callous and inhumane myths that have nothing to do with what actually happens and everything to do with Puritanical addict-bashing.

Second, it's patently ridiculous. Root canal is delicate work and could not be done without anesthesia unless the dentist had one of those skull immobilizing devices used for brain surgery. I have had a dentist accidentally touch a root and I literally leapt from the chair before I was aware I'd moved.

It would be physically impossible for the patient to hold himself still even if tied down and dentists don't have those immobilizing devices because even if someone was insane enough to demand no anesthesia, they wouldn't do it for fear of a later lawsuit.

He claims that the story in the book about the root canal is the way he remembers what happened.

If that's true, either the anesthesia used was ineffective or the man is such a wimp that even with a completely numb mouth, he was in agony.
posted by Maias at 1:25 PM on September 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


it was his slightly fictionalized life

Dude, did you read the smg report? It's his intensely fictionalized life. They could not find one, single, officer who ever remembers arresting him for anything worse than drunk driving. He is patently lying about his jail time since he gets all the details wrong. So one has to wonder if he's done anything worse than a bunch of coke with frat buddies.

Fine, he's an alchoholic and drug addict. He recovered, that's great. He's also confirming everyone's belief that america is covered with these crack-fueled sociopaths in every nook and cranny. He was a boring suburban boy in a boring suburban town who's worst brush with the law involved pbr. He's made himself a life out of preying on people's fears and that's reprehensible.
posted by lumpenprole at 1:32 PM on September 17, 2006


I haven't read either of Frey's books, and I don't really care about him one way or the other, but I found the article interesting nonetheless.
posted by pruner at 1:46 PM on September 17, 2006


I didn't bother to read the interview as I don't really care about the guy post-exposed. I did read the book when it was in HC (about a year prior to Oprah) and it was an okay read with Randomly capitlized words. I corresponded a bit with Frey via email and he seemed like an okay guy, but, clearly, his line between truth and fiction is so blurred that it's all he can see.

it was his slightly fictionalized life

You obviously didn't follow much of the controversy. It was far and away not "slightly fictonalized". It was pretty much an onslaught of lies. If memory serves (though I don't really care enough to ensure it did, in this case), he was arrested by a single officer after driving up on a curb, drunk; in the book, he claimed it was multiple police and that he assaulted one of them. IRL the cop has no recollection of a scuffle and says Frey came peacefully. In the book, he claims that he was in prison or jail for months and while there his girlfriend killed herself. In truth, he was in jail for less than 48 hours and she killed herself at a different time, in a different manner from how he claimed.

Those are just two of the things I recall. Hardly trivial stretches of the truth.

Did anyone ask him pointblank if he made up the gang rape stuff and ditching the girl on the street, naked beneath a garbage bag? If so, I never heard about it and just assumed hearing that that was also bullshit would have been too much for an interviewer.
posted by dobbs at 1:51 PM on September 17, 2006


He's still making plenty of money; if nothing else the controversy got MORE people to buy his book just to check it out.
posted by mrbill at 2:40 PM on September 17, 2006


The root canal without anesthesia business is a profoundly harmful and offensive piece of inhumane claptrap and it is disgusting that he still claims that it happened.

No kidding. I had a double root canal because of... well, I had a tooth knocked out when I was in middle school, then got the sh*t kicked out of me six years later that somehow activated a hidden infection under (what was left of) that tooth. Anyway, they had my mouth shot full of a lot of anesthetic, and still, when the doctor broke through the root to open the abcess, I screamed louder than I have ever screamed in my life and wanted to run from the room. It was THAT PAINFUL.

I can't imagine any dentist on the earth doing a root canal without anesthetic. I mean, I'd rather suffer through the abcess for the rest of my life than get that done again without novacaine.

What I still don't understand is why this book failed the sniff test of so many people. The root canal story and some of the drug stuff rang false to me before the scandal.
posted by dw at 2:41 PM on September 17, 2006


"Did anyone ask him pointblank if he made up the gang rape stuff and ditching the girl on the street, naked beneath a garbage bag?..." posted by dobbs

It's a fair bet that James "not a work of non-fiction" Frey will never answer directly detailed questions.

His stock response will remain the usual nonsense about revealing emotional truth.

Very glad you posted this nevercalm, despite your reservations. It's fascinating to learn that Frey has learned nothing.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:48 PM on September 17, 2006


sober up a drunken horse thief and what you got is a sober horse thief.
posted by quonsar at 3:16 PM on September 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


Over-ambitious and under-talented, and it makes him want to drink? He claims that he never intended to write just to become famous? He made Oprah cry, he sold a jillion books, he detailed a life that Bukowski would envy and he can't fathom why The Smoking Gun would be interested in his story? I can't believe he isn't kidding. I can't believe he got one over the public so easily, the guy seems like a real hack, poor him and his millions and his Black SUV and his Bodyguard. Really--how is it that the story isn't "How did this nobody pull it off?" The dissipated writer is not a cliche by now? And Avril Lavigne is a punk.
posted by toma at 3:18 PM on September 17, 2006


Good article, nice post - I agree with Devils Rancher and gompa.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 4:23 PM on September 17, 2006


Dennison sucks.
posted by bardic at 4:26 PM on September 17, 2006


It is hard to know what to believe about him, except that he is an exceptionally talented writer.

Just about tells you all you need to know about the journalist conducting the interview.
posted by hugsnkisses at 4:35 PM on September 17, 2006


gompa, it was far from "slightly fictionalized" or "heavily embellished." the entire book was basically a lie. just because you thought the book was great doesn't change that.
posted by mijuta at 4:57 PM on September 17, 2006


Abso-frickin-lutely. Your integrity was questioned? Then stop taking your 15 percent.

Why? His agent did her job and wasn't a lying little shit. She just happened to be innocently working for one.

Personally, I would have thought the damage to her reputation for representing this scumbag should have entitled her to twice her usual fee.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:23 PM on September 17, 2006


Why are people still buying his book? What is wrong with everyone?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 5:24 PM on September 17, 2006


It was rejected by 17 in all, including Doubleday, which would eventually become his publisher. The problem, it seemed, was that Frey was promoting it as a novel, a work of fiction.

As apparently truthiness, realityness is in demand.

To tell a story effectively you manipulate information ... I think that if stories were told always exactly as they really happened most of them would be really boring.

Uh yeah maybe, but also truthful or if you like, pretty closely approximating the actual events. Then again, most of the "reality" tv and stuff is scripted anyway, it is no documentary. Just fucking call it "reality" , eh ?

My agent said her integrity was questioned, but it wasn't questioned enough for her to stop taking the money

Maybe she belongs to the same group of Frey, wanna "save face" with declarations, but then the backroom deal is business-as-usual ! Hardly news, same ol same ol.

I generally try not to go through life regretting things, or playing the what-if game. Whatever I have said I have said, whatever I have done, I have done.

Cash cushions regrets, mine as well, expecially when it is not yours leaving the pocket behind a fairytale packaged as documentary.
posted by elpapacito at 5:26 PM on September 17, 2006


i think we should contact the guinness book of world records ... he's clearly broken the record for number of codependents ... and i'm not just talking about the people who believe him ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:33 PM on September 17, 2006


Ignore him and he goes away. Seriously is there any reason to pay attention to this clown?
posted by delmoi at 5:39 PM on September 17, 2006


First, it wasn't his "non-existent life," it was his slightly fictionalized life,

If by "slightly" you mean "majorly"

I'll never tire of the "if by x you mean ~x" construction"
posted by delmoi at 5:42 PM on September 17, 2006


It was rejected by 17 in all, including Doubleday

Has anybody ever checked this out? It almost seems like a ready-made backstory, knowing what we know now.
posted by dhartung at 5:46 PM on September 17, 2006


For anyone who's read the book, I have a question: Was there a story about a guy in NYC who would sneak art deco posters out of his work and sell them and use the money for Heroin? Like $100,000 in one year's worth? I remember reading that and finding it hard to believe, and when all this happened I thought it might have been an excerpt from A million little pieces.
posted by delmoi at 5:48 PM on September 17, 2006


I'd still like to know whether or not he did beat a Parisien Priest to within an inch of his life and leave him for dead, as he claims in the book. Because if he did, he might be a murderer. If he didn't, he's still just a big ol' liar.
posted by loquax at 6:03 PM on September 17, 2006


Fine, he's an alchoholic and drug addict. He recovered, that's great.

Seems to me his addictions simply re-emerged in another form. But hey, can he really be blamed all that much? Recovery dramas are a dime-a-dozen in prohibition USA. Not sure I can blame him for trying to squeeze a few more dimes out of it.
posted by telstar at 6:22 PM on September 17, 2006


I for one didn't believe a word of it, especially the passage in which he describes defusing the bomb on the speeding bus while evading the pursuing T-Rex.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 6:22 PM on September 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


loquax: I would imagine not.

"Hey, we have this dead priest who was beaten to death, and this famous American author admits to beating a priest almost to death on the same date, in the same location. I wonder if there is any connection?"
posted by papakwanz at 6:23 PM on September 17, 2006


Recovery dramas are a dime-a-dozen in prohibition USA

Yeah, because they're so rare in other countries. Any way you can bring Bush into the thread, telstar?
posted by slatternus at 6:45 PM on September 17, 2006


I haven't read either of his books, but I've read about the many lies he presented as truth in them. I find it disgusting that he tried to involve himself in a tragic train accident that he had nothing to do with, and the readers are supposed to sympathize with his "pain" and "guilt." Ugh.
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:06 PM on September 17, 2006


bush hasn't recovered.
posted by quonsar at 7:29 PM on September 17, 2006


neither has frey ... "oh, i wanted it to be fiction but the big bad publishing companies MADE me publish it as a memoir"

can we say stinkin' thinkin'?
posted by pyramid termite at 7:50 PM on September 17, 2006


Is it great writing, though, wonderchicken wonders.

I haven't read the book, but if it he were a kick-ass writer, I might, regardless of whether he lied in claiming it be autobiographical or not.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:57 PM on September 17, 2006


Every excerpt I've read has been trite, hackneyed, and generally poor in concept and execution. I think this book did as well as it did, because it created the seedy yet moralizing druggie/violence porn world that middle america loves to eat up.

See Fight Club, Requiem, etc.
posted by stenseng at 8:06 PM on September 17, 2006


The yawn factor for me is in the way he's still using the "all storytellers embellish" line. And I love the way he blames American puritanism, since Europeans weren't as excited as Americans by an Oprah flap. Now *that's* some serious self-delusion. Bravo, James.

This week A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard reside at number 24 and number 16 on the New York Times non-fiction paperback bestseller list.

*sobs*

*dabs eyes*

Oh well. People love their drama, I guess.

it was his slightly fictionalized life

Uh, right. The main subject of his 2nd "nonfiction" book was an invisible person he befriended during a non-existent months-long jail term. Slightly fictionalized? You've got to be kidding me.
posted by mediareport at 9:57 PM on September 17, 2006


Yeah, because they're so rare in other countries. Any way you can bring Bush into the thread, telstar?

Do you have any evidence they're not?
posted by delmoi at 10:19 PM on September 17, 2006


Also fight club was awsome.
posted by delmoi at 10:20 PM on September 17, 2006


Yeah, because they're so rare in other countries.

I think they are relatively rare in other countries. Here in the UK, for example, where "tall poppy syndrome" is perhaps more prevalent than the American love of a comeback, we prefer tales of abject failure to those of redemption. It's no coincidence that Fergie (the Duchess of York) went stateside to successfully reinvent herself.

I wouldn't say either cultural outlook is necessarily superior: Americans love to give anyone a second chance and that's great. Brits recognise that often people don't deserve a second chance and, pace Frey, this view obvious has its merits too.
posted by rhymer at 12:59 AM on September 18, 2006


For those curious about the quality of Frey's writing, Exile ran a great review before the whole thing was exposed as a lie.

For all Frey's childish impersonation of the laconic Hemingway style, this is one of the most heavily padded pieces of prose I've seen since I stopped reading first-year student essays. Frey manages to puff up this simple story to book length thanks to one simple gimmick: he repeats. Repeats the beginnings of sentences. Repeats the beginnings of phrases. And the endings. Endings of phrases. Phrases and sentences.

And while his prose is repeating, his tale is descending. Descending into Bathos. Bathos in which he wallows. Wallows. In bathos. Bathos, bathos, bathos.

posted by stammer at 4:03 AM on September 18, 2006


pace Frey

Many people misuse pace. I'm not sure what you think it means, but what "pace X" means is "despite what X says" or "contrary to X's opinion." (It's pronounced PAY-see and is from Latin pax 'peace' in the ablative case.) Not putting you down—like I say, it's a very common problem—just trying to spread information.

posted by languagehat at 6:03 AM on September 18, 2006


You know, I went through some crazy stuff in my youth -- enough that as I was reading the book I was silently calling "bullshit" to a lot of it.

Ditto. I also loaned this book to a few recovering addicts and they said it smacked strongly of bullshit, too, the root canal scene especially.

I put it to this: some people are highly competitive narcississts. Even their fuckups have to be more spectacualr than everyone else's. That kind of does a disservice to people who want to stop using, since it perpetuates the 'better-to-burn-out-than-fade-away/blaze-of-glory' myths about substance abuse, which often ends more pathetically than spectacularly.
posted by jonmc at 6:57 AM on September 18, 2006


Thanks languagehat. You're quite right about its misuse: in fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen it used correctly.

Oh, and stammer, thank you for the exile review.
posted by rhymer at 8:11 AM on September 18, 2006


Not-pace jonmc's comment - as it were:

If you can write well enough, you can make an ordinary-looking bloke staring at a dollar bill in a suburban gutter on a sunny day exemplify the depths of addicted misery.

Yep, Frey perpetutated the only-the-wild-men-of-their-demons-are-worth-describing rubbish.

It was because he couldn't see any other way to show his own suffering without the memoir equivalent of adding fast car chases, explosions etc to a conventional plot.

(I don't mean there's anything conventional about how anyone regards their own addiction and recovery: just that Frey went for the cheapest special effects because he's a shit writer.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:13 AM on September 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


so does this mean that Oprah was right to do what she did or not?
posted by chemchic at 9:48 AM on September 18, 2006


I still don't understand why America loves Frey's book pre-exposure, or a movie like Leaving Las Vegas or Trainspotting. Pitiful, drug-sodden anti-heroes and obsessive documentation of their many miseries. Who gives a fuck? Junkie has life problems due to addiction - film at 11? Why is this news?

That's the real story here, but I've yet to read an article about it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:35 PM on September 18, 2006


I agree. The subject of fictional narratives should be limited to hugs and puppies. Nothing else is interesting or worth the attention. Particularly examples of self-inflicted human misery. There's nothing to learn there, not at all.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:39 PM on September 18, 2006


Man. Integrity is everything to a writer.

I shopped my autobiography everywhere and I got basically the same responses:

"We like the part about the gun running. And you pimping the quadriplegic whores. Very gripping and disturbing. Buuuut we think you should change the ending... you know the part where you die..."

"Oh. Ok. So you want me to... live...?"

"No. No. Can you change it to... hmmm... howz about this... you died in the World Trade Center Collapse..."

"ABSOLUTELY NOT! I die by being eaten by sharks! I have always died by being eaten by sharks! SHARKS! How dare you impugn my integrity and those of our heros on 9/11..."

"NEXT!"
posted by tkchrist at 1:50 PM on September 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


I still don't understand why America loves Frey's book pre-exposure, or a movie like Leaving Las Vegas or Trainspotting. Pitiful, drug-sodden anti-heroes and obsessive documentation of their many miseries.

I thought that in America today heroes and victims are interchangeable. Weren't all the victims of 9/11 "heroes"?

Not that I didn't see this coming, what with the national religion's obsession with martyrdom. (no snark intended)
posted by dreamsign at 2:24 AM on September 19, 2006


The stories all actually happened, he just bought the lot from Cosmo Kramer.
posted by blueplasticfish at 9:15 AM on September 20, 2006


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