James Frey Should Not Be Hung Out To Dry

I’m a huge James Frey fan – I loved both of his books  A Million Little Pieces and  My Friend Leonard. He’s recently been beaten up for embellishing his story as The Man Who Conned Oprah.  Richard Bradley also takes him to task on the always “entertaining and stimulating” Huffington Post.  James Frey and the story about his story have been on the Technorati Top 10 List for the past few days, once again demonstrating that all press is good publicity (I’m sure there were plenty of other books bought as a result of all the discussion.)

I’ve read through a bunch of this stuff out of a perverse curiosity about the whole situation.  The negative rhetoric seems to be “Frey wrote a memoir, stated that it was the truth, but he embellished a bunch of it and, when confronted, he and the publisher (Doubleday) lied (e.g. they denied the embellishment), causing millions of people to shell out money for a book that is a lie.”

The irony of this whole thing is amazing.  First, if you read the book, you know that the protagonist of the book (presumably 100% Frey) has a bunch of major issues with truth, trust, confrontation, and his own self image.  His climb out of a Hades-depth pit of despair is part of the brilliance of this book.  To think that his self-described pit was “precisely accurate”, his journey was “exactly correct” and his actions and emotional responses were “absolutely honest” is ludicrous if you know even a tiny bit about psychology.  As a friend said, “the dude is seriously fucked up” and – given this backdrop – you’d assume that there would be “some issues.”

Now – there were probably some tactical mistakes on the part of his editors and handlers at Doubleday for not (a) being proactive about saying “this is a memoir – some names and events might have been modified”, and (b) handling the backlash better (e.g. don’t issue an outright denial and hope the issue goes away.)  While there is an expectation that a memoir is “true to significant facts”, I’ve read my share of memoirs (and autobiographies) for people that I know of where I’ve got to believe there has been embellishment – I think it’s always hard to be precisely self-reflective – a person will exaggerate both the good (more good) and the bad (more bad).  And – these people aren’t – in the words of my friend – “seriously fucked up.” 

Even if you have the backdrop of embellishment in advance, these are still absolutely remarkable books which is the unfortunately point that gets lost in the rhetoric.  The noise around this makes me think of the rapidly shifting sentiment around the accuracy of published content.  I’ve always taken what I read in the newspaper at face value and it startles me to hear people saying things like “but it was in the New York Times – it must be true.”  C’mon – I recognize the value of an editorial process, but do you really believe that everything we see on Fox News is completely true and objective? 

I expect this issue will keep ping-ponging around for a while, especially if Frey (or Doubleday) tries to justify his position.  I’d recommend he add the appropriate disclaimer, apologize to anyone that feels deceived, and gets on with writing his next book (which I’m very much looking forward to, whatever it is.)

  • From all the stuff I’ve been reading it sounds like the real issue isn’t that he embellished, but the degree to which he changed “facts” essentially created a fictional character loosely based on himself. It really sounds like he is a middle-class white-bread guy who didn’t have that fucked up of a life, wrote a piece of fiction that was turned down, “re-worked” it into a memoir and then had it accepted for publication.

    I’ve avoided reading the book because I pretty much avoid any books promoted by the Oprah book club (nothing against Oprah, just the books she picks). Now I’m sorely tempted to read it to see what the big deal is…you’re probably right about him selling even more books because of all this.

  • RBB

    As a friend said, �the dude is seriously fucked up� and � given this backdrop � you�d assume that there would be �some issues.�

    Actually – that’s the issue – he wasn’t really fucked up. He sounds like a normal guy who just made up some bullshit stories.

  • I love that the publisher is now offering a “refund” to anyone that bought the book. It’ll be interesting to see how many people actually return it. Frey definitely foreshadowed his fiction by announcing after My Friend Leonard that he was done writing memoirs. Apparently he may have never even started!

  • Dave Jilk

    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil had some of the same factual issues. At least one reason why people do this is that it’s much easier to get to the top of the non-fiction bestseller list – especially if it’s actually fiction! Midnight was at the top of the non-fiction list for two years, but part of the reason the story was so entertaining is that, well, it appears that some of it was made up or modified.

  • Very similar to what happened with Frederick Lenz, who wrote Snowboarding in the Himalayas.

  • It’s ashame that there isn’t a really strong messaging about how this is clearly Frey’s reality — and then using Frey’s twisted reality to show that there is more to addiction than drinking or doing drugs.

    The sad part about A Million Little Pieces is that Frey stops drinking and doing drugs but he does not go through a recovery process that deals with his behavior issues. So, some of the personality issues are in fact things like not telling the truth, denial, inflated sense of self, etc.

    This IS Frey’s world — I have no doubt about that. And it IS his reality — regardless of what police or other records show.

  • Great reads to be sure. Who gives a shit if they’re entirely accurate…who is Frey supposed to be pretending to be, Stephen Ambrose?
    Anyone who has been around addiction knows that truth is a selective process even for recoving addicts. And as Jenny states, Frey, according to the books, never truly recovered…he just quit.
    I wouldn’t even care if Leonard was a totally made up character…he was still outrageously funny to read about.

    Lighten up…even so-called “journalists” lie and spin…what’s a novelist suppposed to do?

  • The irony of this whole episode is that he first submitted this book as “fiction” to book publishers and all of them turned it down. When he resubmitted it as non-fiction it was accepted.

    To me, it tells me more about the publishers than this guy!

  • So he embellished it a little-at least he didn’t decide his addiction was a disability he couldn’t overcome. Otherwise he would be on social security disability and broke!

  • Tim Whittaker

    You have to be kidding me? He lied, he flat-out lied! First, Brad uses a definition from Wikipedia instead of a dictionary (try http://www.m-w.com). Then he tries to rationalize because the guy is “fucked-up”. The point of the book is that he is no longer “fucked-up”. If that is the case why is he still lying?

    He liead about hitting a police officer, he lied about his blood alcohol level, he even lied about going to jail for 90 days-he never even went to the jail and the second book is about his relationship with another inmate in there! I have read both books and they are about redemption. If it is all a lie and he still won’t admit it, that shows that redemption did not happen.

    Also he is trying to promote a new way of dealing with substance abuse “Hold on”. This loses credability as he lied about how much he was drinking and using drugs.

    Brad, when do the lies reach a level with you that they are not ok? If he has been drinking and using is that ok?

    If the truth doesn’t matter, call it fiction. He tried to publish this book as fiction and it was denied. The reason is that there is power in the story when it really happened. In this case it did not.

  • sue

    I hope that James Frey gets to read our thoughts. I am an alcoholic, recovering,and always thankful for any information that helps “me”. What I got our of James book was that God gave us all free will…we can’t give it back to him and say “I’m powereless and don’t have the “free will” to ask Him for help. We’re all lyers, everyday. We are all imperfect, everyday,GET OVER IT that James lied to tell his story.He had guts enough to apologise to Oprah and the whole world…take what you can use and forget the rest.Thank you James Frey for your book, thank you for being human, thank you for trying.

  • dan

    As much as A million little Pieces was shocking and dissapointing to hear about- I only have one question for the reader. Would it make you feel happy if this novel was completely accurate? I, for one, am happy that James Frey is not as bad as he deems to be. Imagine spending your money to buy a book that has been established by a smartass, know it all, rude, priest beater. A man whom does not give a fuck about others- only if they do something for him. I am happy that this is not all true. I love James Frey. His writing talent is amazing, and his writing pieces sell great messages to the rest of the world. James Frey should be entitled to much more credit than he achieves. He should be looked upon by the rest of the world as a hero and leading role model for all that he has accomplished. James has done something many of today’s authors could not do- influence whole categories of people to read, whether he or she be young or old, rich or poor, healthy or not. As well as inspire the change of millions of people. This alone, should be enough for the Oprah Winfrey’s , Smoking Guns, and other heavily acclaimed critics of James Frey- to help them realize what his writing pieces have accomplished.
    I am sixteen years old, would like to Thank James Frey. Even though, I am not a drug addict or alcoholic, or even a convictted criminal. James Frey has help me cope with many struggles within myself. James Frey has assisted me in finding myself, and change. So once I again I would like to Thank you James Frey.

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