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.)