Best-Selling Memoir Draws Scrutiny
In an interview with The New York Times, Frey said that he originally envisioned A Million Little Pieces not as a memoir but as a novel. "We were in discussions after we sold it as to whether to publish it as fiction or as nonfiction," he said. "And a lot of those issues had to do with following in a legacy of American writers." Mr. Frey noted that writers like Hemingway, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac had written very autobiographical books that were published as fiction.
When Doubleday decided to publish the book as nonfiction, Mr. Frey said, he did not have to change anything. "It was written exactly as it was published," he said.
The problem with being a writer in New York is that a lot of people who want to be taken seriously as deep-thinking scribes come here. New York is to writers what Los Angeles is to actresses. Shake a tree, and ten fall out. In order to stand out you need great talent, great connections or a great shtick. A perfect storm would be a culmination of all three, accented with movie-star looks. (Which most writers don't have, otherwise they would be in showbiz.)
So what's a writer to do to stand out? Thousands of books are published every year, yet maybe 20 or so receive attention. After the months and years it takes to write a book, you'd think a little validation would be in order. Not so in the publishing industry. There is no applause, no calls for an encore. You write your book, take your advance (if you're lucky) and hope that your family doesn't ask for free copies.
Enter James Frey and J.T. LeRoy. In order to get people to pay attention to their work, a memoir and a few novels, they took on a persona. For J.T. LeRoy, it was the abused, reclusive transsexual, still trying to get comfortable in his/her own skin despite the admiration of literary and Hollywood hot shots. For Frey, it was a grizzled, recovered addict, a suburban rebel without a cause.
James Frey charmed and shocked audiences with his tales, marketed as a memoir, about his time spent at the Hazelton clinic in Minnesota. Readers were pulled in by his physical struggle, his refusal to take on a 12-step program and by the characters he met along the way. He was so impacted by this time in his life that his second book, My Friend Leonard was a spin off of the first. Frey's language was so powerful that it brought Oprah to tears, and him onto her show.
It makes me wonder how many other James Freys and J.T. LeRoys there are out there, giving readings, signing books, and laughing all the way to the bank.
Oprah calls Larry King to defend embattled writer
Oprah Winfrey came to the defense Wednesday night of beleaguered author James Frey, whose best-selling memoir has fallen under fire, saying it is incumbent upon publishers to more accurately market their books.
"Although some of the facts have been questioned . . . that underlying message of the redemption of James Frey still resonates with me, and I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read the book," Winfrey said in an apparently surprise on-air call to CNN's "Larry King Live" on which Frey was a guest. "Whether car wheels rolled up on a curb . . . is irrelevant to me."
Frey's televised appearance was the first time he or Winfrey have spoken publicly about the controversy over A Million Little Pieces, which began last weekend with a report by the "Smoking Gun Web" site that called into question the veracity of key moments, particularly altercations with the police, in Frey's purported retelling of his past drug abuse and rehabilitation.
"I am disappointed by this controversy," said Winfrey, who selected Frey's memoir for her readers' club in October (2005). "I rely on the publishers to define the category that a book falls within and also the authenticity of the work," Winfrey said in an apparent rebuke of how the book was marketed.
The controversy hasn't hurt sales. A Million Little Pieces remained Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com's top seller Wednesday, and led all 12 best-seller lists monitored by industry web site Publisher's Marketplace. There are 3.5 million copies of the book in print.
Frey, dressed in an open-collar blue shirt and joined by his mother for part of the interview, said he was surprised by the inquiry into his accounts of committing crimes and run-ins with police, saying that "The Smoking Gun" had targeted only a few pages of a 400-plus page book. Yet Bill Bastone, who wrote the Smoking Gun article, said Monday the Web site had tried to verify events only for which there would be a public record –the legal encounters–and did not try to substantiate other portions of the book.
Frey's self-perception seems to have changed. When King asked Wednesday whether Frey was a "bad guy" when he was abusing drugs, Frey responded: "I don’t think I was a bad guy. I think I was a flawed person." But when he appeared on Winfrey's show October 26 (2005), Frey painted his past much more starkly: "I was a bad guy."
More misleading literary works
The tradition of the fake that has led to best sellers like Alex Haley's heavily plagiarized "Roots" is now taken up by James Frey, whose "A Million Little Pieces" has sold 3.5 million copies, due largely to the fact that Oprah Winfrey, the American queen of goodwill, chose it for her book club.
Haley was forced to admit he cribbed from Harold Courlander's "The African" and paid the author $650,000 in a plagiarism suit. And now, the Web site www.thesmokinggun.com has devoted weeks to pulling Frey's gaggle of grotesque events closer to the truth. The truth seems to be that far more than a few of the "memoir's" episodes were made up. His tales of violence and brutal sex and prison are no more than the kinds of special effects that are passed off as replacements for personality.
Haley proved that racial suffering was a product, and James Frey seems to be proving that, by building upon the sleaze of Jerry Springer and the goodwill of Oprah Winfrey and the infinite interest women so often have in bad guys, you can become a millionaire. All you need to do is sell a plastic pig in a poke, make sure that you claim it has all of the real meat, all of the real hooves and all of the mud and stink a reader might be itching to experience.
Why you still can't trust everything you read
It's the story that broke on a million little weblogs.
By now, even if you haven't read the book, you're probably aware of the controversy surrounding the non-fiction bestseller "A Million Little Pieces". Apparently, James Frey's memoir of drugs, projectile-vomiting, police encounters and prison stays is not so much non-fiction as non-true.
The lines have been drawn connecting Frey's alleged lies to the plagiarism of New York Times reporter Jayson Blair or the recent Wikipedia.com controversy, news outlets have commented on artistic license and embellishment versus all-out fabrication, and everyone is waiting to hear how Oprah is going to react. Her decision to make Frey's memoir an Oprah Book Club selection certainly hasn't hurt his 1.77 million in sales.
The story that isn't being reported, the story that will be written in newspapers and magazines and broadcast on every network's evening news in the coming months, has nothing to do with plagiarism and an author's untruths. The story that will hit the major media outlets soon will be the story of how these untruths were first reported and where this story first broke.
All this media coverage over a little story on the internet
It is really a rather long and detailed story on the internet. "The Smoking Gun", or thesmokinggun.com, posted its extensive six-page [six very long "pages"] report on January 8th. In two days its allegations were broadcast on news channels nationwide. Not bad for a website that specializes in embarrassing celebrity mugshots.
The story is well-packaged, with a sharp new layout (unlike the site's typical posts on a simple orange backdrop) featuring a banner-graphic take on the book's candy-sprinkle cover. The layout is clean, stylistic, and laden with photos from Frey's past. It is clearly designed to package this site's coming-out story. what could be the first story of internet origin that has been taken seriously by the mainstream media.
This isn't the kind of hit-or-miss rumor and conjecture common to sites like "The Drudge Report". It is comprehensively researched and detailed. It smacks of something unusual to the average online rumor-mill. It seems...legitimate.
News on the web spreads virally at a near-instantaneous speed. It is as expensive as the price you pay for internet access. Across the airwaves and copy desks in the coming weeks, there will be a re-evaluation of the internet's legitimacy as a news medium. If the allegations ring true, this will be the big story that a website was right.
The papers and anchors will certainly offer this caveat as well: It will continue to be difficult for the public to trust free websites for real news. As the Wikipedia controversy taught us only weeks ago, facts on the internet can be like strangers with candy.
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