Wednesday, February 01, 2006


I started writing a post about James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces several weeks ago (January 4, according to Blogger), before this whole nasty controversy blew up, but I was too busy to finish it. Here is the opening sentence from that draft:

"Now, this is a story about literacy in America, literacy in my family, the cult of celebrity and some very Hipster-like behavior on my part (shunning something once it has been accepted into mainstream culture)."

It was going to be a post about the night I found myself on the Q Train reading AMLP, sitting directly across from another woman reading AMLP. Although I was grateful that my copy did not have the "Oprah's Book Club Selection" logo, I still felt pretty goddamn stupid reading a book that had already become so pedestrian and cliche. [In case you are interested, the back story about literacy in my family concerns how it is that I came to be holding a copy of that book in the first place- who knows maybe I'll work the whole thing up into an essay some day]. But then Frey went and got himself called out as a liar, so now I've got to scrap this post and talk about that. Nice going, James.

At brunch with LaHipster and some of her friends two Sundays ago, I announced, "I read the book. I thought it was good and I don't care that he lied." The girl sitting next to me, who seems like someone whose opinion I would value said, "I read the book too. I hated the book and I hate that he lied." Okay, so it seems like we have a jumping off point here.

With time, I’ve had the chance to reflect and get some more details. At this point, the mystery is not, “Did Frey lie?”; we know that he did. The mystery is not, “Why did he lie?”; he has said he lied to make himself sound cooler and tougher. Fair enough. For a while, I thought they mystery was, “How the hell did he think he would not get caught?”. Then I thought about Frey scribbling out his addiction memoir, which according to this interview was 550 single spaced pages and a mess, and I thought, well, who knew this thing would get picked up? Who knew that in the post 9/11 world (see interview) someone would want to read a vaguely cohesive memoir of a busted up crackhead? And who could have predicted that Oprah would give this book her papal blessing, thereby opening it up for intense media scrutiny?

I think now the mystery is not “Why did Frey think he wouldn’t get caught” but rather, “Why did Frey get caught?”. Someone started digging- the people from as I understand it- and out the truth came, but why dig in the first place? Are these same people out there right now, combing through Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, trying to track down hospital records? Was there something inherently implausible in Frey’s story? Call me na├»ve, but when crack is involved, I’ll tend to believe anything. Was it the subject matter that made Frey vulnerable? Are people not ready to believe a crack addict can recover without The Twelve Steps and therefore sought to destroy his credibility? God, is the addiction and recovery movement that political?? Or, does this guy come off as an asshole? I must admit, I’ve only read the Oprah transcripts, I’ve never seen this guy on film. Is he the kind of person whose success you want to quash? Or are we as a culture so envious and fatigued of seeing a supposed wunderkind rise to the top of the Bestseller list, that we’re all clamoring to prove he’s a fraud? I suppose any one of these questions might have led someone to start trying to verify the accuracy of Frey’s memoir, but, just because you have the power to destroy some careers, does that mean you should? Did anyone call Frey and say, look, we know you lied and we’ve got the proof- either confess for yourself or we’ll out you, or was an itchy trigger-finger already reaching to speed dial the major news outlets?

And now we come to the question: was it wrong to lie? And, Timmy’s gonna slay me here about “gray” morals, but I say: it depends. Are you lying to obscure the identity of people in your book? Are you lying to protect people you care about from hurtful truths? Are you lying to tell a better story? And if you are lying for any of these reasons, does that mean your work must be classified as fiction? At what point does an exaggeration become a lie? Is there room in Memoirs for exaggeration or are we looking for the God’s honest truth and nothing but the truth?

This is what is troubling for me. Every good storyteller has been tempted to exaggerate to tell a more compelling story. In fact, we as Americans have made a genre out of it, the “Tall Tales” you learn about in school; I still remember learning the word “hyperbole” in the fourth grade. Have you ever sat down to tell a story and said, ‘I’ve got a good story, but if I tweak it here and change this line, it would be a great story’? And I’m not strictly talking about the page here- think about the last great story you told over brunch, or Thanksgiving Dinner, or at a job interview: where you 100% honest? The truth is storytellers, whether they call themselves writers or not, exaggerate. You’ve done it, or, if you haven’t, please don’t stand next to me at a cocktail party; I’ve done it, hell, I’ve probably even done it in this very blog, although nothing comes to mind right now.

I guess the question is, do you want to hear the truth or do you want to hear a compelling story? I’d pick the great story every time- but writers, please, let’s not be stupid about it. Add an author’s note, a disclaimer, hell, slap the words “A Novel” under the title, I don’t care. When did we get this idea that the only writers worth respecting were journalists, biographers and historians? It used to be that the storyteller was the most popular dude in the village, today these same people often toil in isolation, obscurity and relative poverty. Let’s once again validate the role of the storyteller and let’s get on with our damn lives. Now, did I ever tell you about that time I spent three months in jail?


daveb said...

The only reason you read that book is because it has a photo with candy sprinkles in it for a cover. Don't lie.

I could sculpt a replica of my Grandmother's ass out of butterscotch or fill my armpit with frosting and you'd probably eat it.

God will kill you.



AJWP said...

i found your blog accidentally, but it turns out we're freakishly connected. i went to smith, consult the cake mix doctor regularly, and knit compulsively. what's not to love?

ps--good going with your frey comments.
pps--i really did read it for the sprinkles on the cover.

MCMCMCLY said...

My beef is that, while I certainly don't know a large number of people with drug addiciton problems, i do know a few and I have seen just how boring these people actually are.

Granted I haven't read the book, but from what I've heard the guy makes his drug-crazed years seem glamourously dangerous. From my experience, this could not be any less true. The drug addicts I have known are just plain boring people. They eat too much, can't sleep, cry about their problems, and (sometimes) go to work just like the rest of us. So he's perpetuating an urban myth about the "fabulously exciting" lives of people with addiciton problems.

That said, I don't really care that much. I guess he was on Oprah yesterday to apologize. Oprah was pissed. Man, I bet that was a great show. From what I understand, the audience actualy booed him at one point.

This whole debacle might say something else entirely about the people general and their inability to form critical judgements without the aide of a self-proclaimed 'person of good taste,' but our recent elections have already highlighted this unfortunate phemon.

Cupcake said...

AJWP- I really did read it for the sprinkles on the cover too. And daveb reminds me that I have some left over butterscotch frosting in my fridge from my party. Sweet!

PatriotDave, as for the issue of glamourizing drug use, this is something I've never understood. I have similar issues with people who say that certain films or TV shows glamourize Mafia life. I've watched those shows and films and never once said, "That's the life for me!". I always think "What a shit-sucking life." That's how I felt about Frey's account of his drug using years. Maybe it has to do with the perspective you are approaching the subject from. I think you'd have to be a moron to encounter a tale like that and think, "Sounds cool, sign me up," but then again, I guess there are a lot of morons out there.

This relates to censorship in popular music and entertainment. I think you'd have to be a moron to listen to Eminem and not realize he's being satirical, but again, lots of morons out there operating on only the surface level. Scary.

mondo said...

finally! the post i have been waiting for, thanks cupcake, it was worth the wait! i like the spin you are taking on this, and while it would be more interesting to be a contrarian about it, i couldnt agree more. i read the book while in france, hopping metro to metro with this book plastered to my nose. there are few things that would compel me to tempt my fate with the gods of muggers and pickpockets, but this book did it. it was a fucking fabulous story that did anything but glamorize the culture of drug addiction.
while the book had the predictable no man is an island undertone, frey, at the same time, celebrated the power of the human mind, for both its successes and its failures. when i finally put the book down, i turned to my friend and remarked how this could not possibly be a true story.
true or not, it's a good one. if i were frey, id be willing to bet all of my royalities that i was not the first to lie to the grand-master ophrah. what is the real hubbub about? that someone was able to weave an ugly tale of drug use with beautifully seamless prose? was it that people dont want a drug user to find redemption? are people really that bitter about their own failures that they cannot see another succeed? or is it that so many people follow a woman without questioning that she herself could be a sham because she makes them feel so good.
whatever got him to that place, frey finally questioned what was making him feel so good, and realized that beneath the ephemeral high were layers and layers of deceit, fear, and self loathing. maybe more people should question the woman they champion as their daily high.
it is a comment that is worth silence that people cannot read a book and value it for its subsurface meaning. ill pick the good story every time with you cupcake.
indulge me a final thought: did he plan this from the beginning? my dear protesters, did you really think ophrah was not falible? did you really think that everything she spouted was gospel? maybe we should all question why we believe the people and things we do. in the mean time, pass me my friend leonard. this man has a gift.

Joshua said...

I think the issue is he passed a made up compelling story off as the truth.

The blame for this lies on Frey's shoulder's first and perhaps his publisher's second. It does not lie with Oprah for suggesting a book that had wrongly been published under the title of non-fiction.

Anonymous said...

A compelling story is great. That's why we read alot of fiction. But this wasn't sold as fiction. I agree, he should have added an author's note saying some events had been changed. Maybe this wouldn't have been a big deal.

From what I understand, the whole hoopla started when a fan of Smoking Gun asked them to put his mugshot on the site. So I don't think they plan to start fact checking all memoirs.

I just hope that he doesn't relapse. He seemd to be having a hard time on Oprah.

mondo said...

if the concern is being published under the term "non-fiction" why are we not making a bigger deal about the elie weisel controversy? Do we like one author more than another?

timmy said...

Author's Note: The following may surprise my beloved Cupcake

So, I'm curious...

What exactly is the definition of a memoir? Is any memoir in fact inherrently truthful? Because memoirs are derived subjectively from individual memories, can they, and should they be upheld as authentic?

James Frey's AMLP is a good example of interprative truth rather than factual truth. Like any memoir, AMLP should be taken with a grain of salt. Memoirs bridge a very delicate gap between perception and reality, in essence creating an individual reality that does not translate to objective scruitiny. Please allow for a few examples of other memoirs that prelude the implicit subjectivity of this particular genre.

Teddy Roosevelt (yes, Cupcake: my boy Teddy) wrote his own personal memoirs recollecting his rise from upper-crust ill-stricken waif to the embodyment of populist American masculinity. Throughout his writings, he exagerates, omits, and recontructs for the benefit of his own story. Most notably, he completely omits the death of his first wife, and true love, whose death would inspire him to recast himself in the spirit of the American frontier. Does this negate his story? No. It just makes it a story, not a history.

Then there's Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's memoirs. Two memoirs telling the same history, but two VERY different stories.

And finally, did you even TRY to get through Bill Clinton's "My Life"? Written less than 10 years after he assumed office, his recollection of his presidency was almost unrecognizable from that of the objective analysis. I mean, did he just forget about some of the scandals? Some of the controversy? Where was the account of Kosovo, or his hard-line stance on Iraq? What about his failures? Just like Teddy Roosevelt, Clinton took it upon himself to tell HIS story as he wanted it remembered. That is what Frey did, and I cannot fault him for it.

AMLP is a memoir. It contains no citation, no scholarly evidence. It does not have to pass a thorough vetting process because it is assumed that it is a subjective piece of literature.

I believe that this controversy is much to do about nothing, or much to do about Oprah - whichever you like.

Like so many political "realities" (ie the Social Security "Trust Fund" or "Military Intelligence") Frey's book achieved legitimacy as truth only because of the overwhelming coverage it received, and when the truth is revealed people are outraged and feel lied to. AMLP has proven to be a pop-culture phenomenon, and like most pop-culture it has flown in the face of common sense. James Frey did not lie to people through his book: he told a story. When he was interviewed and felt the need to legitimize his narrative is when he lied.

So, was Oprah duped, or did Oprah dupe her audience? I believe she in fact was foolen. But she only has herself to blame, and those that have been so outraged only have their own blindness to blame for it (which brings me to a core belief #22: People are sheep... bahhh).

James Frey should own up to his mistakes. He should assume responsibility not only for his well-documented lies, but also to his own addiction. But those that have been so outraged or hurt by this story has only themselves to blame for believing the personal and interprative account of a drug addict.

I say read the book! Enjoy it. If anything, Frey's continued pattern of deception and denial from addiction into sobriety only more poignantly illustrates the destructive nature of his disease.

(and what is this about a blog-entry "draft"? I had no idea!)

mondo said...

i heart timmy.

Cupcake said...

Let me say, I only made the "compelling story" vs. "true story" arguement to tsay that even though this book is not 100% true, it still has value.

I balk at the idea that Oprah is to blame, because, I freakin' love Oprah but also, who reads a book and simultaneously combs through every detail for accuracy? Like I said, if she picks The Year of Magical Thinking as the next book club selection, is she going to put three fact checkers on the case? I do think that Oprah took a simplistic approach, calling Frey out to apologize and not discussing the very essence of what a memoir is, as Timmy did.

That being said, okay, so we know this book is not a historical account- should this be labeled as a work of fiction or a memoir that needed an Author's note? I agree that this is a memoir. What's the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? Is there one? Should there be one? Just the word "memoir" is so suggestive: this is what I remembered about it or, taken one step further, this is what I chose to remember.

Oh, and PS: Mondo, you and Timmy would make a great couple.

Beta said...

I'm confused about the drama over the new release of Elie Wiesel's Night. Some of the sources I read point to inaccuracies in the original translation because of idioms and synonyms with different connotations. I have yet to read something that seriously challenges the factual nature of the book (while remembering it is a memoir). The one concrete example I've heard cited over and over again has been that in the earlier version he said he was 15 when he arrived at the camp, but in the new version he says he was not quite 15. Anyone have more/better examples that approach the level of inaccuracies in A Million Little Pieces?

Cupcake said...

See, this is my biggest fear. I'm working on an essay for class and I've got a sentence that says, "I was 23 and living in New York for all of two months", but really, I had been living in NY for a month and a half. I didn't like the way "I was 23 and had been living in New York for all of a month and a half" sounded. What do I do? Write the sentence I want to write, or write the one that is 100% true? I mean, if we're going to look at every memoir now and say, Well, he said he ws 15, but really he was almost 15... Give me a break.

And since I'm writing about something that happened two years ago, I don't remember all the dialogue verbatim. I mean, I've got the gist things, but if I get the piece published will people be coming out of the woodwork to say, "That's not what I said! She's another freakin' Frey!"

Christ. Clown College is looking better and better.

timmy said...

I just want to be clear: I love Oprah, too.

In fact, I'd vote for Oprah if she ran for President. Or Mayor. Or dog catcher (she'd definately set a new humane standard for dog catchers).

So since I don't think I know Mondo:

I heart Oprah

Lord of the Barnyard said...

frey lied on a larger scale than a question of 1/2 a month.
i hadn't even heard of the book when got all up in a tizzy over the expose on frey. i read the entire smoking gun report. why? because it was very entertaining.
to frey's credit, he origonally offered the book to publishers as a fiction.
but the smoking gun proved that everything that happened outside of the clinic in mn was total bullshit.
high shcool train race deaths, surgery without anesthesia, jail time, run ins with Denison police... all imaginary.

and then it was later revealed by people at the clinic that most everything that happened there was also total bullshit.

en total: i do enjoy to hate on me some frey cause it's the cool thing to do and cause he's a total scam artists whose biggest mistake was probably making it big.