He handed us fiction after fiction, and we printed them all as fact. Just because we found him entertaining. d them all as fact. Just because we found him entertaining.
—Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), editor of The New Republic explaining the appeal of Steven Glass in Shattered Glass (2003).
James Frey wants you to believe he can write fiction. Having conquered the bestseller list with two memoirs, A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard, that by legal decree must be described with the adjectives “brutal” and “raw” or some combination of the two (“brutally raw”, “rawfully brutal”), he’s eager to write about something other than himself. According to The Smoking Gun‘s 8 January article, “A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction,” he has a screenplay about the Hell’s Angels in the works, as well as plans for “a big, ambitious 500- or 600-page book about life in contemporary Los Angeles.” The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake at Night positively beams, “I’m looking forward to showing people that I can write fiction.” Of course, it was The Smoking Gun‘s report that conclusively pegged Frey as, if not a fiction writer, then one working in service of “essential truth” (his phrase) rather than dedicated to objectively chronicling reality.
It seems important to underscore The Smoking Gun‘s findings, in order to show just how far Frey strayed from the facts and maybe pre-empt the popular (and lazy) ‘life is a collection of interpretations’ argument. To begin with, far from being the capital-C Criminal wanted in three states as he claimed, The Smoking Gun found Frey had spent probably a few hours in police custody. He’d never done three months in the big house, during which he befriended another inmate and shared the joy of classic literature (a story recounted in more detail in My Friend Leonard, which does contain a disclaimer: “Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed. Some sequences and details of events have been changed.”) His few hours in police custody were the consequence of an open-container citation, not the result of a crack-fueled brawl with police. His girlfriend, Lilly, didn’t kill herself just hours before he left that Ohio jail, because he was never there. Nor did he ever, as far as anyone can prove in the realm of empirical reality—rather than essential truth—lose a close high school friend in a tragic car crash. The girl’s family remembers him, but claims their daughter barely knew him, and denies that the entire town blamed him for the crash. (Oh, and Frey forgets to mention that two girls were killed in the crash.) This litany could go on, as it does in Frey’s work. But the beyond a certain point the quantity of his lies—“embellishments” if we want to remain coy about it—seem less relevant than his motive.
After The Smoking Gun‘s report gained traction in the media, Frey appeared on Larry King Live to mount a defense. Arguing that, “Memoir—the word literally means ‘my story.’ A memoir is a subjective retelling of events,” he claimed. “In every case, I did the best I could to recreate my life according to my memory of it.” He invoked the notion of “essential truth” seven times in support of his conclusion: “I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to say I’ve conned anyone.” Lest anyone be confused on this hazy concept of “essential truth,” Oprah made a surprise call during the show’s final moments. Oprah, whose recommendation had helped Pieces sell 1.77 million copies in 2005, was going to pronounce her judgment on the controversy. And the crux of it was this: “And I feel about A Million Little Pieces that although some of the facts have been questioned—and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that—that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book.”
Afterwards, media pundits thought Oprah had made a rare misstep. Didn’t her defense of patent falsehoods have a disturbing echo of Presidential admonitions to stay the course despite the facts, they asked, right down to its patriotic “we live in a country that lets you do that”? Was Oprah coming down on the side of “truthiness” rather than truth?
Of course that’s how it sounded, but truth in memoir is a tricky proposition. As John D’Agata puts it in his essay, “Joan Didion’s Formal Experience of Confusion,” readers come to memoir with the expectation of not just facts, but a story about “something through which one has survived; something that has since been digested, reconstituted, and now, for the benefit of others, shared.”
D’Agata also notes that memoirs were the first genuinely American bestsellers; one can imagine a pre-Revolutionary Oprah drying her eyes at A Narrative of the Captivity, the story of Mary Rowlandson’s capture by the Narragansett Indian nation in 1676. These early memoirists were not particularly concerned with fidelity to reality, either. Instead, they strove for their own “essential truth”—specifically, that Native Americans were bloodthirsty savages, a message that certainly resonated with early American settlers. They were the first American propagandists, the literary handmaidens of Manifest Destiny.
Those early memoirists share with James Frey an intimate knowledge of what the audience wants: horror, catastrophe, suffering—followed by escape and redemption. The formula is simple. Suffering and heroism balance one another; the hero’s strength conquers his suffering, and in turn the horrors he’s survived give authority and weight to his heroism. The hero is only as good as his tribulations, and where Mary Rowlandson cranked up the ferocity of her Native-American captors, James Frey nudged his hours in police custody into a three-month prison stint.
But wait. Soon after her defense of Frey on Larry King’s show, Oprah held a special taping of her show dedicated to the controversy. In a surprising reversal she began, apologizing to her viewers for suggesting “the truth does not matter. It does.” What followed was one of the most squirm-inducing hours of television every broadcast, as Oprah, previously playing John the Baptist to Frey’s suffering, tattooed Jesus, transformed into the Greek Furies, laying waste to everything in her path. She said she “felt duped.” She savaged the author, his former publisher Nan Talese, and the entire memoir-publishing establishment. In explaining his lies, Frey fell back on psychoanalysis: “I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was sort of this image of myself that was greater, probably, than—not probably—that was greater than what I actually was. In order to get through the experience of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was—and it helped me cope. When I was writing the book instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image.” (For those keeping score at home: Oprah played it a little disingenuous in claiming she didn’t understand Frey’s comment that events in his book were “accelerated.” In her call to Larry King, she said, “If it says memoir, I know that—that maybe the names and dates and the times have been compressed, because that’s what a memoir is.” Frey’s “accelerated” and Oprah’s “compressed” are, as near as I can gather, different terms for the same technique.)
Oprah’s audience, though, wasn’t so sure they wanted to give up resonance in favor of truth. Don, a recovering addict, said, “I could care less about the lies in the book. I stand by James one hundred percent. I know it’s true because I went through it. When my girlfriend referred the book to me she said, ‘Finally, someone’s saying the exact words that you said to me.’ I think it’s unfortunate that you lied about specific parts. But the part about addiction, I assure you from people I’ve spoken to and millions of other Americans—you saved my life. Maybe at the truth’s expense, but I think you’re very important.” His ex-girlfriend then stood up, saying, “What I got out of the book was way more important than whether she hung herself or slit her wrists. I got what I needed to get; he got what he needed to get; it helped our lives.”
So here, finally, we come to the use of James Frey’s memoir. He claims he shopped it to a dozen publishers as fiction, but none would accept it, and now we know why. The best aims of fiction—to introduce the reader to ideas questions and characters that might challenge and complicate his or her world, to force the reader to grow with the story—are nowhere apparent in A Million Little Pieces. Were it to ask for the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, it would fall flat. All the Arbitrarily capitalized Nouns in the world wouldn’t make up for the dull repetition and clichéd characters, wouldn’t save a novel that quickly degenerates into Sadean tedium as tragedy piles on tragedy. (The Highbridge Audio version of the book captures just how maudlin is Frey’s writing. In every passage Oliver Wyman reads one can hear the Clintonian lip-quiver that says, “Feel my pain.”)
As memoir, though, A Million Little Pieces doesn’t have to earn such suspension of disbelief. It gets that right away, by simple virtue of categorization. Throughout the book, Frey cannily reinforces just how truly he’s speaking. His body even exhorts truth-telling—his tattoo reads, “FTBSITTTD,” an abbreviation of “F—- the bulls—-, it’s time to throw down.” (Who outside of a Tarantino script talks like this?)
V.S. Pritchett once said of memoir, “It’s all in the art, you get no credit for living.” But Frey—and he’s not the only one—has gotten all the credit for living. In his essay “Nazis, Nuremburg, and Gold-Digging Women,” Tom Bissell laments reality television, among other things, and the increasingly popular idea that “the documentary impulse somehow trumps that of imagination.” No one would buy Pieces as fiction, but as reality—despite its dearth of self-reflection or insight—it sold over three million copies. Its “reality” trumped everything. Later Bissell asks, “What if books such as David Gates’s Jernigan or Richard Price’s Clockers were simply straight, unreflective portraits of self-loathing, human stupidity, and criminality? Their brutal “reality” would be unendurably repellant.”
Maybe so, but in the Oprah world confession is synonymous with redemption. That Frey told his story (with whatever level of truth) is enough for the Oprah audience, because as Bissell notes, “Reality Television asks nothing of its audience but that they watch,” and Pieces is the written equivalent of Reality Television. It asks nothing of us but that we bear witness; in its simplicity it cannot provoke empathy because it cannot rouse our imaginations—where we expand our notions of self to encompass the experience of others. When Oprah stays up late with Frey, anxiously flipping to the back cover photo to confirm his reality, it’s enough that she be reassured that he still lives. He survived. He was able to Hold On.
And this is exactly the opposite of what important fiction does. Bissell writes, “Fiction simply forces oneself to dig deeper within oneself.” In Frey’s work, everything is surface bravado and cliché. No one will truly be challenged by Pieces; it’s comfort reading that makes you feel like you’re feeling, and that validates the reader. To suffer and survive: that must take great strength. Can we imagine a more banal theme for a book?
With his badass credentials revoked, Frey’s book will have to stand on its own, and its devotees will have to keep the faith. So far, many of them have—Don and his ex-girlfriend, for two—and the book continues to be a bestseller. With their claims of “essential truth,” those readers are starting to sound like children who plug their ears and chant “La la la la” when confronted with something they don’t want to hear. But that’s not unfashionable in America these days.
It’s difficult to find a truly blameless actor in all of this. Frey writes a book that doesn’t make even a good-faith effort at telling the truth, whether out of cynicism or as a result of his “coping mechanism”; Talese publishes it, whether out of cynicism or ignorance; Oprah chooses it, whether out of cynicism (knowing her audience will lap it up) or because it genuinely moves her, in that very shallow made-for-TV way; and her audience takes to it as Gospel, “at the truth’s expense or not.” Manipulation all the way down the line, before coming to rest in front of the people wanting to be manipulated.
In a Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune article about the controversy, Peter Bell, a former publisher at the Hazelden Foundation where Frey spent his rehab time, describes treatment for drug addiction as an accelerated course in growing up. One can only hope this debacle becomes the same thing for Frey, Oprah, publishers, and the book-reading public—an accelerated course in growing up.