Sunday, January 29, 2006

File Under Docu-Fiction by Asshole

Talented bad boy with tattoos and previous? Or sad sweary Mary with a Hemingway fetish?

James Frey & Me

As observers of the American literary scene will know, the above pictured beardy, James Frey, is a bestselling memoirist. His stark, searing, staccato, sordid, no-expletives-barred I-did-drugs-and-survived rehab confessional A Million Little Pieces has sold about 3m copies in America alone, most of them since Oprah Winfrey made it her book of the month late last year.

Except, it isn't - it isn't a confessional. Following revelations on a blog called, it turns out that James F made up large parts of his blood-flecked memoir, including crucial chapters where a teenage girlfriend dies in a railway crash, and he undergoes terrifying root canal dentistry without aneasthetic.

You probably know the ins and outs of the Frey scandal, but to give you a measure of his egregious and wholesale fabrication, Frey devotes dozens of pages of his book to the appalling dental ordeal - where, because he is an addict, he is refused a painkiller yet still has his teeth sliced open while strapped to the chair. This part of the book is full of keynote Frey passages, like: 'Pain. Pain pain pain pain pain.' Etc. Etc etc etc etc etc. It's kind of predictable and repetitive yet it does have a power of its own - you do turn the pages.

But if that power comes from the feeling that 'my God, this really happened, this poor bastard really had root canal work without aneasthetic' - and I think a lot of the book's potency does come from the non-fiction aspect - then the power is unmerited. Frey has plugged his book into the mains without permission. He's pirated this power. Because, as he confessed on a second and much more hostile Oprah show last week (the lady has turned against him), he cannot 'honestly remember' whether he had dental work without aneasthetic or not.

So, let's get this right, you wrote 30 pages about having root canal work without aneasthetic, yet you can't remember whether it 'honestly happened'? In other words, you kinda... 'made it up', right?


And it gets worse. Probably the most crucial plot point of the book is when Frey gets busted for attacking some billyclub weilding cops while off his face on crack, and then - as a result - gets slung in jail for three months, at the end of which he goes to see his girlfriend, the girl he met in rehab, and she dies.

Frey, it turns out, didn't go to prison. He didn't have a fracas with the cops. He wasn't even on crack. He just drank a bit, got arrested for Driving While Intoxicated, was 'cooperative and polite' according to the arresting officers, and was quickly released from his police cell. All in all he spent about two hours banged up. Not three months. Less than a morning. Not a quarter of a year. That's quite a big mistake.

Hilariously, Frey's follow-up memoir - My Friend Leonard - purports to begin where the last left off. With Frey in the county jail. Uh-huh. The very first passages of the book describe how Frey was nearly beaten to a pulp while in chokey, and then describes life as it was during that hellish 87th day in jail.

Perhaps he meant to say his '87th minute in jail'. And perhaps he meant to say not 'beaten to a pulp' but 'immediately let out of the police cell after my mother bailed me for $700'.

Anyhoo. All this is common knowledge. So why am I getting all het up?

Two reasons, both connected to the fact that I am also a memoirist - my first volume of memoirs comes out in May this year (as if you didn't know) with Bloomsbury Books.

1. Frey has fucked it up for all of us autobiographical writer types. As any memoirist knows, you have to lie A LITTLE BIT when you write your own life. For a start, nobody goes around with a tape recorder all the time, so you just have to recreate, or mechanically reconstitute, conversation and dialogue - as interestingly as you can.

Also, you telescope timing and switch events around, to give your book something like a plot, a narrative, an arc. Real life seldom has a tight and perfect story curve, or any kind of story curve, so in the memoir genre you are obliged to finesse just a tiny bit. If you didn't, your book would be unreadably sluggish and pedantic. 'The following year was less eventful, though I did buy some nice pyjamas', etc etc.

I think these tricks-of-the-trade are permissible (others may disagree). A memoir is a subjective memory of certain parts or aspects of a life - it's not the tell-all journalese that is an autobiography.

But Frey went way beyond this discreet legerdemain. He made up stuff by the shedload. He arguably plagiarised other books. He created whole new scenarios from scratch. He sat down one day and thought: I know, I'll fucking lie. And why? Because, according to reports, he originally wrote the book as a novel. And fair enough. But then he found he couldn't sell his book as fiction - 17 New York publishers refused it.

However, as non fiction, it was much more marketable - so that's what got sold. Frey and his agent successfully repackaged the book as memoir, without taking the fibs out. Tsk. Tsk tsk tsk.

Here we come to the crunch. For me. As a result of this scandal, every memoirist, and every memoir, will now come under enormous scrutiny - and be checked for adherence to absolute fact. We are all going to have to put ugly disclaimers in our books from now on ('some details have been changed'). Every time a memoirist opens his laptop, he or she will have the scary image of a frightened Frey looming over his shoulder. Thanks. Wanker.

2. The second reason I am personally pissed off with James 'I spent eight minutes in prison' Frey is that I have/had a second memoir in the pipeline. This memoir was going to detail all the bad stuff in my life. The really bad stuff. The heroin addiction, the crack habit. Because I have had a life as crazy if not much crazier than the life detailed in Frey's bestseller. The difference between my life and Frey's 'life', however, is that mine is fucking TRUE. I really did do two months in prison - and not for defacing library books - I was on a fucking RAPE CHARGE. I really WAS kidnapped by Hezbollah. I really DID get in a knife fight in Marseilles. I really DID live in a hotel in Bangkok that sold heroin on room service. I really WAS stranded in a forest in Siberia coming off heroin after being ejected from a troop train.

But who, exactly, after Frey, is ever going to believe me?

PS. I just found this interview with Frey, pre-scandal, on a website called In the light of his revelations, its priceless. Particularly this Q&A:

Q: After your release from Hazeldon, you spend three months in jail in Ohio. How did that compare to rehab?
Frey: Jail is really fucking boring, and occasionally, really fucking scary. It is about doing time and getting it over with and staying out of trouble. Rehab is about fixing and changing your life. It, however, can also be boring and scary.

Yeah, James. Those TWO HOURS you spent in a police cel must have been 'really fucking scary'. I mean, two whole boring hours without a nice latte. How scary is that?! You could have got a slight cramp in your wimpy white arse from sitting down on that nasty hard chair. And how did you manage to stay 'out of trouble' during your several minutes in prison? I'm amazed you weren't buggered in the communal shower then forced to become the big man's bitch, given that you spent literally the time between breakfast and elevenses imprisoned in that hellhole.


RB said...

For what its worth, this loyal reader is looking forward to your memoirs. Assuming they are as entertaining as your posts, of course.

I think its a sad commentary on life that someone could become so obsessed with getting published that he'd essentially turn a middling novel into a gigantic lie. How could he ever think that he would not get found out?

JodyTresidder said...

Coming here out of curiosity from HP - where I lurkily very strongly agree with you. In an adverby sort of way!

HOWEVER - your Frey comments are the point here. For a number of complicated reasons I've been following this mess inch by fascinated inch on both sides of the ocean.

This is the most painfully accurate soon-to-be-published memoirist's complaint I've read.
Frey's additional crime is exactly as you say: he has soiled the genre by abusing the stock-in-trade techniques.

As a memoir reader, I am pretty indulgent. If the book is funny, or moving or illuminating I can still spot - and forgive - hyperbole, ridiculous juxtaposition, cleaned up quotes, timeline manipulation, even selective economies with the truth. It's an odd duck genre, with a tricky bond between writer and reader, and has been forever.

I was one of the fools who bought "Pieces" pre-Smoking Gun and Oprah. Hated it, but admired the tale. Now, of course...

I can't say - at present - that I AM willing to revisit the genre for a while.

And I can't think of a solution. Not, surely, soporific footnotes - or a new version of "evolution is only a theory" stickers they put on red state science textbooks!

It's a real curse on post-Frey writers.
Good luck.

wombatrix said...

I also came here from HP because I dug your comments.
I wanted to offer another perspective from the "common reader" camp. Although I have been completely absorbed in reading about it lately, when I first heard that a popular memoir was complete bullshit, my first thought was "that's news?"
Several years ago I read Emmet Grogan's "memoir" Ringolevio and I didn't buy a bit of it. Strangely enough he was another hard core addict who just managed to recover and quit on pure willpower. Total bullshit, the book was chock full of total bullshit. At least Grogan had the benefit of being semi-famous before he wrote that book, so it would have made money no matter what. But no one I knew believed the way-out self-aggrandizing crap he put in there. So I wouldn't worry too much about Frey's impact on memoir readers. I look forward to reading yours because I like the way you write. Grogan wrote like a 15 year old snotty kid, and although I have not read Frey I am suspicious that the styles are similar. A page-turner it may be, ringolevio is as well, but I think smart writing will distinguish you and many others from the Grogans and Freys in the believability category.

The biggest tragedy to me is that Frey is that awful creep frat boy I knew in school who tormented and teased my weird and often drug addicted friends for being freaks, and now he has made tons of money and fame by co-opting his idea of their lives. Fucker.

Katie said...

I think Frey is a complete asshole. I read the book, was compelled to read it because it was "true". If it was a fiction, probably wouldn't have bothered. The pull of it was that someone actually lived this life. Wish I could interview him, he'd definitely be on crack/glue/alcohol - anything when I finished with him.
Anyway, I would read your book if it looked appealing enough but definitely think that right now is not a good time to publish... Better have all your documents handy to back yourself up. Frey had all his, remember? Too bad they were "recently destroyed"....