EW Debate: Do James Frey’s lies matter?
Last September, Oprah Winfrey selected James Frey’s memoir about addiction, A Million Little Pieces, for her newly reborn Book Club. His tale rose to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for 14 straight weeks. Then, on Jan. 8 The Smoking Gun website published an investigative report challenging the accuracy of some of Frey’s assertions about his criminal past. The story has received worldwide coverage, culminating last night with Frey’s appearance on Larry King Live. Oprah called in to defend him (”much ado about nothing,” she declared, as the entire book publishing industry breathed a collective sigh of relief.) But the debate about Frey’s credibility continues to rage.
Here, two EW staffers, Gregory Kirschling and Jay Woodruff, take up the fight. As Frey once said, F— THE BULLS— IT’S TIME TO THROW DOWN.
Jay Woodruff I should admit from the start that I was never a fan of A Million Little Pieces. I feel bad for James Frey, but I also think he pretty much invited this controversy. It really makes him look like a phony.
Greg Kirschling Well, I’m a big James Frey fan. A Million Little Pieces and its sequel, My Friend Leonard, are two of my favorite books — fiction, nonfiction, fictive nonfiction, or whatever — of recent time. And it’s not like I’m a recovering alcoholic or crackhead myself. I just think his voice is original and powerful. Despite the revelations, which are unfortunate and slightly dispiriting, I still stand by that.
JW But a big part of his power comes from readers believing he’s writing from experience, and when you learn that significant parts of that experience are fabricated, it kind of deflates the power.
GK I grant you that. I enjoyed the books so much that I feel sorry for anyone who picks them up now, after Frey’s flogging at the hands of The Smoking Gun. It’s not gonna be the same reading experience that I had, or that anybody who read the book before this week could’ve had. If you haven’t read the book already, I feel bad for you! You missed out. The parts of the story he embellished are gonna stick in your head now. I read the book almost three years ago, and I only vaguely remembered the incidents that The Smoking Gun called him out on. They certainly weren’t integral to what made the book great for me.
JW Tell me you’re not one of those defenders saying that it doesn’t matter whether Frey actually hit a cop with his car and got into a fight with police or spent three months in jail…
GK I think it only slightly matters.
JW I think it matters a lot. All that wild experience he supposedly had informed his perspective and gave his writing credibility. In his initial statement after the Smoking Gun controversy broke, Frey said ”So let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt. I stand by my book, and my life…” Not for nothing did he borrow from the parlance of rappers, who know a thing or two about the value of projecting street cred. By exaggerating his problems, Frey made himself look more authentic and way more heroic and even potentially winds up distorting what’s involved in the whole process of recovery.
GK Why do the embellishments distort what’s involved in the recovery? I’ll tell you, I find a lot of Frey’s Larry King Live defense convincing. Maybe he embellished what got him in jail, but the other 400 pages of the book are about his time at the recovery center.
JW Yeah, well maybe, but there are some pretty impressive claims in those 18 other pages, bub.
GK Nobody’s arguing that he wasn’t a raging, fall-down-the-stairs, break-his-mom’s-heart drug addict.
JW That’s the problem for me — if I can’t trust the other stuff, I don’t know how bad his addiction was.
GK Fair enough. I still believe him about that stuff. As for his ”Let the haters hate” statement, I hate to admit it, but I think he’s right. It’s such a cheesy thing for him to say, it sounds like a dodge, and it’s easy to laugh at if you haven’t read the book, but for him, it’s actually appropriate. Well before Oprah anointed it, Millions was a book you either loved or you hated, with few people I know sitting in between. That’s the kink in any argument you, I, or any two other people could have about it. Whether you like the book or you don’t says so much — and maybe everything — about whether you’re rocked by these allegations or not.
JW You’re probably right about that, and like I said, I was never a fan. But one of the things that bothers me is that we all know people who struggle with addictions. We’ve all seen how hard it is. Sometimes fatal. By exaggerating the intensity of his depravity, Frey makes it look like he’s managed to pull himself out of an even deeper hole than he has — all without the help of an ongoing program. This is misleading to people trying to figure out how to deal with their own addiction problems. So I just don’t buy the defense that, despite some fabrications, the book stands as an inspiring redemption story. Frey’s what AA folks might call a dry drunk. He’s clean and sober, but addicts lie, and he’s still lying. And lying for huge profit and gain. The guy’s a phony, and so’s his book.
GK Here’s where I think you blow Frey’s sins up into something bigger than they are.
JW Uh oh…
GK It’s like this: The incidents he’s accused of lying about have very little to do with how deep a hole he was in as an addict. Serving a few hours instead of three months in jail, rolling a car up onto a curb instead of onto a cop, and recasting a tragic train crash that he might’ve had very little to do with — none of that has anything to do with Frey’s addiction. It primarily serves in the book to inflate him as a tough guy, not as an addict. This is big. In both his books, Frey loves to play the tough guy, the proud bonehead bruiser. That’s his persona. And that’s what takes the hit with these revelations. We should be less concerned with how recovering addicts are going to take the news that he lied — because he was still an addict, people! — and more concerned with how wannabe trash-talking tough guys will be crushed by it. Think about it: These revelations fit in with the Frey we met in the book. Even if he’s not a big enough bonehead to get thrown in jail for three months, he’s a big enough bonehead to make up going to jail for three months.
JW It’s hard to argue that anyone in the world has benefitted from it more than the author, who’s made millions (and counting). The whole argument about the book as therapeutic aid feels to me like a smokescreen anyway. I mean, what are they saying? ”Yeah, some of the story’s key elements are b.s., but look how many people the story is helping!” Obviously, I can’t crawl into Frey’s head and know his true intentions, but nothing I’ve ever heard him say leads me to believe he wrote the book for the benefit of mankind. The voice is too aggressive and provocative. This is a guy who wanted to be a famous writer. His book wasn’t compelling enough to get published as fiction, so Frey and Random House decided to package it as a memoir — and the rest is history.
GK I don’t think he wrote it for the benefit of mankind either, thank God. James Frey would make a horrible Nancy ”Just Say No” Reagan.
JW And he’d look ridiculous in a paisley skirt, too.
GK But let’s talk about memoir, then. You think Frey’s embellishments are a violation of memoir etiquette?
JW Yeah, I guess I do. There are no hard and fast rules anywhere. And I think The New York Times is wrong to compare James Frey to Jayson Blair, because there’s a huge difference between a memoir and a newspaper report.
GK Huge difference, agreed.
JW Readers come to memoirs willing to grant writers a certain amount of poetic license to stoke the story’s drama. But Frey goes too far, to the point that he obliterates his credibility, at least for me. When I read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is about raising his little brother after the kids are all orphaned, I don’t really care if, say, he didn’t actually try to hit on the mothers of his little brother’s school classmates; but if I find out his parents didn’t die, then that’s a big deal. If a writer makes it impossible for me to trust him, it becomes impossible for me to invest much in that book.
GK Maybe Frey went too far, I dunno. I forgive him, and I think the lying fits with his big-dog persona, so I’m an undeterred admirer.
JW Well, I will say I won’t be trying to get a refund on my copy of his book.
GK That’s just crazy. That stuff about Random House offering refunds was just a hoax. But I really wonder what people who finally read his book now are going to think of it. If only Doubleday had affixed a disclaimer on it. They could’ve called it a ”nonfiction novel” — like In Cold Blood or Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Or, even better, they could’ve added the line that was at the beginning of My Friend Leonard: ”Some sequences and details of events have been changed.”
JW Yeah, that would’ve helped. Too bad the book sucks anyway.
GK What I love most about Millions (and especially My Friend Leonard, which I think is even better) is that I feel like Frey invented a whole new genre: the tough-guy weepie. I’m just more sensitive than you. I (heart) James Frey!
What do you think? Take a side, and continue the debate.