Bag of Freys

>> Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's hard to resist poking a finger into Freygate even after all this time and even though the conniving little weasel at the heart of it all doesn't really deserve the publicity. But the thing of it is... well, I suppose the real thing of it is that sometimes you just can't resist the urge to stick your fingers into a suppurating wound, no matter how disgusting it is and how much you know that it probably isn't healthy.

But the other thing of it is that it's still sort of amazing how, after all this time, everybody seems to misunderstand what really happened and why so many people got their underwear in a twist over it. This is what I was thinking about when I was reading Mary Elizabeth Williams' piece in Salon the other day about Frey's recent reappearance on Oprah Winfrey's show. Williams seems to be fixated on Frey's lying, seems to be holding Frey's deceitfulness against him, and even mentions an old bit of harrumphing from Slate's curmudgeonly contrarian supreme Jack Shafer over David Sedaris' embellishments. She writes:

For Frey to be inspired, as many writers have, by the heavily embellished storytelling of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac makes sense. Have you ever read "The Autobiography of Mark Twain"? It's brilliant. But those authors Frey so admires were working in a very different era and within a different set of literary constraints. The memoir of today comes with an expectation of truth--one that, by the way, anybody who's heard of Google can check up on. Even if you're David Sedaris, writing in the vein of broad humor, when you slap the word "nonfiction" on a book there are going to be stick-in-the-muds out there who expect your work to not be fiction. As in made the hell up.

Hm. Maybe. But not so much.

Okay, let me preface what I'm about to say by admitting that I haven't read A Million Little Pieces and I'm not likely to. I'm not likely to for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with Frey being a charlatan. The first is that, sorry if this is your thing, but: I don't generally find harrowing tales of one man's descent into the depths of addiction and eventually inspirational triumph over his inner demons to be all that interesting as a genre, personally. I don't really want to knock it, because I'm sure quite a lot of people would point to genres I do enjoy and call them crap, and they might be right, hell, but we all have our own things. My things don't include harrowing tales of one man's descent/inspirational triumph, fictional, nonfictional, metafictional, quasifictional, pseudofictional, hemifictional, bicuriousfictional or whatever; the very thought of those kinds of books bores me, no matter how well they might be written.

Oh, which brings us to the other reason I'm not likely to read Pieces: I have read excerpts and several flaying reviews that focused on Pieces' actual literary qualities or lack thereof over the shockingness and movingness and heartwarmingness and alleged power of this harrowing true story. And the impression left by the the excerpts, and given by the reviews, and buttressed by the story of the book's submissions, is that Frey's main offenses are to literature, not against the truth. Apparently, it's a pretty shitty book.

That submission history I alluded to last paragraph: so Frey himself has now confirmed what people had been saying for a while and what I thought was common knowledge--that the book was submitted to publishers as a work of fiction and none of them would bite on it. Because, you know, apparently, it's a pretty shitty book. Stereotypical, two-dimensional characters (something that tipped off some early skeptics of the book's veracity), overly-precious prose, clichéd harrowing descent/inspirational triumph plot arc, etc. I can only (sort of) address one of the items on the list: I can't say anything about the plot or characters, but the excerpts I've read contained some pretty awful prose.

But, anyway, this gets us to the real reason people were angry about Freygate, I think. I mean, apparently this book's literary qualities as a piece of fiction or nonfiction are pretty nonexistent, and if the book isn't true than it's just another unpublishable novel about some creep hitting rock bottom and scraping himself up again. Maybe you saw something different, but it's not like any of the good reviews I saw of Pieces focused on James Frey's powerful voice and masterful technique or whatever. All the good reviews I saw were about how disgusting Frey's rock bottom was and how moving and inspirational his eventual triumph over adversity were. This was what what the book was offering, this is what people wanted: a train wreck with a happy ending, look at all the blood in the wreckage but at least nobody really got hurt, blahblahblah.

And this is why the unraveling of the "true story" claim embarrassed the publisher and humiliated the rubes. Someone--Frey (definitely), his agent (probably), his publisher (most likely)--made the cynical and apparently correct call that people would read (or at least purchase) any old crap as long as it claims to be true. The prurient interest is a powerful thing (hell, my own interest in Frey has a certain rubbernecking quality to it, though as a writing casualty, not a drug casualty). They're embarrassed to be caught out in their complete and utter contempt for their customers. And then here's Oprah Winfrey, thinking she's the media age equivalent of one of those wealthy socialites from another century who hosts literary salons, and it turns out she can't tell a literary masterpiece from an implausible pile of crap, either, that she's as big a sucker as anyone. Here are the critics who didn't catch on, who are supposedly writing reviews because they're discerning readers and trustworthy tastemakers, all pulled in and conned by the Fiji mermaid under the big top. And then there are all those readers who got sucked in by Oprah and the critics and whomever else--all those people who bought the book because they were told it was a good book and who don't want to admit that it wasn't and that what kept them turning pages was the subliminal delight in witnessing a man's alleged degradation, decay and mortification.

I mean, who wants to admit that.

It's hard not to be reminded of the outrage that erupted when it turned out Milli Vanilli were a bunch of sessions players publicly fronted by a pair of lip-syncing pretty boys who couldn't carry a tune. It was absurd, the outrage, because if you really liked that shitty, bland, generic bubblegum, what did it matter whether it was being performed by a bunch of invisibles in a West German bunker studio somewhere? No, what really roiled people was that at some level, I think, they knew the music was sugar-shelled crap but they liked the idea of Milli Vanilli, of these pretty men dancing, and when you took that away and broke it down and said, okay, so you have these two models dancing and you have this forgettable, slickly-produced pop music made by a bunch of normal-looking session people you've never even heard of, neither of those two things by themselves was the equal of what people wanted to pretend they were enjoying and people felt cheated. Which was kind of stupid: if you liked the dudes, they were still dancing, and if you actually liked the music... well, no accounting for taste, but if you liked the music, it remained what it was.

Did people like the book A Million Little Pieces or did they like what they thought it was, some guy who totally fucked himself up and went into rehab. Answer the question with the number of people who said they didn't care if Frey was a lying wank and who sounded like they meant it. Not many. No, most people were pissed.

You know, this is also where we get into why the David Sedaris comparison that Williams makes is inapposite. It's not a double standard over memoirs, it's the same standard: Sedaris is offering you something more than the truth of the story, if you were even looking for truth (which seems a little silly, but, hey, sake of an argument and all that). David Sedaris' writing style isn't anything flashy, though it's utterly perfect; his work is written, really, to be read aloud, and it's the straightforward deadpan of the raconteur who's pulling your leg a little. The conventional comparison might be to Twain, but you know Jean Sheppard is really the better reference point. What I'm trying to get across here is that you don't have to believe a single thing David Sedaris says to enjoy his writing; it doesn't matter whether or not it's labeled as "nonfiction" or "fiction" or whatever. It's right there in the tone and style, which is pleasant to read, that what you're reading is a tall tale told by someone who is stretching things a bit for the sake of a funny or touching anecdote. Take it with a grain of salt.

Take any memoir with a grain of salt. I mean, Williams may get stoked with umbrage over Frey's self-serving comparisons to Kerouac et al. and his general implication that all memoirs are fictional at some level, but he's actually right about that. He has to be, necessarily so, because the truth about memory and perception is that some component of memory is the brain's invention and perception is inherently subjective. The brain isn't an always-on-when-awake video recorder, it's a clump of meat that evolved to keep us from being eaten by tigers or falling out of trees to an early death, and if it drops pieces of conversations, misplaces dates, or fills incorrectly fills in a missing shirt color, well, it's sort of amazing it manages to remember anything, much less perform mathematical calculations, write sonnets, build rocketships or spell "Mississippi". Claiming the fact doesn't make Frey a dick, what makes him a dick is that he's using that factual claim to justify his selling a meritless piece of rehab porn to a bunch of marks who are now too embarrassed to admit they got off on his dark account of a wrecked life.

They're angry because they were cheated. Who reads Sedaris and feels cheated? (Quite the contrary, I find myself astonished on those occasions when I find out there was some kind of truth to something he wrote.) Who reads Twain and feels cheated? Who reads Miller and feels cheated? Different eras or standards doesn't enter into it; people read Frey for one reason, basically, and they were embarrassed when their reason turned out to be a sham, a Disneyworld version of a slum, a ghetto Potemkin village.

Frey, of course, has landed on his myriad feet and scuttled onward in life, effectively using the same species of techniques that made A Million Little Pieces a bestseller. With the whole Full Fathom Five venture, Frey proves he's learned his lesson: to wit, that one doesn't have to be a terribly good writer, or even write a damned thing at all, in order to have a lucrative career in writing. All one has to do is give the rubes what they want, and they'll give you movie production deals.

The adage, it happens, was wrong: you don't have to build a better mousetrap to get the world to beat a path to your door if you can find a shiny way to market the same shitty old one.


Janiece Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 5:27:00 PM EDT  

meritless piece of rehab porn is my new favorite phrase.

And I love listening to David Sedaris narrating his own stories. Factual-shmactual - dude is FUNNY.

Nathan Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 7:21:00 PM EDT  

I watched part of the Oprah interview today (as in, it was on in the room while I was doing some other stuff). There were a couple of things that registered with me besides Frey being really mealy-mouthed and trying to be appropriately contrite.

There was a "behind the scenes" segment with Oprah talking to the producers who put together the original show. If you believe them, the interview actually was an ambush; Frey had been told he'd be taken to task, but the theme of the show would be about redemption. Oprah appears to be hearing that info for the first time in the scene.

Toward the end of the show, Oprah tells him she's not apologizing for what she said in the original show but for how she said it. She claims she let her hurt ego drive her to "lose her compassion". She goes on about how she's interviewed child-molesters and murderers and every sort of horrible person you can imagine and she's never let herself lose her compassion before interviewing him. And then, after being told she treated him worse than a pedophile, he thanks her for the apology. (Note: If it isn't clear from the preceding, that whole section came of - to me - as being All About Oprah; nothing to do with Frey at all.)

All in all, it seemed to be a mutual resurrection society.

Janiece Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 5:09:00 PM EDT  

Nathan, everything Oprah does is "all about Oprah." From A to Zinc.

John the Scientist Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 9:05:00 PM EDT  

Eric, you're right about a signifiant chunk of the audience, but I'm a little surprised you don't read at least some of this literature for the same reason I might - to help someone in a similar situation. If the said memior does contain a successful strategy for escaping this shit, it might one day help someone I know, God forbid even my own kids.

You know about my wife's story, and she reads a similar literature for the same reasons. It's definitely not prurient on her part, but while she tosses away a lot of it as too trite (I found God and now everything is hunky dory), every now and then she finds something that helps those of her family not as iron-willed as she.

But I'm selective and picky because free time is limited these days, and Frey seemed altogether too gleeful about his past to have truly broken with it, so I thought the chance of value when it was being touted as true was small.

In a former life I spent a good deal of time interviewing ex-addicts for antabuse type clinical trials, and after listening to hundreds of stories one begins to be able to mostly sort the wheat from the chaff. Frey seemed like chaff, perhaps like someone who was still abusing from his smarmy attitude, so I took a pass. But someone less discerning who bought the book with that in mind, even if they did have a secondary prurient interest, still has a legitimate beef with Frey on non-literary grounds.

Eric Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 12:22:00 AM EDT  

John, to be fair: there were some people who bought into Pieces as support literature (instead of as rehab porn), and that small group has a legitimate beef for being cheated by Frey. E.g. I remember seeing in one comment thread somewhere a reaction from someone who was pissed at the revelations of Frey's deceit because he had a family member with addiction issues who'd bought into Frey's schtick as a hero who beat his demons, and the guy was worried about how the family member would deal with Frey's betrayal; hopefully, it didn't matter, but addiction is so individually calibrated that an objectively trivial incident can be a subjective catastrophe that triggers a relapse.

But I think those folks were a distinct minority, and certainly a minority that didn't include most of the critics, Oprah Winfrey, or the majority of Winfrey fans. And anyway, dismissive snark was easier and more fun to write than nuance, so mea culpa on that. (And nuance was perhaps incidental, anyway, to the writing and publishing issues embedded in Freygate that I find more interesting.)

One other thing would be that my lack of interest in the genre probably shouldn't surprise. Time, as you mention, is short, and the work I do is psychically exhausting without spending one's free time immersing oneself in fictional or non-fictional stories about people much like my clients. I suspect that even if I had an interest in the genre, it would be spoiled by my intimacy with the basis for it, though I've never really had the interest to start with. I don't generally read legal thrillers or watch courtroom dramas, either, and for much the same reason. Indeed, there's a reason that some chunk of what I'm reading at any given point is likely to include comic books and similar escapist fare; I'm very fond of "serious" lit, with David Foster Wallace's last novel and the rest of Maughm's short stories in my queue once I finish some Peter Straub, but one of the main things I'm taken up with, frankly, is Dark Horse's anthologies of the old Creepy and Eerie comic magazines from the late '60s and early '70s, precisely because there's a certain level or puerility, silliness and camp in those pages, without which I'd possibly go oh-very-slightly mad.

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