Frey’s big “lie”

There’s been a lot of talk lately about James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces (a book about drug addiction and the path Frey took to overcome), and his alleged transcription of misinformation therein.

By which I mean this: he lied in his book.

What? A drug addict and former-“total fuck-up” lied in a book to make money? Say it isn’t true!

There are two sides to this argument, obviously: one side is appalled that a book of such importance, a book that has saved thousands of lives from the perils of drug and alcohol abuse by forcing them to look in the mirror, has some possibly fictitious (or at least hugely exaggerated) passages. This, according to some, is unacceptable for something that is passing itself off as a memoir.

The other side doesn’t care. It’s a book; a well received, possibly well-written book. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment on the content or technical prowess featured. Still, I have a few thoughts on the validity, or lack there of, of A Million Little Pieces.

I read two of Augusten Burroughs’ books – Running with Scissors and Dry. Both were promoted as memoirs. Both were based on Burroughs’ real life stories. Both were written as part-fiction; however, the author combined certain characters and stories, presented people and places out of context, and used his capability as writer to create a better memoir that was still based on his true life but was not fully 100% accurate.

James Frey did the same thing. He exaggerated the story. He threw things in that weren’t there, that didn’t happen or happened at a different time or place. He used his capability as a writer to create a better memoir that was still based on his true life but was not fully 100% accurate.

Those were meant to sound the same. The difference?

Burroughs preceded his book with a disclaimer. He acknowledged that some characters were smashed together, that some events were out of context and out of chronological order. Did it change the meaning? Did it make the book any less worthwhile? No. In fact, the book would probably have been a little less than satisfactory if it was written exactly as it happened. The liberties that an author takes with his or her subject are crucial to making a book commercially viable and interesting.

Really, we’re just arguing about a disclaimer, here – a two sentence phrase that would have stopped all of the overreaction that even brought ire from Oprah Winfrey, the book’s personal cheerleader (though she did forgive Frey during a Larry King Live interview.)

What can publishers do to help stop situations like this in the future? Really, nothing.

From an AP article:

“I think it changes nothing,” Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins, said of the Frey scandal.

Grove/Atlantic president Morgan Entrekin said: “It’s impossible to establish with certainty the factual accuracy of every piece of nonfiction we publish; we would grind to a halt. “I don’t know what we could do. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

In other words, authors should be truthful about their memoirs, or at least put a little warning at the beginning, but if they aren’t, they’ll only have the public to contend with.

Frey has agreed to put a self-written disclaimer at the beginning of all future printings of A Million Little Pieces. People may not trust him anymore, but what did they expect? The message is the same regardless of what he did or did not do in real life. The book is still important for the same reasons.

Don’t worry, though. Frey isn’t hurting because of this. His name has been thrown around quite a bit in relation to this, but his sales haven’t gone down. In fact, according to Technorati, blog mentions of A Million Little Pieces have expectedly gone up.

Let's talk about Frey!

And, as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

This was lovingly handwritten on January 14th, 2006