Thursday, February 02, 2006

Happy birthday, James Joyce.  Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I've written several times at Dreaming Up Daily on the James Frey fray over the past week or so. I'm presenting those pieces here, one after the other, beginning in book-style with the first at the top and the rest following.

A Million Easy Pieces
(originally posted January 24, 2006)

Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle Insight published two opinions concerning James Frey and his fabrications in his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces: one by Martha Sherrill, a young writer whose first novel has just been published, and the other by novelist Cynthia Bass.

Sherrill had herself accepted a big publisher advance to write a memoir but found it paralyzing. She felt more comfortable turning the same material into a novel, though she found that readers were still hungry to know what in it was "real" or "true." Though the controversy over the accuracy of Frey's memoir has provided him with even more publicity, she writes that "I do think there's a way he might be helping novelists everywhere. Once they're over their shock and sense of betrayal, Frey's readers might come to realize the fictional bits were some of the best moments in his book -- that without those thrilling embellishments it would have been just another true story. Maybe next time they go to the bookstore, they'll decide to try the real thing: an honest-to-god novel. "

Novelist Cynthia Bass writes that the Frey fray should be a cautionary tale, about just how much "truth" is in any non-fiction. The vagaries of memory, the limitation of one perspective, and the exegencies of telling a good story mitigate against certainty. She points out that before recently memoirs were by famous people concerning public events, with facts that could be easily checked. But memoirs these days are personal stories by previously non-famous people, usually of lurid events--addictions, incest, etc.-- with an arc of redemption. Their factuality has to be taken on faith. "If I claim to have hit a home run at my last at-bat at Fenway, you can look it up. If I claim to have hit a home run at my last at-bat at Patrick Henry Elementary, that's impossible to confirm. "Yet the authenticity of personal memoirs is even more important to readers (hence the Frey fray.)"The unspoken bond of trust between reader and author is breached. Deliberately doing this to a reader is, for an author and a publisher, as close to a sin as you can get in the world of writing. "

Bass acknowledges that new writers are under tremendous pressure to write in the memoir form because it is potentially so much more commercial than all but a few novels (Only the latest Harry Potter novel has apparently been outselling Frey's first book.) She admits that she was asked to write a memoir instead of a novel and was tempted; and that other writers she saw commenting on the Frey fray found nothing wrong in whatever inventing he did. "The prevailing sentiment is to do whatever it takes. Which is just what Frey did. After failing to sell his book as fiction, he said it was a memoir."

She suggests "a rearrangement of attitude: less cynicism from the producers, and more from the consumers. There's nothing more dispiriting than learning what you thought was true -- what you hoped was true -- was a lie, perpetrated for money, ambition and fame. "But while both Sherrill and Bass make valid points, neither they nor Frey have addressed the most importance qualities of non-fiction or fiction.

I haven't read Frey's book but just the excerpts I saw in the now-famous Smoking Gun analysis were so plainly outrageous, melodramatic and exaggerated, that I didn't believe them on their face. I hope for the sake of his readers than in context they were made more convincing by better writing.

Clearly, the memoir's popularity has something to do with an immense hunger for certain kinds of redemption stories. That is apparently more important than any fact to these readers---the journey from sin to redemption---and especially the redemption-- forms "the truth" of the story for them. Perhaps these memoirs and their redemption stories are an outgrowth of the recovery movement, and the spreading of various new ways of approaching behavior and the big questions of life, from simplified psychology to the varieties of religious experience.

But some prominent writers and teachers, like philosopher Martha Nussbaum (Poetic Justice)and psychologist Robert Coles (The Call of Stories) have found that real literature still speaks to people on a very personal level, and helps them see themselves and the world around them in new ways.What troubles me beyond truth in labeling is the simplistic analysis of fiction as embroidered memoir. Novels are more than stuff that happened, touched up for effect, like a Photoshop portrait. There is little sense in what either of these novelists said of what a literary work can be, of its complexities and resonances. Children don't seem to have any problem dealing with the literary intentions of the Harry Potter books, so it's not like contemporary readers can't handle it.

Novels are more than "thrilling embellishments." They are stories with their own integrity, following their own necessities. Literature is something alive ; truth is in the reader.The cynicism of the writers Bass refers to is pretty troubling, especially in an age of institutionalized cynicism, as represented by current commercial capitalism and political fundamentalism. While I see nonfiction as a literary form, I believe that what Frey did was beyond the bounds of nonfiction storytelling; it was dishonest. What little I read wasn't even good pulp fiction, so the intention to deceive for profit wouldn't surprise me in a work that obviously stresses the extreme for easy effect. If so, it's mirror cynicism: a paint-by-number Best-Selling Memoir using the most lurid colors in the box.

We face complex problems in the present affecting the future, and we will face ever more complex situations requiring relatively quick decisions in that future. We need leaders and citizens who can apply the complexities learned from literature to understanding the dimensions of the future and to help them craft solutions to the problems that emerge. This is not a pipedream: it has been a feature of leaders in the West and East throughout history, though not uniformly, and its absense in current U.S. leadership is tragically clear.

It is also not a panacea, as history shows, especially if not widely shared by the citizenry. But literature is accessible to more citizens than ever before, as are opportunities to acquire the skills to augment intuitive responses. These skills are as just as important for an informed citizenry. Lacking leadership in this regard, it becomes a personal and family responsibility.
The Frey Continues---What A Story! (And A Postscript About Empathy and Phony Indians)
(originally posted Jan. 27)

Volume 1: Into the Frey.

A previously unpublished writer tries to sell his self-help novel and ends up getting it published as a memoir. In his book, the man called Frey confesses to, well everything that Augustine does in his Confessions---all the sins and mis-spent youth (for similiar before-and-after, add the Buddha, St. Paul, Thomas Merton, Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, etc.) but to the max: selfishiness, drunkenness, drug addiction, violence, jail, a lover's tragedy, another lover' tragedy when his girlfriend commits suicide on the VERY DAY they are to be reunited when he's released from jail--it's got everything! It's got sure fire success because it's got TOO MUCH of everything (gotta stand out in the crowd of incest victims, abuse victims, and vice versa and etc.).Yes! It's sin, sorrow, Conversion, Suffering and the Big Redemption.

Which leads to Oprah and her book club, and the books are selling like---well, like Oprah's book club books sell. Only MORE. BIGGER. The author Frey himself gets on Oprah and basks in the sunshine of her approval. The book is powerful, because It's All True. The hero has returned from his quest to share his wisdom with his people.

But just when the hero is about to stride off into the sunset, the dirty smut peddling Internet Enemy shows up, and calls out the golden boy. Says he's a liar, big time. My gosh. What will happen next?

Volume 2: The Frey Strikes Back

Frey defends himself at the broadcast court of Larry the King. He admits there's maybe a fib here and there, but nothing important to the Story. The Story is True.

He sits on the other side of that vast expanse of table, not with his lawyer or even his editor, but with his Mom. Character witness. So Mom is there to support his claim-- no the boy wasn't a suburban wuss whose jail time added up to a few hours in the suburban police facility waiting for ride, he was a drug-addicted, violent drunken bad-ass, Mom believe him and she couldn't be prouder.(Where was she at the time anyway? Sorry--not part of The Story.)

But Mom's testimony is not as important as Oprah's. Her surprise, unsolicited call--swooping in like the Millennium Falcon to save Luke's ass---tells the world that maybe he did fib a little but his Story was important to people--the Redemption! The Redemption!

But just as it looked as if our hero had escaped the jaws of certain death again, and well before he could ascend the stage for his medals while singing his theme song, Who's a-Freyed of a Million Little White Lies?.....

Volume 3: Revenge of the FreyedNow there's Oprah on her own show, with the erstwhile Hero and his Adviser (not his Mom this time, but his editor!) --but not for praise! No no no! Reversal of fortune! Sudden and Devastating!

Oprah with her flashing furious eyes. Oprah who says she is "humiliated." Oprah apologizes for her witness to the King. She gave the impression that the Truth does not matter. She has Guests, Important Heads all, all of whom intone, the Truth Does So Matter.

The hero is there, no more a hero. He looks terrified, frightened, a-freyed. But Oprah the Prosecutor presses him--is this true? Is that true? (The girl didn't really commit suicide on the day you didn't get out of jail, didn't she? Or did she?) Not even Frey knew for sure. Did he REALLY have a tooth pulled without novocaine? He really, truly, honestly...couldn't remember.

The audience BOOED. The mob has made him, the mob has turned against him! What irony! What television!

The Jimmy Hoffa defense doesn't wash. Nobody likes that dishonest fifth amendment anyway. Come on, the whole Redemption thing loses its punch if he didn't feel REAL PAIN ( or is that Reel Pain??) as that "wisdom" tooth came screaming out by the roots. I guess.

Anyway, the hero is brought down. He is stung with the whips of scorn, crucified on national TV! So now it's the Hollywood story---the struggle, the rise, the triumph, the fall. What could possibly be next?Come on. You know what's next. Resurrection!

And it begins with: gee, I've really learned my lesson this time. Some say Oprah smiled her forgiveness, others that she indicated her satisfaction, though with what, no one can yet say.

But let's not get carried away. Resurrection---not too many can pull that off. And this tattered and Freyed copy of a writer--convicted of overweening Ambition, Greed, and pathological Lying--is not a likely candidate. He may end his days drinking with Jason Blair.

No, Volume 4 may not be The Frey-Shammed Resurrection. It may be more like: oh no, over my dead body! They are not getting the money back! The Frey Fugitive: Escape to the Freyman Islands! Which at the moment he could afford. Stay tuned!

But don't hold your breath.

Addendum: Beyond what this all says about greed and credulity and uncertain reading skills, there's another issue better highlighted by a somewhat similiar case: several books purporting to be by a Navajo named Nasdijj, another suffering and redemption narrative, this time about harsh life on the reservation.

It turns out there is no Nasdijj, and the books were written by a white man nowhere near the reservation, described as "a semi-successful gay porn writer" in the same online piece that quotes Sherman Alexie, an actual Native American who is a distinguished and excellent writer (and caught on to Nasdijj as a phony early on, but couldn't get anyone to believe him) stating an essential point about all this: "The backbone of multicultural literature is the empathy of its audience--their curiosity for the condition of a group other than themselves. Nasdijj is taking advantage of that empathy."

This is a vital feature of not only multicultural but all literature. Keeping faith with the reader is a precondition of empathy. And empathy is one of the major social functions of literature, especially in relation to the needs of the future.
Call the Talese, They're Trying to Steal My Sales!

originally posted AM February 1

Our Story So Far: Nan Talese is James Frey's editor, and she went on the Oprah Purgatario to explain the publishing business. I don't know if she was booed, but someone wrote that Oprah gave her a dirty look when her cell phone chimed. To keep you up to date on the zeitgeist, Oprah was criticized for backing Frey in a call to Larry King. Then she was applauded for apologizing and going after Frey on her own show. Now the predictable backlash has begun, and Oprah is getting criticized for holding a public stoning, humiliating Frey and his editor, and not listening to Their Side.

So here's how a Wall Street Journal article (Yes! This is today's free one! Oh thank you thankyou WSJ!) begins:

Last Thursday, publishing-industry veteran Nan Talese was excoriated on television by Oprah Winfrey for publishing James Frey's 2003 "A Million Little Pieces," a bestselling memoir about the author's struggle to overcome drug dependency that he has since admitted is partly fictitious.But on Friday morning, Ms. Talese walked into 22nd-floor offices in Midtown Manhattan to a standing ovation from her colleagues. Soon afterward, she received a call of support from Peter Olson, chief executive of Bertelsmann AG's Random House Inc. publishing arm.

"I've gotten more than 500 emails over the last few days, and the overwhelming majority have been supportive," says Ms. Talese whose imprint, Nan A. Talese, is part of Random House's Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group. Indeed, many members of the publishing industry have rallied around Ms. Talese and Random House, saying that they would have published "A Million Little Pieces" as well and could have been duped just as easily.

The WSJ story is ostensibly about how it's too expensive for poor poor pitiful publishers to fact check their books. Not everyone in publishing agrees that nothing can or should be done, however. Some publishers say the "Million Little Pieces" incident may well result in some changes in how books are vetted. "The entire process will have to be rethought," says James Atlas, president of Atlas Books LLC [followed by a plug for Atlas' last book.]

Full disclosure: Many years ago I had a very short meeting with Nan Talese, when she was an editor at a different publishing house. It was a courtesy to one of her (fiction, acknowleded that is) writers who I knew. I waited around, got to sit down long enough to hear her dis everything I'd done and everything I proposed to do, thanked her very much and left.

I also used to know James Atlas, and I believe the last time I saw him I was pitching story ideas when he was an editor at the NY Times Magazine. He was more positive about the ideas but when it came time to assign, Atlas shrugged.

Also, I must warn you that reading this blog or anything else on your computer can cause headaches, heartaches and acid indigestion. A small number of readers have suffered seizures and required medical attention. Others have dipped into prolonged depression, puncutated by anxiety and anger, leading to reading a lot of psychology books and babbling on blogs. If symptoms persist, tough shit, you're not covered.

Now where was I? Right---the story quotes others pointing out various relevant factors: the much larger marketing budgets for some books which cut into editing resources for all books, and even the Power of Oprah as a key factor in what kinds of books get published. Implying that Frey wouldn't have gotten on the show if he'd called his book fiction, as he apparently did until other publishers passed on it.

But none of this bothers Nan Talese. She goes right from harvesting applause, phone calls and e-mails to a working lunch with--who else?--James Frey, as they go over wording to be added to new copies of his book, pointing out in the best possible way that it's apparently a pack of lies (although on Oprah, Frey reportedly had problems remembering what was and what wasn't the truth, if any. )

And here's her bottom line (via WSJ):

Last week, the publisher issued a statement saying, "We bear a responsibility for what we publish, and apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion surrounding the publication of 'A Million Little Pieces.'" In an interview, Ms. Talese said, "We will continue to print the book as long as there is public demand for it."

We bear "a" responsibility? Apologize for any "unintentional confusion surrounding the publication"? What is that supposed to mean? There was no confusion surrounding the publication. It was published satisfactorily, well enough to get in stores and sell three million copies. The problem is with the words in the book, and its author, who shows signs of being a pathological liar.

But the last part is very clear. "We will continue to print the book as long as there is public demand for it." Makes it sound like a public service. Here's the book, judge for yourself, we won't be a party to censorship. Right. And because we're so sincere, we're giving the book away free.

Not exactly. They didn't say that, of course. Frey may have been disgraced and suffered an hour of humiliation, but he's rich. And absolutely no one is asking him to give back the money. Because that might lead to Nan Talese and Random House being asked to give back the money. This is America. Ain't nobody going to give back no money, pardner. And I ain't lyin. Really.

Another Random House editor is quoted in the story saying he"expects that the future reception for first-time memoirists could be different, especially 'those with highly melodramatic, uncorroborated life narratives.'" What an ironist. Frey has killed the memoir market for awhile, except for his own books. But the implication is clearly that when faced with "highly melodramatic" life narratives, those with integrity and an actual sense of responsibility exercise editorial skepticism. But then there are those who read with greed, and the ease of exploiting paying readers is the chief if not the only deciding factor.

I mean, what would happen if you expressed doubts and he took the book elsewhere? Or if you checked into it a little and found out it wasn't true---that the truth was not nearly so gripping and un-putdownable as the lies? You certainly don't want to put yourself in that position.

And clearly this is something that Nan Talese understands, along with apparently everyone she knows.
Once More Into the Frey, Dear Friends

originally posted PM February 1

Today's New York Times has a short account of the explanation/apology that James Frey has released as an explanatory note to be included in future copies of his Million Man Lies book, apparently the text that he and his Nanny were working on over her tuna salad (the WSJ doesn't say what he ate, if anything) in the meeting described in the Wall Street Journal article ( see above.) Frey's statement is posted as a PDF file on the Random House site.

Frey indicates that he is genuinely unsure of the tooth-pulling incident, and says his doctors at the Hazelden clinic think his memory is flawed. (However, several treatment professionals formerly employed there are on record saying that the majority of Frey's book, about his treatment, is false.) There is something of the insanity defense in this, but it may well be true.

He also writes that he had no idea his book would be this popular, and he's felt overwhelmed at times, which also rings true. So possible factors begin to emerge: his purchase on the truth is flawed by the effects of the addiction he writes about, and he probably persuaded himself that a few "embellishments" wouldn't matter in a book that might sell a few thousand copies to a particular market.

I also feel it's churlish to continue writing about a book I have not read, and as no one is paying me to go through that travail, a book I don't intend to read. But I can comment on the statement, which I have read.

Frey says some of his embellishments had a structural purpose, to make a better narrative. But he offers another reason, summarized by the Times:

Overall, his self-portrayal in "A Million Little Pieces," is "a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments," about a person who "I created in my mind to help me cope" with drug addiction and recovery. He said most of the invented material "portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am."The events and details were invented, he said, "in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book," specifically to "detail the fight addicts and alcoholics experience in their minds and in their bodies, and detail why that fight is difficult to win."

This suggests that some of these "embellishments" were part of the pathology of drug addiction and the tools he employed in coping and recovery. In literary terms, he is describing a function and a strategy known as the "unreliable narrator." It is a technique rich in possibilities. The problem is that it works when the author uses it consciously, and the work is fiction.

It's true that some of the earliest novels were counterfeit journals of voyages, sermons and cautionary tales about the sins of people who didn't actually exist. But these quickly became conscious literary devices, and there were always clues to the "deception." There come to be clues as to what is outside the narrator's head and what's only inside it, or clues that it's all in his head, or that you can't trust any of it to be objectively true.

But in Frey's case, he was selling these melodramatic lies as true, without irony. He suggests he wasn't in total control of this material, representing what may have gone on only in his mind as things which happened in the outer world. He describes a pathology, not a legitimate writing approach. But let's skip to the final paragraph of his statement, where he justifies this:

There is much debate now about the respective natures of works of memoir,nonfiction, and fiction. That debate will likely continue for sometime. I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allowsthe writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalisticor historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individualrecollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certainembellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recoveringdrug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it’s a story, and one that Icould not have written without having lived the life I’ve lived.

The key here is the assertion that memoirs are about memory, and it's categorically inappropriate to hold them to a "strict journalistic or historical standard." The problem is that in books, readers expect to know what is the writer's fantasy and what actually happened in the shared world. Many of Frey's "embellishments" involve other people, including a tragic death that affected families and their friends. It's interesting in a literary sense for an author to inject himself into those events even when he wasn't actually part of them, because he feels so strongly about them. But it is dishonest to assert this fantasy was true, and in effect it exploits those events.

In his statement Frey says he'd been writing movies in Hollywood when he started this book. No one expects a Hollywood biography or historical story to be anything more than loosely true. Most moviegoers understand that liberties will be taken for dramatic effect (usually the creation of subsidiary characters or combining several into one, collapsing time, leaving out messy details and contradictions to the arc of the story, etc.) but these days there is usually some textual indication--after the show, buried in the credits, etc.--of the extent of the changes. This Hollywood standard however has not been the standard for books. At least not until now.

I don't think anyone is calling for a "strict" journalistic standard---Frey would be forgiven for saying he was in jail for a year if it turned out it was 10 months (it was a few hours.) But by his own admission Frey asserted things happened in the shared world that happened only in his mind, however addled. That's inflicting delusion on readers with the assertion it is public fact.

What Frey suggests could make a fascinating book---this interplay of fantasy and objectively verifiable, with expressionistic interpolations into shared reality as a reflection of the inner world of an addict, coping and recovering. But apparently that's not the book that was published.

Frey may defend his imposing fantasies, exploiting both people he wrote about and the reader, but he also suggests his own perceptions are flawed. In any case, the real fault here is with his editor and publisher. His editor should have questioned the more extreme events and coincidences, and worked with him to craft a book that presented these fantasies in context. If Frey could not be objective about this, his editor had the responsibility to be. And to either help him make the necessary changes to craft what quite possibly could have been a better book, or to decline to publish deluded recollections as true, along with conscious fabrications beyond the accepted boundaries for nonfiction.

What I still don't understand is how the first deception to be discovered---Frey's jail time, which was actually hours and not months---can be considered an "embellishment." From descrptions I've read, other important events, as well as his entire next book, follow from this phantom incarceration. What's up with that?

Finally, that there is a controversy shows at least a residual concern for truthfulness, as opposed to the assertion and appearance of truth, as I gather is meant by the current buzzword, "truthiness." We are so used to politicans and journalists repeating utter falsehoods until they become the conventional shared truth, that it's surprising anybody cares to make the distinctions. Of course those distinctions are vital. If Al Gore bragged that he invented the Internet, then his veracity is not to be trusted. (In fact he did not claim this. He rightly claimed a hand in certain legislation that enabled it.) If other administrations did what Bush is doing in his domestic spying, as he asserts, then how can he be faulted, let alone impeached? (It's a lie, but it takes some explaining, which makes lying alot easier in impatient times.)

People believe so many objectively crazy things, so many obvious projections of their fears and frustrations, that the existence of any standard of shared truth beyond the scores of major sporting events (perhaps the last bastion of shared truth) is nearly miraculous.

In his statement Frey makes a point of saying how much he wanted to be the author of books. I certainly empathize with the anxiety and finally the desperation to be published---the idea that it justifies and transforms your life, as it transformed Frey's. And I understand the frustration and the deep anger with editors, agents and publishing that it quite clear in other accounts of Frey's attempts to be published, and is especially a feature of the writer who passed himself off as a Navajo named Nasdijj, in an earlier if lesser known publishing scandal.

I have my own grievances against editors, agents and publishers, which I have written about openly (for instance, in my account of the making of The Malling of America, added to the paperback edition.) I had hoped for a career as an author but like a minor league baseball player who gets a "cup of coffee" and a few innings with a major league club, it didn't happen, and along with related dreams that were thereby dashed, with the outcome I can only describe as a broken heart.

So I feel a certain awe for those who exploited the system's hypocrisies and greed, as well as engaging in other manipulations of a corrupt and simplistic system. (The Nasdijj author was once involved in a gallery show of gay images that wasn't drawing crowds, so he wrote a letter to the editor under a false name attacking it with enraged gaybashing language, and had a friend draft an offended and righteous response. Like clockwork, political groups took up the cause and the show became a hit.)

But apart from whether I'm up to carrying off that kind of deception, as well as the question of whether I could write a conscious exploitation if I tried, I can't in the end support such travesties of what I believe in as a central commitment of my life.

So it is easy enough to say this is sour grapes, and my own relative poverty is the best argument for jettisoning these quaint standards. Believe me, I've heard that before. But so what? I've stated my case, and you can believe what you want. I've had my say. The whole damn world can read it and no publisher can prevent it. Apart from competition from a few hundred million other sources, it's as good as published by Random House.