Thursday, January 12, 2006

Two obligatory cents on James Frey

This whole James Frey thing is crazy. Craziest of all is Random House’s offering refunds to people who are so incensed over The Smoking Gun’s accusations that they want their money back; that’s an extremely reactionary position to take. No one kvetched at MGM when Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine was proved to have played fast and loose with the facts... and he still has a Best Documentary Oscar to show for it.

Two camps have formed over this, with both arguing over what the definition of a “memoir” entails. One, espoused by Frey’s publishers and The Oprah herself, is that a memoir is naturally subject to embellishment, invention and/or reinterpretation of past events, and that A Million Little Pieces’ strength lies in its depiction of overcoming substance addiction and its message of redemption. The opposing camp argues that a memoirist is duty-bound to be as factual and objective as any journalist is. Nicholas Christopher, for example, told the AP that “he was troubled by the view, advanced by some, that readers ‘expect’ facts to be occasionally distorted in a memoir. ‘Yes, we do that sometimes — it's called a novel,’ he said.”

Oprah’s probably the real target here. In all likelihood, Frey dashed off this heavily fictionalized take on his struggles with addiction without ever actually believing anyone would ever read it. Then, of course, the thing takes off like a rocket and he has to cover his ass. I doubt the brouhaha would have been this intense if it didn’t have one of those book-club logos plastered on the front cover. Winfrey’s book club has engendered a hell of a lot of bad blood in the literary community, and many of the attacks on Frey have taken on the distinct tone of opportunism. They’re going after Frey for misrepresenting himself, sure, but Her Oprahness is whose head they’re really jonesing for.

But while we’re on the subject of defining what is or is not permissible in a particular form of writing, let’s take a look at the report which started it all. The Smoking Gun has long been a highly opinionated muckracking online publication that’s barely a step or two above a supermarket tabloid; they report celebrity arrests and things of that nature with the same salacious breathlessness. To start with, many of their “revelations” take on the uncomfortable form of character assassination. If journalism is supposed to be fair, balanced and objective, the investigative report fails consistently; Frey is a target and they don't pretend otherwise. There’s a tremendous amount of valuable investigative reporting in the piece, yes, but more often than not it tends to be cloaked in the dogmatic verbiage of gossip columns, with nary a single individual willing to be credited with authorship for the piece to begin with.

Here’s another thing that’s absolutely true: You cannot trust a drug addict. The Frey mess reminds me of that bit from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where good old Dr. Gonzo says that you can turn your back on a friend, but you can never turn your back on a drug. An addictive personality still has the same craving for attention and reassurance, regardless of whether or not they’re using; they’ll shuck, jive and lie their asses off for the rest of their days, because the itch never goes away. They’ll charm you and tell you what you want to hear, because that’s what they do. I can’t begrudge anyone for feeling a little cheated by Frey’s admissions, and, truthfully, his magnanimous posturing as a poster boy for redemption often seems disingenuous. But that’s the problem when you try to separate the man from the message; more often than not, you end up with two different and contradictory things. Such is life.

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