Thursday, May 01, 2008

It's called "hubris" (in the parlance of our time).

For a while now Brian (and to a much less degree I) have been keeping you up to date on what is happening in the world of fake memoirs and manufactured narratives. There have been so many recently: Kaavya Viswanathan's How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, Margaret B. Jones's Love and Consequences, Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments, the Laura Albert/JT LeRoy fiasco, as well as half a dozen other suspects I don't feel like mentioning again. Sometimes we have commented on the goings-on as they unfolded and sometimes we responded to things shortly after the fact. Invariably, however, we have only been able to comment on all the phonies until they all had the good sense to go away and feel perpetual (and well deserved) shame...until now! In an interview that will run in the June 2008 issue of Vanity Fair, James "A Million Little Lies" Frey has returned to the public eye.

The piece, written by Evgenia Peretz, sheds some new light on what happened to James Frey after his public flogging by Oprah Winfrey but what most interested me is how goddamned arrogant he still is and how thoroughly unlikeable he was then and still remains to this day. He simply doesn't care that he lied to millions of readers. I think he would like all of us just to shut up about the whole affair.
“Frankly, I don’t even care,” he says, exasperated, after I pushed him on the subject of the scandal for the 16th time. “I don’t care, if somebody calls [A Million Little Pieces] a memoir, or a novel, or a fictionalized memoir, or what. I could care less what they call it. The thing on the side of the book means nothing. Who knows what it is. It’s just a book. It’s just a story. It’s just a book that was written with the intention to break a lot of rules in writing. I’ve broken a lot of rules in a lot of ways. So be it.”

Huh? So, it's "just a book." The printed word, which represents the dawn of the age of reason, the repository of man's knowledge, is just a thing. "Get over it, dude," I can hear him saying to me. I am sorry, but that just doesn't cut it. Unless I miss my calling, the author (and the publisher for that matter) has a responsibility to their reader to care about what they put down on the page. Every word, every page need not be earth shattering (or even honest), but it has to be important to the writer otherwise why bother? It is a tacit contract between the author, editor, publisher, and reader, no? Well, not according to Frey. In Frey's version, he had some misgivings about his book being called a memoir until 1) the manuscript was rejected by all 18 publishers it was submitted to and 2) the money started rolling in once it sold to potential buyers as an "electrifying" memoir. Call it whatever you'd like, dude, as long as I get paid. In light of his misgivings based on his own knowledge that half the book was bullshit, did he try to remain humble or sincere or the least bit reserved since he was, in effect, peddling lies? Nope. He just pulls up his sleeve and:
brandished his many tattoos for reporters: the FTBSITTTD on his wrist meant “Fuck the Bullshit, It’s Time to Throw Down.” He said about [Dave] Eggers, one of the most celebrated literary figures of his generation, “Fuck that, and fuck him.”

Classy! And incredibly stupid. Most authors would've just tried to reign it in but he couldn't help himself. He was the bad ass…the modern day Jack Kerouac (who also kinda sucks). When confronted with the evidence that he needed to revise his story to reflect, you know, reality, he brashly said “let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt. I stand by my book and my life, and I won’t dignify this bullshit with any sort of further response.”

I think between having the author just slink away permanently disgraced—Stephen Glass, Misha Defonseca, Kaavya Vishwanathan, Forrest Carter, Margaret Jones—or stand up for themselves and try and fight back—Frey and JT LeRoy—I prefer the quiet, perpetual ignominy. Frey just continually reminds me of the ugly side of the book business: that it is bottom-line oriented just like The Gap or Newbury Comics or Whole Foods Market. You can dress it up any way you want but in the end an unrepentant asshole like Frey just wants the money and the fame…and so do the publishers. So much for the survival of the book, eh? For the love of all that is good, shouldn’t someone have told him before doing this piece that maybe going into print and appearing less than gracious toward (in order) his former editor, his former agent, The Smoking Gun, and Oprah is—perhaps, just perhaps—a STUPID, SELFISH thing to do? It shows that he still really doesn’t give a shit. Well, who do you turn to when you just don’t give a shit and feel hated by the world? Who comforted him during this dark time when he was receiving hundreds of mean email messages from cheated, enraged readers? Got a Guess? Stumped? Wait for it…Norman Mailer!!!

What does Mailer said to young Frey? “Damn, you got yourself into a spot of trouble now son.” Nope. “What the fuck were you thinking, Jimbo?” Nah. Instead, he tells Frey that “a writer writes his memoir, to tell a lie and create an ideal self. Everything I’ve ever written is memoir, you know, is an inflated vision of the ideal Platonic self.” Delightful. Just what a known liar needs to hear: “it’s not your fault…all writing is fictive.” Postmodernism can be fun! One thing you can count on is that there is always someone out there who is a bigger jerk than you are and by standing in their light your heat doesn’t feel quite so warm.

Finally, what is written above turns out to be prologue. The cynical view is the the Vanity Fair article is actually HarperCollins publicity department driven since who the hell was really wondering what became of him anyway? Still, Frey is back. He has a new book coming—one that HarperCollins paid $1.5 million dollars for—and he is still his old self. Sure he screwed the industry (not to mention millions of readers who saw an inspiring story in his “memoir”) but, a la Mailer, he has been reincarnated as a prophet:

“The enduring myth of the American memoir as a precise form is bullshit and needed to go away,” he says. “Although the experience was a nightmare, if I started the process of ending that myth, I’m perfectly fine with it. I’ve said all along that I never wanted my books published as memoirs.”

Whew! I am so glad that he was able to help provide a corrective to all those overheated memoirs that were coming out. Only someone with an overbearing sense of pride and presumption could actually turn such a sordid story of lies piled upon lies into a triumph…and that is called hubris these days. It reminds me of the great quote from Jules Renard: “The profession of letters is, after all, the only one in which one can make no money without being ridiculous.” Indeed.

1 comment:

Brian said...

The wait was well worth it. Nicely done! Frey really does seem like an good ol' fashioned American Asshole.