Friday, May 02, 2008

James Frey Resurfaces

What with all the fuss about Miley Cyrus' provocative photos in the June edition of Vanity Fair, it may go unnoticed that the magazine also has a lengthy interview with James Frey.

You remember James Frey, don't you? If Jonathan Franzen's diss of Oprah was the literary scandal of 2001, James Frey's actual appearance on Oprah in early 2006 was far more dramatic.

Frey was the writer whose 2003 "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, became a runaway best-seller in the fall of 2005 after Oprah chose it for her bookclub. Then in January of 2006, The Smoking Gun website did an expose here, charging that the book was a fictional fabrication of Frey's rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol.

Oprah initially defended Frey--during a phone-in call on the Larry King show, she essentially said the spirit of the book was more important than the facts of the book. Her stance was not a popular one and, on January 26, 2006, she had Frey on her show again where she confronted him. You can see video of that event on YouTube or here on Oprah's own site. Oprah did all but eviscerate the man on air.

Frey admitted to multiple lies in his "memoir," including the fact that he'd only spent hours in jail after being arrested, not the 87 days he'd vividly described in the book.

After that show aired, Frey was persona non grata in the literary world. His agent resigned, his editor claimed to have been hoodwinked and his publisher (Random House) pulled the book off the shelves. Frey and Random House faced multiple lawsuits.

After avoiding the scandal, I finally wrote about it here in late January of 2006, and then again here in September of that same year explaining the settlement Frey and Random House reached with reader lawsuits.

Fast forward eighteen months. Frey has a new novel coming out this summer. The title is Bright Shiny Morning and his publisher is HarperCollins. I suspect that forthcoming book is the main reason he agreed to the Vanity Fair interview.

Even so, there are some interesting items in the article. Frey claims that Norman Mailer invited him to lunch at his Brooklyn Heights townhouse after the scandal broke. He says Mailer told him, "For 40 years they stomped on me. Now you have the privilege of being stomped on for the next 40 years."

Then there's this:

It now turns out that it was something of an open secret in the publishing world that the industry had been complicit in the scandal, and that Frey, though he was not an innocent, had become a whipping boy. HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham, who ultimately bought Bright Shiny Morning, for an estimated $1.5 million, says today, "There was a gap between what people were saying in public and in print, and what they were saying to each other privately. Whatever the complicated issues were in the case of A Million Little Pieces, there were feelings of concern and surprise that such fury was being visited on this one particular case, where we all know that the genre of memoir is a uniquely strange one, where many writers have played with the truth or reshaped the truth or have their own vision of the truth which can never be judged in any final court" . . . Judith Clain, who has edited numerous memoirs at Little, Brown, says, "I could see how he got swept away. I also thought that he had a big ego and he did get swept up in himself. But on every level I thought that it got distorted." Where were such voices at the time, when so many articles were being written about Frey? Editors as a general rule, keep their heads down, Clain says. She concedes, however, that "it's probably true that no one wants to alienate Oprah."

Frey's ego does not appear to be significantly diminished by the experience:

"The enduring myth of the American memoir as a precise form is bullshit and needed to go away . . . 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."

You can read the entire Vanity Fair article here.

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