Is James Frey the Most Important Writer in America?
He’s an arrogant opportunist who wants to take advantage of talented young writers. Basically, he’s exactly what the publishing industry needs.
By Stephen Marche [more from this author]
Antonio Zazueta Olmos
The author of A Million Little Pieces and other works of fiction.
Today is an uplifting, degrading, and all-around confusing time to be a writer in America. Even as creative-writing departments proliferate like bedbugs and each year brings a fresh (and deserving) claimant to the title of Great American Novel (The Emperor’s Children, Netherland, Freedom, all great books), content farms are herding the young and determined literati into anonymous sweatshops run by all-seeing, unforgiving masters of metrics. More people want to be writers even as continual technological breakthroughs — Blogspot, Twitter, and tablets of every shape and size — make the future of writing less solid and predictable. The old orders are falling and the new ones have not yet emerged, and worst of all, nobody, it seems, knows how to write about sex anymore. We are in a moment of literary in-betweenness, and into this world of upheaval, to everybody’s surprise, has stepped James Frey, a refugee from the great decade of American fraud, pointing the way up and out like a deranged false prophet. The man has plans.
I Am Number Four, a story about a good-looking teenage alien and his struggle to survive.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since Oprah humiliated Frey on national television. And though he proceeded (sensibly) to make himself scarce for a while, you are going to be reading a lot about him this year, even if you’re not really meaning to. His upcoming novel, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, follows a man who may or may not be Christ through twenty-first-century Manhattan, and the film version of the best-selling book I Am Number Four will be released in February. The latter is the first fruit of Frey’s publishing venture, Full Fathom Five, the setup of which has caused a minor scandal. Frey finds young writers to “coproduce” commercial young-adult fiction: They write it, he controls it, they can tell their friends and parents that they’ve written a book, and he takes up to 70 percent of the royalties. Frey, at least according to some, trolls the M.F.A. programs in New York rather the way pimps in movies troll Penn Station for farmers’ daughters, but I hesitate to judge his plan. The truth is that anyone who spends $40,000 a year to be taught how to write by writers who cannot make a living by writing, or who imagines that fairness and common sense have anything to do with the publishing industry, could probably use a lesson in how life really works.
(Hemingway) Archivo Castillo Puche/EFE/Corbis; (Mailer) Interfoto/Alamy
Hemingway and Mailer are among Frey’s idols.
Which leads me to the only thing I really like about Frey: his arrogance. He unblushingly compares himself to some of the greats (Hemingway, Mailer) and believes that his new young-adult production scheme is like the work of Jeff Koons or Ai Weiwei, who both hire workers to produce their oversized art. We haven’t heard this kind of boldness from a writer, this claim to an inheritance of a grand tradition, since Norman Mailer died. The best writers now are humble to the point of insanity. Before he went on his Freedom book tour, Jonathan Franzen told Terry Gross on NPR that he just hoped to hand-sell a few copies at local bookstores. (He ended up on the cover of Time.) The younger generation, meanwhile, seems to come in two flavors: the earnestly meek (Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem) and the ironically meek (Gary Shteyngart, Sam Lipsyte, Joshua Ferris). The danger of all this — and it is a real danger — is that their meekness will be taken seriously, and that writing will then be accepted as the natural domain for losers. The world today is filled with graying men who became writers so they could follow in the swaggering footsteps of Mailer, Bellow, and the other giant egos of postwar American letters. But how many young men today read, say, Jonathan Safran Foer’s dollhouse fiction and say, That’s what I want to do with my life?
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