Writers festival boss welcomes Frey controversy
The organiser of this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival has defended his decision to include controversial author James Frey in the line-up.
Frey is best known for his 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces. Promoted as a true tale of his time in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, it rocketed up bestseller lists the world over after Oprah Winfrey selected it for her bookclub.
But in 2005, The Smoking Gun website outed Frey for having highly embellished and partially made up large parts of the book.
The scandal raised questions about whether memoirs have to be factually true; artistic director Michael Campbell says these questions can and should be discussed at writers’ festivals.
“First and foremost, he [Frey] is a terrific writer … Even just prior to Oprah getting upset with him live on air, she commended his writing,” Campbell said.
“And I think one of the most interesting areas of writing at the moment is this, sort of, line between fact and fiction. We’ve seen it here in Australia over a number of years through the ‘history wars’. In that sort of context it’s been about the making of history; the story of history. It’s been about how you bring about the ‘facts’ or ‘accounts’ and how you give them a certain amount of weight or not, how you draw connections between different facts and how you bring that together to get a story of history.
“Then once you come to memoir, there’s an awful lot of quite innovative writing about revealing yourself; about what you chose to say and reveal and what you chose to keep hidden. How you do that, how you present that.”
Frey doesn’t deny he took artistic liberties with A Million Little Pieces, but the author also doesn’t feel he did anything wrong.
“I wrote a book that I said for years should be considered literature; should be considered art. Frankly, I’m the first and really the only memoirist to be held to this standard,” Frey told ABC News Online.
“The presidential candidates in America who have both written memoirs that have been proven to have the same issues in them as mine had are not being held to the standard that I’ve been held to.
“The media seems to have some sort of double standard – where it’s ok for some people to do things, but it’s not ok for others … It’s a book, it’s a work of art and it’s a piece of literature. I took liberties in making the story better. There are many things in the book that are toned down, but again the media isn’t interested in that. They’re interested in frankly holding me to a standard that they don’t hold themselves to.
“If you look in the average newspaper on the average day, there’s as many lies in it as there are in any of my books. There’s as many embellishments and fabrications, and I think people who aren’t seeing that are very naive.”
Frey rebukes suggestions that readers of A Million Little Pieces may have felt betrayed or duped by him, and says he’s expecting a warm reception at the Brisbane Writers Festival.
“I know I get a lot of letters from Australian readers who have been very, very supportive of me. And I think it’ll probably, hopefully be like it is in most places – people have been moved by the words that I write and they understand that I create art, that I create literature and that I have taken liberties along the way to do that,” he said.
As well as discussing the genres of memoir and biography at the festival, Frey will be promoting his third novel – Bright Shiny Morning, the story of four lost souls living in Los Angeles.
So far, it has not been received well by the critics. David L Ulin, a reviewer for the LA Times, says it’s one of the worst books he’s ever read.
Frey takes the criticism on the chin, saying his only concern is how his readers receive the book.
“The reviews tend to be either really great reviews or really, really terrible reviews. And frankly, if they [the critics] are judging me based on the past they’re not doing their jobs, because journalists are supposedly objective. You know, this is just another indication that they’re not,” he said.
“If they want to shred the book, so be it.
“What matters to me is how my readers feel about the book, how the people who spend their money and their time with the book feel about it – and so far that response has been great.”
And despite his very public dressing down, it seems Frey hasn’t lost his sense of humour – yet.
Bright Shiny Morning starts with the declaration nothing in the novel should be considered as “accurate or reliable”.
“It’s meant to be a joke. It’s meant to be a statement of defiance,” Frey said.
“It’s meant to say that I make the rules and that you can get mad at me for doing something but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing it, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to follow your rules.
“I don’t think that rules should be imposed on works of art or works of literature, you know. Artists should be allowed to do whatever they want, however they want and call it whatever they want.”
The Brisbane Writers Festival starts tomorrow and runs till September 21.