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“#JamesFrey thinks his [new] book could work, or be the biggest disaster ever.”

from Tobi Elliot

oooooh, James Frey gets me riled up – which is exactly what he wants!


In the time betwixt when I eat my palate-cleansing pre-dinner salad and my platter of mouthwatering lamb and quinoa tonight, I will be mulling three things. First, which questions I’ll ask Ezra Winton (of Cinema Politica fame) tomorrow about the state of Aboriginal filmmaking in Canada, following up on a story I’ve been writing for about a month now (and which I’m shopping around, if anyone is interested.) Secondly, how attractive apparel on a woman – namely 4-inch heels – will draw second and third glances from men in direct proportion to how painful said apparel is. And thirdly, why I cannot abide James Frey and will never read one of his creations, no matter how much we mutually dislike Oprah Winfrey.

(Oh and I will also be thinking about recent conversations with documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson, most of which are highly confidential but I’ll tell all here. Kidding! I’ll write what I can. In a bit.)

Meanwhile, to the despicable James Frey…

The Fourth Horseman of the literary world – a term coined by greater minds than mine – is in Montreal hawking his latest novel Bright Shiny Morning. Yes, that man, the Million Little Pieces guy the world couldn’t get enough of after he was outed on national television for having fabricated (or embellished, as he prefers to call it) his first book. That guy, who flouts every convention known to English writing, doesn’t use quotation marks (“ooooohhhhh!” cries the admiring public. “How very brave!”) and thinks he’s more bad-ass than Hustler S. Thompson. Yes, I said Hustler, because they’re both just that: masters of cheap literary tricks and good at playing fast and loose with the world around them.

I attended this talk at the Blue Metropolis, Montreal’s literary-get-your-book-geek-hat-on festival, titled ‘Face to Face with James Frey’. The interview was hosted by a recent professor of mine, Joel Yanofsky, who did an excellent job asking some tough questions while maintaining a civil and friendly discourse. He’s a brilliant interviewer (and I don’t say that just because he gave me an ‘A’ in Magazine writing.) You can listen to the interview on CBC radio, though I’m not sure when. It doesn’t seem to be scheduled for any time in particular on the site. Should be either on the programIdeas or Writers and Company or the Sunday Edition in Montreal.

Anyway, I have a lot to say about Frey. I’ll start with my twitterfeed as the talk unfolded:

  • At BlueMetropolis watching interview of #JamesFrey by a former prof of mine #JoelYanofsky
  • Opening question: how do you feel about memoirs now? Answer: I feel the term is bullshit.
  • “Anyone who reads a memoir and thinks it’s truth is pretty much lying to themselves” #JamesFrey
  • “I thot, F–k it,I’m gonna do James” in answer 2 ? whether it was his idea2put his name in book.#JamesFrey
  • “Moved 2 LA 2 write books 2 make money.” #JamesFrey
  • Million Little Pieces: was ttrying 2find his voice.#JamesFrey “wanted 2be the most controversial writer of my time”
  • “I use a huge amount of profanity, I don’t use paragraph indentations, I don’t use quote marks” #JamesFrey
  • He certainly does. Every third word is “profane”. #JamesFrey. And doesn’t speak in paragraphs. Seems 2think it’s cool.
  • “It was mostly about making this dream come true, which was writing this book. It was supposed2be shocking in how it was written.”#JamesFrey
  • “it was published in 25 languages. I got an extra 10 out of Oprah.” #JamesFrey “In a lot of ways it was awesome, it was perfect.” >>> referring to Oprah-outing controversy and how good it was for sales <<<
  • Claims to have HAngels bodyguards w/him when he does book tours or interviews in the US. #JamesFrey HA leader claims “you’re like us now.”>>>> that’s Hell’s Angel’s <<<<<
  • Good question: “why wasn’t the truth enough? Why wasn’t what happened to you, enough?” #JamesFrey
  • “If I can fuck a reader up, make you cry, or not be able to turn the next page, then that’s truth. I’m not interested in facts.” #JamesFrey
  • Talking about NormanMailer: “he said, ‘this happens when you write a book important enough to cause this kind of controversy’.” #JamesFrey
  • The idea that memoir is not a legitimate form of writing is… Interesting. True that what’s important is truth, not facts. But.. #JamesFrey   >>>>my commentary starting to sneak in <<<<<
  • “I’ll be back&I’m coming back with both my middle fingers up&they can all kiss my ass b/c I’m writing a book that’ll b read 50 yrs from now”   >>>>>yes, there was lots of crudeness, he seems to delight in it the way a 12 year old boy would <<<<<<
  • Re: latest book ‘bright shiny morning’ about L.A. #JamesFrey. JYanofsky calls it “‘Grapes of Wrath’ with lots more swearing in it.”
  • #JamesFrey:”You want me to write books that are either fact or fiction?Well F– you! I’m going to do exactly the same thing I did last time”
  • “Only I’m going to do it even more sophisticated this time, so you can’t tell the difference.” about his latest book #JamesFrey
  • Look for #JamesFrey’s latest attempt at fact-fiction storytelling: The Third Testament of the Bible. About Jesus in Manhatten.     >>>>>NOT a joke. <<<<<<
  • Believes American fundamentalist religion will cause a war that will destroy the world in the next 50 years. #JamesFrey
  • “I want to experience everything. As much of the best things and the worst things in life that I can, and everything in b/t.” #JamesFrey   >>>>>>> (Yanofsky asks if he would give his kids this advice, and he replies no, he wouldn’t) <<<<<<<<
  • #JamesFrey thinks his book could work or be the biggest disaster ever.”It’s about the most audacious,absurd,ambitious thing ever attempted” >>>>> he DID qualify this by saying, “by a writer” <<<<<<
  • Thankfully #JamesFrey turns down comparisons to HSThompson, Truman Capote. Says they turned into caricatures of themselves. Sure u escaped?
  • Admits 2writing &commissioning other books &having them written by younger writers. Beware! There are books out there by #JamesFrey,but not!

In conclusion:

  • My take on #JamesFrey & his problem with memoir, or any kind of storytelling that purports to be stick to the truth: those who don’t like it….
  • … are usually the ones who have an equal and proportional issue with taking responsibility for their words, and actions. #JamesFrey…
  • …just wants to write what he wants to write, and let the world be damned. Enjoy the ride while it lasts #JamesFrey. At least ur not alone

Mr. Frey’s arrogance was evident, oh-so-evident throughout the interview. He was gleeful about being labeled “notorious” and a bad boy in the world of highbrow lit. He loves being mentioned in the same breath as Norman Mailer. He’s been determined to do get to this point his whole life.

But that’s not really what bothered me in the end. Even though this whole adventure seemed like one big game to him, all of it: messing up the literary conventions, getting a reputation for being a troublemaker, making piles of money doing it, having to shelter in France because he was so reviled in the States, having Hell’s Angles bodyguards because he’s such a bad-ass, it’s not so bad. There are a lot of rich a—holes with crazy ideas about changing the entire way one field or another is played. I don’t actually quibble with any of the above.

The fact that he’s making tons of money and published in all these countries just means that he has a wider audience for his ego, but I’m sure it was always there. He can be as arrogant as his talent entitles him to, he can make as much money as the buying public will allow him to, and he can flout as many conventions as he wants. That’s his perogative.

However, I don’t buy his dismissal of the entire memoir genre as false. I get that we’re in the post-postmodern age, when everything is relative and nothing is real. Nothing you see is going to be the same as what I see, which is his argument for why the memoir is a false form of journalism. I get that. But that doesn’t mean it’s invalid. It just means you have to be extra-responsible for what you communicate. Extra careful to put things into terms that everyone can identify with, yet which are unique to your perspective and true to the situation.

Frey doesn’t seem to want to indulge in that sort of hard-won, reflective writing. He just wants to write what he wants, and “f–k everyone else.” How many times he said “F–k ‘em” today, I couldn’t count. He’s simply unwilling to take the time to write something with some semblance of truth, so he resorts to his pet creation “storytelling” that he uses to excuse any combination of fancy and fact. And he bears no responsibility for it, because it’s just a story. It doesn’t matter. Fuck em.

Nor do I buy his reasons for mixing fact and fiction so gleefully and calling it “truth”. He claims that what he’s getting at in his stories, which he says are between 75 per cent and 85 per cent factually faithful, is high art and truth. He’s not about the lowly, pedestrian communication of facts, which he seems to consider a little more base than flipping burgers at McDo’s. But as humans we are forced to make decisions every day, to do or not do, and this results in the particular circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s the story of what happened, and why it happened, that’s important, not your damn recreation of it according to how you later decided you want it to have happened.

We all embellish things in the telling. No question. But anyone who so cavalierly dismisses any responsibility to tell things the way they are, not the way they feel they should be, is not writing non-fiction. They should make their money doing something else, or pretending to do something else.

James Frey: Take your illusions elsewhere. I know some think you’re a whiz and buy up your books just because they don’t know what the hell they’re reading, and they don’t care. What’s sad is that it’s precisely those poor suckers that makes Frey laugh up his sleeve the whole time, at the whole establishment, at all of America, because he’s still got everyone playing his little game.

You poor suckers.

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Posted on April 25, 2010 by Editor

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