I haven’t said much about the James Frey fiasco, just because it’s been covered so well by other blogs and news outlets, but I did want to share a couple of thoughts:
I was working at a bookstore when A Million Little Pieces first came out in April 2003, and I think it should be known that there were questions about the veracity of the book from day one. When you work at a bookstore, you become pretty jaded about the publicity efforts of your counterparts from the publishing companies. When hyperbole is the order of the day, it’s hard for a particular book to stand out from the crowd. But, on rare occasions, the publishers put on such a full-court press, you can’t help but think – from the retailer’s perspective – that a book is going to be big. Pieces was one of those books, and the number one selling point was that the book was unbelievable but true. Still, my coworkers who read advance copies found the book hard to believe, there were whispers among many in the industry that the book was heavily embellished and people who went to see Frey in person as he publicized the book found him to be both vague and abrasive when he was asked about particular parts of the book. With cases like this one – J.T. Leroy comes to mind here as well – it’s almost as though the media knows about these doubts all along, but they play along to build a story line: the credulous public and media buys into the unbelievable story, the author achieves fame and fortune, and then, like clockwork, Boom! the big hoax is revealed and we – the public and the media – all gleefully tear him down. It seems like an age old story to me.
My second point is that before this whole story goes away, I’d like one thing cleared up because I think it speaks to the publishing industry’s culpability in this whole saga. Was Pieces originally shopped as a novel or not? As far as I can tell, this notion was first put forward by Frey in a profile by Joe Hagan in the New York Observer in February 2003:
Mr. Frey said he originally shopped the book as a work of fiction, but Ms. Talese and Co. declined to publish it as such. He said he hoped Ms. Talese’s imprint would deflect the characterization of his book as part of the sentimental recovery genre. “That imprint lends a lot of credibility to what otherwise might be considered a recovery memoir. Nan’s not in the business of publishing that bullshit,” he said.
(I love that quote, don’t you?) This idea has since been oft-repeated by the media and was, in fact, repeated by Frey himself on his most recent appearance on Larry King Live. A story in yesterday’s New York Observer quotes Frey as saying this on the show:
“We initially shopped the book as a novel, and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a nonfiction book. When Nan Talese purchased the book, I’m not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.”
The question is this: Is Frey making this up or did Frey’s agent, Kassie Evashevski of Brillstein/Grey, or publisher, Nan A. Talese, decide to relabel a work of fiction as a memoir in order to sell more books? Talese denies this in the same Observer story: “Ms. Talese said that she ‘almost collapsed’ when she heard Mr. Frey make that statement.” I think most people will believe Talese, a well-respected name in the publishing industry, over the now disgraced Frey, but I still want to know for sure.
Update: According to this GalleyCat post, Evashevski told Publishers Weekly, “Nan Talese believed in good faith they were buying a memoir, just as I believed I was selling them one.” So Frey’s been lying from day one.