Frey Lives On

May 14, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 5 2 min read

coverAt first I couldn’t tell if Janet Maslin’s review of James Frey’s novel Bright and Shiny Morning was a joke or not. I guess she liked the book, but her homage to Frey’s style is so terrible, the start-stop prose so laughably bad, that I assumed she was making fun of the poor guy:

He wrote a big book. He wrote about a city. Los Angeles. He made up a lot of characters, high low rich poor lucky not, every kind, the book threw them together. It was random but smart. Every now and then he would pause the story, switch to the present tense and throw in an urban fact.

David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times had a different reaction to the novel, calling it, “one of the worst I’ve ever read.” Ouch.

At the Vroman’s blog, Patrick has an exclusive interview with the author himself. Frey discusses, among other things, his future as a memoirist, the city of Los Angeles, and, of course, his new novel:

Ultimately, though, I tried to write a book that was unlike anything that has preceded it, that is devoid of any real influence, and that’s singular in its composition and voice, but also immediately recognizable as my work. I have tried to do this with each of my books. I want to tell stories in new, fresh ways. I want my writing to reflect the age in which we live, which is fast, contains vast amounts of information, and uses new ways to present the information. I always read while I write, but for pleasure, not inspiration or influence.

I wonder if this is really possible. Frank Conroy reportedly once said, “Voice is the amalgamation of books read,” and I tend to agree. But I suppose Mr. Frey lives by Ezra Pound’s famous dictum: “Make it new.” It’ll be interesting to see how readers react to Frey’s latest endeavor. Will they agree with Maslin or Ulin, or somewhere in between?

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. I like to read prose that has a fresh, new style or voice, but when it gets in the way of storytelling I think it defeats its purpose.

  2. How is it possible for a writer to be devoid of any influence? Would Kafka have written such great works without Dickens or Hamsun before him? Would Coetzee's novels be so powerful had Kafka not preceded him? Does Frey exist in a vacuum or is he capable of clearing his mind completely of the material that he has read in the past? Having read only short excerpts of his writing myself, I would claim that the only thing singular about it is its flatness and lack of style, and I would highly recommend to him reading some good novels so that he might see why influence is not so poor a concept.

    I read Maslin's review in the Times the other day and I too was struck at how poorly it was written. In retrospect, I view it more as an advertisement rather than criticism. Even so, does anyone edit these people?

  3. Before the controversy my book club wanted to read Frey's so-called memoir. I wasn't interested because my family has a "James Frey" of our own who has caused a lot of pain for all of us (every family does I suppose). Unlike Oprah I was not surprised when things blew up and he turned out to be a liar, they always are. I have no desire to read any of his "work".

  4. I don't think we need to refer to the notorious JF as "poor." I think he's still probably skimming the cream from the top of the little pieces hoax. But literary-history wise, I am happy to hear he will, at his current rate, slide back into the obscurity from which he had no right to emerge. Yay justice.

  5. While there are many fine fiction writers who also write criticism, there are some professional critics who should simply stick to straightforward criticism. Maslin's "review" of Frey's new novel is a clear example why, as are Michiko Kakutani's previous efforts at writing in the voices of Holden Caulfield, Holly Golightly, and others.

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