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Thoughts on writing and publishing, and the various sources of entertainment...
A weekly column by Abel G. Peña, best known for his Star Wars work.

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THE PHILODOXER for 02/12/2006
The James Frey Fiasco

I figure most writers know who James Frey is since he's at the center of the most prominent news story about an author in quite a while, but here's a link for everybody else: Oprah confronts Frey about disputed memoir. Basically, the guy wrote a story called A Million Little Pieces about his life as an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal. For years, he tried to sell this story as a novel, a.k.a. fiction, but only finally sold it as a "memoir," and was supposed to be an accurate account of events that he endured.

However, after an investigation by the website The Smoking Gun, it was revealed that Frey had made up a great many things in his "true" story.

When I first heard about the incident, I was rather distraught. The divide between reality and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity, is one of my favorite themes in writing, but personally I've always fumbled with creative non-fiction because I can't always remember exactly how a particular event in the story I'm telling played out. I'm referring to dialogue, chronology, visual appearances, etc. There are compromises, omissions being among the hardest for me, but I try to keep them to a minimum, or make ambiguities clear and try to exploit them thematically.

But after reading the Smoking Gun article A Million Little Lies, I felt very strongly that a line had been crossed, and I felt gypped as a writer. Here I am sweating stupid details in my story like the approximate time I jumped on a plane from New York to LAX when, among other things, this other author calls mutating a 3-hour jail stay into 87 days (that's 2088 hours) a slight "embellishment." Naw buster, that's called fiction... or totally absurd. I may be writing a novel steeped in my bodybuilding experiences, but I wouldn't ever call it anything other than a novel.

A favorite quote about writing I misheard at some point went something like this: "Ah, real life... that poor rough draft." For me, it rung true, because often events and experiences in real life have got all the ingredients for a good story, just not in the right order, are missing just that last dash of panache, or they just need a little tweaking... are, in a word, imperfect. And by the time you make all the little adjustments to that story to make it perfect, you've got a nice fictional narrative you can be proud of. But you don't say that altered story is what actually happened.

Ultimately, I have to claim ignorance about the memoir genre. It's not my field of expertise. But I know that without some disclaimer stating that some of the information within the book is fabricated, the reader has every reason to assume that the writer is telling the story as close as possible to the reality of what actually happened. And that the writer is not merely trying to capture the "essence of the truth" -- that's the province of fiction. I also know that, when something is purportedly both true and sensationalistic (and has Oprah's seal of approval), it sells like hot churros at Disneyland. And in my own tiny Star Wars subgenre world, I actually know what it's like to be significantly praised and admired; how surprising that reaction can be, how flattering and validating it can be... and how addictive it can be. Throw heaps of money on top of that, and the lines about what's true or not can get pretty blurry. And so might any of the author's guiding morals and unspoken covenants pertaining to the art.

Honestly, watching Frey come back to the Oprah show and confess how much of the book was made up, I almost wanted to cry for this poor, pathetic guy. Certainly not poor financially after his book chilled at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for weeks, but poor because this thirty-seven-year-old man looked like a confused, sad, and scared little kid.

Why pathetic? Well, because I read some of his prose.

I'll answer the question before it's asked: yes, I'm bitter about Frey's success. The crappiness of the writing is a huge part of it, and the fact that he lied in order to sell his mediocre writing is just salt in the wound. But hey, I'm bitter at the entire Reality TV/Book/Whatever movement for replacing thoughtful and creative entertainment with men and women who are so stereotypical they might as well be following a script. Nonetheless, I'm not immune to it. I watch "Elimidate" when I come home drunk, and "American Idol" and "Cathouse" even when I'm not. And bad writer or not, a guy who goes through hell and makes it back to tell the tale, you have to admire that. But when the writing sucks and the trip to hell was actually just a hotter than average day in L.A., you bet I'm gonna call you out as a punk.

My thanks go out to The Smoking Gun for doing the investigative leg work and calling out writers and publishers who are too focused on making a buck to give a damn about the truth. Congratulations are also in order to Winfrey for doing a 180, apologizing to her fans, and rescinding her support for Frey's book. And Frey? Jeez... dude, keep trying to be the "best writer of your generation" or whatever, but don't be such a goddamn cheater. Pay your dues, swallow your pride, and learn to write well so you can be published on the merits of your fiction and not your lies.

-- Abel

The First >> 02/12/2006 | 02/19/2006 >>

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