Yeah, About This James Frey Guy…

Over the weekend, no matter what form of media we came in contact with, no matter what radio station, TV station, magazine or newspaper we held, everything was about James Frey, Oprah and the fact that he wrote a book and apparently lied through a lot of it.

Air America’s Satellite Sisters interviewed Bill of The Smoking Gun. They also interviewed two publishers and a writer. They took calls from irate Americans. And then CNN interviewed another batch of publishers and asked people what they thought. I even wrote in.. The New York Times published an article about how Oprah Trumped Truthiness. (The best part about the printed version was that at one point, they accidentally spelled Mr. Oprah instead of Ms. Oprah.) You can’t get away from this story if you try.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t read the book. I never will. I couldn’t care less about Mr. Frey but don’t wish to offend anyone in saying so. I am curious to hear how others feel about the whole scandal. Do you care? Why? Why do you think others care so much?


  1. People care because they read the book, told all their friends how ‘real’ and ‘powerful’ it was – probably several times – and had their egos bruised when it proved to be embellished. This is true from Oprah down to your everyday blogger. People don’t get quite this pissy when only misled. They get this pissy when they look like chumps after evangelizing.


  2. I am trying to imagine finding out that Krakauer made up Into Thin Air. I’m having trouble imagining it for some reason. I was touched by that book and it certainly made me cry, but I’m not sure how I would feel if he made it all up or something.

    I guess I don’t have a paralell, actually.


  3. I beg to differ, Tobyjoe. I did not read the book and I am still pissed. And I didn’t read it BECAUSE I thought it sounded like total crap.
    So why am I pissed? Because I’m an addict/alcoholic and this asshole has profited off of that pain and misery. He also trashes recovery programs. One of those just happened to have saved my life. I am pissed because there are people out there who need help, who may think they can use their ‘will power’ to overcome it “like Frey did” and he is a fucking liar. I am pissed because there are people actually asking WHY this is a big deal…people who think that if the book was ‘good’, then who cares if he lied? I am pissed that he takes NO responsibility for his lies, and neither does his publisher.
    God, I could go on and on. I have tried hard NOT to write a post about it, becauase I am frankly sick to death that this asshole is getting the extra publicity.
    It doesn’t matter what is proven to be a lie, what percentage of it is a lie, whatever. The fact that he lied about any of it brings everything else he says into question.
    The truth matters. That’s why I’m pissed.

    Here’s a parallel for you, Michele, and I’m sorry this is such a long rant: what if you found out that Anne Frank was not really Jewish? What if you found out she was alive and living in Florida?
    What if Helen Keller was only a little near-sighted?!(I stole that example)


  4. There are certainly exceptions to my statement about folks’ motives, but most of the folks (I’ve heard) raising hell aren’t doing so because the guy trashed recovery programs or gave people (possibly) false hopes that they could get clean without programs. No, most are embarrassed for having bought into the story and sold others on it. You’re the exception to the Oprah, the Oprah-fanclub, to the pundits, for sure—but michele was asking broadly, and I answered broadly.

    If he’d labeled the book fiction, there wouldn’t be a scandal, which brings to light that it’s the intent of the reader that matters here. Given that the millions who bought and read the book are (mostly) Oprah fans whose lives are far removed from the exceptional story he told, the majority are not in recovery. They’re instead looking for some exciting little story of pain and triumph and they’re happiest when they think such stories are true. They’re suckers for ‘authenticity.’ It’s this market for made-for-TV narratives that is most troubling to me. What itch is being scratched by the majority of these readers? If it’s all escapism and fantasy to them, why do they give so much weight to knowing that the scars they’re imagining are real? To exactly what degree does poetic license fit into telling a compelling story?

    I’m not defending the guy, because the excerpts I’ve read stunk. I don’t really get off on the whole edge-of-ruin story unless it’s brilliantly written. In this case, I’m one of those who doesn’t care about anything other than the book being labeled as non-fiction when it’s so heavily embellished. If the scandal causes publishers to get a little more heavy-handed about fact-checking, I’ll be happy. The state of major publishing for fiction is as focus-group and market-driven as television and Hollywood cinema. I’d like to see more artful fiction getting a footing, and as much as marketing is artful, I prefer a different palette.

    If Anne Frank were a Catholic priest working the late shift at WhiteCastle, I’d certainly do as I will with this Frey fella – write her off as a hack and ignore all future works. I’d certainly acknowledge, though, that the words on the page are never an accurate representation and I’d find value in her story – whether rooted in actual events or not.

    My advice to those book club fans who feel burned is to employ a “ruthless criticism of all that exists” and mine all the media you consume for things of value while keeping in mind the gaps present in any story. If the author really is dead and the marketing is the dominant force in storytelling, my only questions is whether prejudice comes too easily to lazy readers when a title floats in on a wave of hype and back stories?


  5. Remind me to add the ability to edit comments to this site… I always have so many typos when writing in this little comment box.


  6. Well, if you do that, people will delete things. And, well, that would be poopie pants.

    Like I said, I haven’t read it. But I have read a few articles ABOUT it. I was sent one that was written in 2003 before the Smoking Gun busted him and that article ripped the book and his “claims” apart. (Published in the NYT.) I wish I had read it to know how far-fetched it really is. My understanding is that it was far-fetched enough speculation came easy.

    Don’t get me wrong, I find him to be a total weenie. The funny part is this scandal is selling even more books. Maybe he’ll buy a second home in Manhattan. :]

    I think a more precise parallel (for me) might be if I were to find that Girl Interrupted was all made up. While that book didn’t “touch” me in quite the same way as Pieces seems to touched others, I can’t say I would have given a damn.

    I tried not to write about this either. I obviously couldn’t help myself. :/


  7. Yeah, about that edit function? Holy shit. Oops.

    Another book: Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius. If we found out it was fake, that his parents didn’t die and he didn’t raise his brother on his own, would we be as outraged?


  8. And more importantly, what would be the real reason for the outrage? Why does authenticity add weight to a story that is so far removed from you that you’d never know either way? Why does the periphery matter so much? Isn’t a story a story? Do you have to be totally subsumed by prejudice in order to comprehend a story? Are we really subjugating the story to a romantic vision of the author?

    Even medical texts and instruction manuals have to be read with a degree of skepticism and awareness. If they’re useful, they’re useful. If not, not. The degree to which the reader is willing to give faith, and the responsibility of doing so, is up to the reader, not the author.


  9. I read the book when it came out in 2003 and I found it pretty compelling. And even though I checked the inside cover probably three times to make sure I was reading non-ficition, a lot of it smelled of dramatization. I read the follow-up book as well and I own hardcover editions of both. I don’t feel pissed off in the slightest-maybe I just don’t care enough about what I read in Frey’s books, but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t resonate with me, not because I lived through anything remotely like him-fictionalized or not—but because it was good drama.

    (Ordinarily, if I happen to want to read something Oprah has blessed, I’ll go out of my way to track down a copy of the book without her seal of approval on the cover. frankly, I was shocked, SHOCKED!, that she picked Frey’s book. This thing is what it is-a spectacle-because Oprah is who she is, and she embarrassed herself along with Frey.)

    In any case, I would be surprised Frey ever publishes anything again. He’s gone the way of Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass.


  10. Tell me how much you love MY version of the book cover.

    That’s right. That’s right.

    Was it like The Frog King? Anyone know?


  11. I hear ya, Tobyjoe.

    If ya slap a ‘non-fiction’ title on something, with no disclaimers, then it best be at least FACTUAL, in my opinion. This asshole peddled the book as FICTION to several publishers before this publisher said, ‘Hey, let’s call it a memoir’. Frey knew exactly what he was doing, as did the publisher.
    Michele…I LOVE your redesign of the cover.
    And yes, TJ, I agree..I read a couple excerpts and thought the writing was crap on top of being unbelievable.


  12. Its a story – I don’t see why it should matter if every element were true or not.

    I think people need to remember that all memoirs are stories full of bias and embellishment – told the way that they’re remembered.

    In regards to the Anne Frank comment, I remember several teachers telling me in grade school / high school that a large amount of the story that you read is made up / rewritten / embellished to fit the audience. There are apparently a bunch of versions out there – some contain different parts of her actual diary, other omit them, most are rewritten by ‘editors’ to fit in the vernacular of the target audience.

    Does that cheapen it? If you want a wonderful story about the horrors of wartime and genocide, not at all. If you want to read the innermost thoughts of a 13 year old girl, probably.

    Like Missy said, Frey ’s book was good drama. People probably wouldn’t have cared so much about the idea of addiciton, and Oprah probably wouldn’t have devoted so many shows to that idea and given people with actual problems a fraction of the attention she did without that book.


  13. I guess I’m just getting sick of this onslaught of (white male, trust-fund) “memoirs” about their poor, poor lives when in reality they’re really not all that bad.

    This is the real reason I had and have no desire to read it.


  14. Also, Missy, I bet he does get published again. I bet he publishes a best-seller about this entire situation.


  15. I hear Jim Frey is really JT Leroy.


  16. Speaking of JT, I wonder if they’re like “Dude, thank God for Frey.” Or if they’re like, “Dude, Screw that guy. What about OUR time in the sun?! We didn’t only make shit up, we liked made JT up!”

    Ah well.


  17. Maybe Frey is the scapegoat for JT Leroy just like Jayson Blair was the scapegoat for 14 months of the NYT ‘reporting’ the news by just recycling white house press releases.


  18. A couple thoughts..

    The notion that nonfiction equals truth is, err.. a bit preposterous. After all, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Al Franken, and countless others have books with the nonfiction categorization, and we know that stuff isn’t Truth. Read any standard American history book, and then read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History…

    Nonfiction is a fuzzily defined term at best. look at how many different ways it is defined here.

    From what i understand, Frey did originally peddle the book as fiction. He was then charged with editing it to be more factual (and thus able to market it as nonfction). Factual also doesn’t necessarily mean truth. Something factual is either true OR false. It is just an empirical.

    Now, sliding the discussion to journalism is a different animal altogether. Journalists [are supposed to] take an oath ‘to expose truth in the public inerest.’

    All that said, I too am sick of the poor, poor trust fund babies and their sad, pathetic stories. Which, is why I won’t read the book either. Anyone sit through that HBO documentary “Born Rich” and want to vomit?


  19. it seems that people need something to believe in and since the trend to not believe in religion is so strong these days, humans try and fill that need elseware. oprah is a religion and an empire that has its following and has it’s values of goodness pretty much set. when someone comes along and screws with the queen of goodness and makes a fool of her and her believers, the overcompensation occurs to correct her crumbling pedestal(actually not crumbling, just knicked)

    and i vote for not putting an edit function here, i love hypos


  20. oh and michele, nice book cover!!!!


  21. Greg, thanks! Yeah, Chip Kidd designed the original. He went to PSU and studied under Lanny. He’s like famous and whatnot. He’s lanny’s pride and joy. Nice guy, too. Anyway, do you think he’d be pissed off at what I did to his art? Hmmmmmmmm

    Oprah drives me crazy. But I think if I gave her the finger of any kind, she’d have me killed. I fear her and her power. I fear her and her devilish perfection. I fear her and her screaming loonies.

    I love hippos, too.


  22. That middle finger has an interesting limp to it… the words “whiskey dick” come to mind which is fairly apropos to the book.

    I got the book for Christmas before I had heard anything of the scandal and I finished reading it just as Frey was on Larry King. It didn’t change anything for me. I liked it, didn’t love it, and I don’t particularly care if parts were embellished. I think it can still be relevant to people overcoming addiction. The guy was an addict and he did get clean.

    I think everyone is making a huge deal about it when, clearly, there are other issues in the US of A that should be given even a sliver of the attention this story has. I think Oprah completely overreacted and if looks could kill, Frey would have been swept off the floor of her studio. I’d like to see some of the most influential people in the US, like Oprah, get this excited about campaign finance reform, the real possibility that women could lose the option of legal abortion in that country, and that the Bush administration is so fucking corrupt.

    Oprah had the boys from Brokeback on the show the day after Frey and she could have used that as a platform to start a conversation about same-sex marriage or even same-sex relations and how closeted folk are STILL TODAY marrying to pretend they are straight. Instead she was more interested in whether the actors were squeamish about having to kiss another boy. BORING!


  23. P.S. Though I appreciate the struggle he went through, I had a hard time feeling sorry for James Frey. Straight, good-looking, middle-class white guy with all the support and love from his family that anyone could ask for… boo hoo. All because of an ear infection he had as a baby? Hmm.


  24. P.P.S. Frey has been published again – My Friend Leonard. And, yeah, I bet he gets another book deal out of this whole scandal.


  25. Parasol, I couldn’t have said it better myself. My email stating as to CNN was ignored. I knew it would be. It’s a little disconcerting knowing that people care more about this asscrack than the State of the Union (You know damn well more people will have watched Oprah than the President tonight.)

    In my opinion, this Administration is SO MUCH MORE exciting than any other administration based on scariness alone. While Clinton had his day in the son and his dick in a mouth, nothing compares to the Bushies. Nothing.

    Toby Joe and I are meeting at a local pub to watch the show. Anyone in favor, say aye. Fun will be had by many. I am actually excited about this. D.C. must have gotten to me.

    Thanks for writing. I love hearing what others have to say.


  26. I bet that, since we’re in NYC and not DC, we won’t be able to find a bar with the SOU on.


  27. wow. I totally slipped up and said “day in the son and dick in a mouth” i meant SUN. Oops.


  28. TJ, you’re probably right. I have to do some research. I might have to call a few places. If they aren’t, we can always watch from home. But oh how i wish it would be like watching Political TV in DC. It was like watching a football game there.


  29. I just can’t stay away from this. ;-)

    Few points: His second book was published before this scandal arrived. He didn’t ‘embellish’; he LIED.
    I understand wanting people to be this fired up about politics…and people are. This is a different topic.
    A “memoir” is a person’s interpretation of a slice of their life, based on FACTUAL events. Yes, truth is going to be varied in a memoir, but facts are facts. He changed them. That is not memoir; that is fiction.

    Last point: forget the Anne Frank analogy I made. How’s this one—if you found out someone you know personally was lying to you about various things in their life, wouldn’t you wonder about everything that person said, before and after the revelation? Even if the stories they told you as being true were great stories?
    I question whether Frey is even an addict at all.


  30. I should conduct and experiment.

    I just called a local bar near us. This was how it went:

    Bartender: “Hello, Enid’s.”
    Me: “Hey, are you going to be showing The State of the Union tonight?”
    Bartender (as if I spoke Swahili): “The WHAT?”
    Me: “The State of the Union.”
    Me: “Nevermind.”

    Maybe I’ll call back and ask how she felt about James Frey and Oprah.

    I kid, but come on, now. The hell?

    All I’m saying is that I wish people questioned the Alito confirmation as much as James Frey and his book, or the fact that Bush is illegally wiretapping countless Americans. I wish everyone would sit down and watch the State of the Union and get as fired up about it tomorrow.

    I know he lied. he’s a weenie, that’s for sure.

    I kind of am, too. I guess.


  31. Well, there is a difference between reading a stranger’s memoir and having a friend repeatedly lie to you about their life. However, I did date someone like that once. I was mad about it but I think I was more mad at the fact that he started banging his married boss. Either way, yes, liars make me angry.

    I, too, question whether Frey was an addict at all. I also question how much of this scandal was brought on by his publisher.


  32. You are no weenie!!

    I have to confess, I won’t be watching the State of the Union tonight. I just can’t…listening to him makes me physically ILL. I would LOVE it if you and Tobyjoe watched from home and did live commentary on your blogs, though! :-)


  33. Not knowing WHAT the SOU is… Man, that’s just…


  34. I hold readers entirely responsible for what they take away from a story. Relying on an authority of some sort (in this case, a publishing company) stamp a text as fact or fiction is laziness.

    My view is more about my understanding of the nature of storytelling and text than cynicism: take all stories to be subjective, spun, and incomplete.


  35. I’m at a complete loss about this Frey thing. Is it just me that presupposes memoirists lie? isn’t that what they do? isn’t this why we think biographies are more trustworthy than autobiographies?


  36. I’m not outraged by Mr. Frey. I think people look for a reason to hate other people. He made a gazillion dollars on his book. Good for him.

    That cover- genius Mihow. I can’t stop giggling.


  37. This was on Gawker this morning:

    (Don’t worry about having not read My Friend Leonard.)



  38. Missy, awesome. Thanks for the link.


  39. Great cover.

    Mr. Frey shouldn’t be so contrite, he should’ve told Oprah to piss-off. Show me a memoir that’s 100% truthful and I’ll show you a book more boring than the phone book.

    Many, many authors have made their life stories up out of whole cloth. That’s why they get paid to tell stories. Big deal.

    I read the book, I thought it was entertaining, if a bit far-fetched.


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