How Dishonest is Too Dishonest?

a million little pieces by james freyDear Reader,

Sometime last year, I wrote a blog entry entitled “How Honest is Too Honest?”, which dealt with some of the trappings and criticism that comes with releasing a memoir. I’m exploring that same topic today, but using the reverse side. Instead of looking at a book that received doubts because of how much honesty it shared (the memoir Wasted by Marya Hornbacher), I am now exploring a book that has received a lot of negative feedback after it was discovered that the author made up large parts of his supposed memoir (A Million Little Pieces by James Frey). Writing about such a book is an interesting effort because, without the press, this book’s controversy would probably not exist. If everything in this book was declared to be true, it would read strictly as a (fairly standard) drug and alcohol memoir, with perhaps some interesting characters. Though James and the rehab patients he meets have gone through incredible lengths to feed their addictions, nothing is particularly “shocking” or threatening in the content itself, assuming the reader has a basic understanding of the power of addiction. The only issue, as people like Oprah have said, comes from the betrayal of writing a fake memoir.

Is everything in this book fake? Apparently not. James Frey says that he was a drug addict and alcoholic for a decade and he did go to rehab and he did meet many of the characters that he described in the book. It is not that the story was fabricated, but rather that the fabric of the story was stretched. In interviews, Mr. Frey said that he wanted to play with a “badass” image, and so tailored his story to serve this image. It might help some to know that Mr. Frey originally tried to sell this as an autobiographical novel. Already a writer with (some part of) a foot in the door, Mr. Frey was not completely unheard of prior to the release of his first memoir, but none of his previous works (all in mediums except book writing) established him as a dominant voice. To add to this, no company wanted to buy this autobiographical novel that he was trying to sell—at least, not until he said it was a true story. According to him, the real reason he originally sold it as a novel was because Mr. Frey wanted to protect those he wrote about. Somewhere along the way, though, Mr. Frey convinced himself that he was not going to hurt anyone, and so switched the book back to being labeled as a memoir. The book was published and, during its first run, received critical acclaim. Besides the critics, booksellers swept up the book, which might have had something to do with Oprah making it an Official Book Club Selection.

After some investigations, however, particularly from the website The Smoking Gun, a lot of the supposed facts stated in the book were impossible to find on record. And, from there, things began to crumble. Then, of course, if you had access to the internet or a television around that time in 2006, you most likely saw/heard about Oprah inviting James Frey to the show only to confront him about his book, while not restricting any of her ill feelings about the lies that he told. There was a lot of backlash on both sides (“How could James Frey do that?” “How could Oprah do that?” “How could the publishers do that?”). Five years later, Oprah invited James back to her show, where she apologized for her aggressive behavior. Still, to this day, that incident does not go unremembered. (Whenever I told someone I was reading this book, the most common response seemed to be, “Isn’t that the author Oprah yelled at?”) I am not interested in further exploring the tabloid perspective, nor am I even that interested in exploring the reasons why people did not like this book. I use this book only as a vehicle to explore other potential books that may be rooted in—at least some—lies. Not having investigated much of the back story of the book before I started, I read the book looking at it objectively as a story. And, as a story, it does hold up. There are some questionable moments, like the beginning of the book, in which a near-comatose, vomiting, and bloodied James Frey is thrown onto a plane to rehab and is treated by the flight attendants like just another traveler making his way for business or pleasure. (Professional though they may have been, it seems to stretch plausibility to suggest that his appearance would have been given such leeway—or even that he would have been allowed on the plane in the first place.) And there are times when I felt that Mr. Frey was trying very hard to show the reader that, “Hey, I’ve gone through hell here, and I demand respect.” The tone does become aggressive at some points, which does interfere with the narrative (personally, I sometimes felt Frey was yelling at me to really understand just how hardcore his addiction was and how fearsome his personality was), but not to the degree where the book became unreadable. If anything, this effort only further enhanced James’ character by silently highlighting his vulnerabilities. James does go through hell, and as a reader I felt that I was accepted into his circle to gain private access to his mind. Ironically, though the book is known the most for lying, what I felt was a profound sense of emotional honesty. James is likable, but he’s also not afraid to show how messed up, how violent, how furious, how hurt, how stubborn, how scared, and ultimately how human he is. If the objective of the book was to display what it is like to struggle with all of the complexities of addiction, Mr. Frey nailed it. (At this point, I might want to add that, though I have a large passion for this subject, I am not a drug addict, recovering or otherwise, and so cannot 100% validate this book as authentic, but can only compare to the stories of others that I have read about/listened to.)

After some of the public frenzy died down, and perhaps out of media burnout, Mr. Frey told Vanity Fair in 2008, “Frankly, I don’t even care. I don’t care if somebody calls [A Million Little Pieces] a novel, or a fictionalized memoir, or what. I could care less what they call it. The thing on the side of the book means nothing. Who knows what it is. It’s just a book. It’s just a story.” To a certain degree, I find myself agreeing with Mr. Frey. Just as I am about to fully agree, though, I become conflicted. There are books written all the time in which the incidents do not parallel the physical experiences of the author. I emphasis “physical experiences” here in order to separate it from the emotional experiences. The emotional experience is precisely what Mr. Frey has to offer in this book—and there is a lot of it. And, as long as a book–memoir or otherwise–is able to address the emotional truths, do the specifics really matter? Is anyone’s life really going to drastically change for the worst if they learn that the memoir of a stranger, a writer they will most likely never have contact with, embellished his own personal story? And at what point do the genres of “memoir” and “novel” merge into one?

Feel free to answer any of these questions down below.


Jumbled Writer

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4 Responses to How Dishonest is Too Dishonest?

  1. I think that a novel should be labelled fiction if it’s not the truth. A fiction version of memoirs should be somewhere in the write-up. And with writing memoirs I would imagine an author’s perception might not be the same as reality. As everyone has a different perception then too so do memories. It is sad to see/hear when something is being passed off as the truth and it’s a lie. But I notice a lot of theories being told as the truth in today’s society and I suppose one person’s memories being not true is just another example of what can be acceptable to many.

    • Honesty is a good point, and something that all writers should strive for, regardless of genre. But memory is a tricky thing. As with most memoirs, unless the writer is a public figure that can use media tools to trace back the parts that they have forgotten or are unsure about, it can be difficult for the non-celebrity to remember exactly what happened. I think, as readers of memoirs, we must remember that this is written to the best of the author’s ability to remember. But that is very different from just making up an entirely different story and passing it on as the truth.

  2. I think you did a very good job at the end with explaining the difference between what’s truly going on around you and what your perception is. I like it when people are honest, even when they’re admitting to some terrible things. I think I can deal with that better than people covering up an ulterior motive.

    When this story broke in 2006, I remember thinking something along the lines of “got busted, eh?” Did it impact my life? No. There wasn’t any harm done to me. There’s really no harm done to others. People are able to take it or leave it.

    There is a threshold, though, and that has to deal with how original the author is. We can’t have writers being so dishonest to the point of stealing other people’s work. That’s a bit much, but if they’re making fantasy up themselves? I’m not really sure it’s going to negatively others.

    • You changed your name!
      And, as I say in the blog post, I am not someone who has a history of substance addiction, so I can’t say that I truly identified with the character of James. If I had read the book and then learned of the “truth”, I am not sure I would have been too deeply affected. I do think that those who were struggling with addiction at the time they read the book–if they looked up to James as a model for success–might have felt somewhat dispirited to know that their model may not have had as hard of an addiction as he reported. However, it should be noted that he did manage to interrupt his negative behaviors (and continues to do so) and has gone on to have a career. That’s never easy, no matter the degree of addiction. This definitely isn’t a self-help book, but more of a “here’s what I went through” account, which is to say that readers may not want to look at James as the one and only hero for addiction treatment.

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