James Frey, After the Fact

James Frey

Sex or violence?

This was the choice presented to us by author James Frey on Monday night at Shakespeare & Co. He would either read a passage of the sultry stuff or the gun stuff – the decision rested with us.

This being France, we went for the sex.

(Though wait! Immediately after, the audience then begged for the violence, too. I guess people always want it all).

For awhile, fact or fiction was the real question in regards to Frey. If you weren’t hiding under a rock around 2006, you probably remember him as the writer whose 2003 “memoir” A Million Little Pieces blew up into a big controversy. He was the man who duped Oprah. His memoir, you see, was partly “made up.”

I never read the book – I stayed above the fray (yes, pun intended) – but I can’t say I wasn’t curious to see the man behind the headlines, all these years later.

It’s a rare opportunity, really. Frey doesn’t do readings in the US anymore. Probably tired of answering the same questions.

But this is France, and Paris holds a special place in Frey’s heart. He came here as a 22 year-old, inspired by the “American writer in Paris myth,” he said. “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller had “lit him up,” and he wanted to come here to experience the literary fire himself. It was something of a dream for Frey to return nearly two decades later as a visiting author to the famed Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare & Co

Frey struck me as a bit macho, but I liked him, even against my better judgment. Bearded, broad-chested, he looked like he could have been coaching rugby – he even cracked his neck several times while reading as if it were physical exercise.

Because he did have a unique reading style, no doubt about it. He read really fast, in a voice an audience member later remarked sounded robotic. Not until he hit dialogue, did it sound natural.

When he talked later about his past as a screenwriter, that made sense. His dialogue sounded as it should – just how people talk. He explained that he speaks everything as he writes – he doesn’t put anything down on paper until it sounds right.

Besides these process questions, he didn’t shy away from addressing the controversy, either. He remained quite defiant. He’s an artist, and he believes it his right to use anything at his disposal to tell a good story. “I want to make you feel everything,” he said. Fear, sadness, joy, anxiety, loathing, euphoria – everything. Whatever tools it takes to do that, he’ll use.

I did feel something as he read (more in the violence section actually – his sex passage sounded more like what men might fantasize). I understand the power of a good story – my hope when I open any book is that it will touch me in some way. A good story is one of those things that keeps me grounded to the earth, that helps me make sense of this crazy life.

I just think maybe you should simply call it a story, though. It takes nothing away from the writing to name it fiction, rather than fact. A good story speaks emotional truth – what more could you want?

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28 Responses to “James Frey, After the Fact”


  1. 1 Lindsey June 4, 2010 at 10:16 am

    It does annoy me that someone who gets attention from a book and then the truth is revealed (or really, the lies are revealed) manages to receive credibility for his future work. Regardless of how good his writing is, it rubs me the wrong way that he is taken seriously as a writer. I don’t know, boy who cried wolf kind of feeling?

    • 2 paris (im)perfect June 4, 2010 at 10:22 am

      I understand, Lindsey. That’s why I said I liked him against my better judgment! He did say that he tried to sell his first book as fiction – and the manuscript was rejected as such. Once they decided to market it as a memoir, though, it worked. It wasn’t his choice.

      I don’t know; all sounds murky to me! Kind of makes me wonder about the quality of the writing if as fiction it didn’t work. Then how can it suddenly become fact!? It’s been several years since the controversy – at least now he’s writing fiction, and I was struck by what he read.

  2. 3 Dallas June 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Interesting. After the Oprah story in the US, he kind of disappeared. Sounds like it was an interesting reading, none the less. By the way, I recently just found your blog – I’m an American expat in Brussels.

    • 4 paris (im)perfect June 5, 2010 at 11:16 am

      Hi Dallas. Welcome, fellow expat! Yeah. I guess he didn’t really disappear, though. He’s written two books since then, too – My Friend Leonard and Bright Shiny Things. He read from the latter and I was quite taken with it.

  3. 5 pariskarin June 4, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    I did not know he was going to be in town! Yeah, I saw the Oprah episode when it aired all those years ago, and he was ripped a new one by her, probably justifiably.

    I can understand Lindsey’s and your hesitations, and certainly the guy effed-up when it came to his writing career and choices that were made by him and his publishing company, but he eventually was honest about his errors. And what’s he going to do? The guy is a writer. He wasn’t suddenly going to become a plumber or something after all the crap that happened. As a writer, he is going to write. I admire him for getting back up on that horse and riding (writing? lol).

    Lord knows I have made plenty of grave mistakes in my life, too, and I did not have to go through the exposure of my mistakes in the public eye as he did.

    I say let his current merit stand on his writing in the present, post-controversy. I think if he is a quality writer that he will survive his own error-filled ways. There have been plenty of other writers that have become a part of our canon that had very deeply questionable things happen in their lives, too.

    “A good story speaks emotional truth – what more could you want?”

    Exactly. And “truth” is always going to be subjective and mired in ambiguity, just as his history as a writer will be. I’d be really interested to read his current works. Sounds like it was an interesting time and I am glad you got to go!

    • 6 paris (im)perfect June 5, 2010 at 11:09 am

      Hey Karin. Yeah, I agree – of course he was going to keep writing. I have no issue with his continuing to write – and from what he read, it was really good. I’m just saying, it’s too bad he didn’t just call it fiction from the start.

      I’m always interested in how people overcome obstacles, though. I’m glad to see he continued doing what he feels called to do. We all eff up, as you say. His effing up made him millions of dollars (lucky him :) ), but a whole lot of grief, too, I’m sure. I hope he’s channeled all of that into his work now.

      • 7 pariskarin June 6, 2010 at 6:21 pm

        LOL — yeah, would that my eff ups would have made me millions, too, heh! You are so right: I wish he would have been up front from the start, too. It’s really too bad…

  4. 8 Shan June 5, 2010 at 1:47 am

    Hey ladies,
    Great post Sion. I agree w/ Lindsey – calling a steaming pile a rose doesn’t make it smell any better. You could take ANY good piece of semi-realistic fiction and turn it into a sensation by re-labeling it a memoir. Too bad really.

    I’m left with a lot of questions… does he ever wonder, “Would it have eventually worked out if I’d been honest?”. Does he regret it? Did he really have the final call?

    He should write a memoir about THAT, really. I suspect the title would be borderline martyrdom, ‘how the industry robbed me of my credibility’ or something.

    I have heard that this book is very good, and def. worth reading – it’s even on my to-read list! I just wish it could have gotten the credit it deserved under it’s real genre. Fiction deserves a chance.

    • 9 paris (im)perfect June 5, 2010 at 11:10 am

      Hey Shan. Yes, give fiction a chance! I guess that’s what’s interesting. I think he did try to shop it around as fiction and it didn’t get picked up. Slap memoir on it, and it got grabbed right away, though. Just a bit suspicious.

      I haven’t read anything by him, but I’d like to now. Let me know what you think!

  5. 10 terry June 5, 2010 at 2:02 am

    I’m curious if you demand the same level of truth from politicians as you do from this writer? Or from your newspapers? Or from your internet news sources? If so, I would imagine you don’t like Obama, the New York Times and CNN.

    He’s a writer. He a wrote a great book. Any whining about it is either jealousy or hypocrisy.

    • 11 paris (im)perfect June 5, 2010 at 11:13 am

      Hi Terry. I don’t think I’m actually whining about it. I think writers are asked to write great books. Why couldn’t he have just called it fiction? That’s all I’m saying. Sorry if you think that sounds like jealousy or hypocrisy.

      By the way, I don’t ask for the same level of truth from politicians and newspapers, etc. I don’t buy into mainstream media and I think most things are a whole lot of spin. That’s what Frey did, too. As fiction, awesome. He just spun it as memoir to make a buck. Ok, we’ll just decide to disagree on whether that was appropriate.

  6. 12 terry June 5, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    I was at the reading, and I believe what he said is that doesn’t make the same distinctions that you do. He said he writes books, and doesn’t qualify them with marketing terms. He also said he doesn’t believe in fiction or non-fiction, that he writes books and does whatever he needs to do make his point, including changing facts. The example he gave was of a painter whoo paints a self-portrait. Painters are given the liberty to express their own seff-image in whatever way they think is best, regardless of the chnges they make, He said he believes he has the same right a writer.

    Also, if you think almost every other memoir published doesn’t contain lies, embellishments, exaggerations and manipulations, exactly the same things that are his book, you are very naive. It’s why they are all published now with disclaimers. If they didn’t contain all of these things, they wouldn’t need them.

    • 13 paris (im)perfect June 5, 2010 at 8:30 pm

      Hi Terry. In both your comments you’ve jumped to a lot of conclusions about what I think. Of course, you’re free to say whatever you want. Like Frey’s point about the rights of writers. If calling me naive, hypocritical, and jealous because of one blog post helps you in some way, more power to you. Maybe see you at another reading!

    • 14 dee June 8, 2010 at 10:02 am

      he can dress it up any way he wants to. but most everyone considers him a CON-ARTIST.
      he might not qualify he writing in “marketing terms” but he sure as hell USED the marketing terms to sell his book. don’t be fooled. he’s no dummy. he KNEW it would sell better as a memoir. also, he MARKETED himself, he had meetings WITH the marketing department of the publishing house. PLEASE.
      That guy is all flash and no substance.
      time will tell.
      he won’t be around long…

  7. 15 terry June 5, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    You’re actually right. I should be less harsh. I’m a fan of his and saw this posted on his website. I don’t really disagree with you. Really I disagree with some of the earlier commentators. The beauty of writing and art is that we can all have our opinions and share them in forums like this. I like Frey and think he’s a great writer. Controversies drummed up by American talk show hosts later shown to have done the same thing she yelled at him for won’t change that for me. I think you’re cool for being open-minded about him. Others, less so.

    Have a great day.

    • 16 Shan June 5, 2010 at 9:34 pm

      Terry – if it makes you feel any better.. I’m still gonna read it and, I’ll try to keep an open mind. I’m more curious than ever to pick this one up and see for myself!

    • 17 paris (im)perfect June 5, 2010 at 9:37 pm

      Thanks, Terry. I appreciate that. I liked what I heard at the reading a lot and am always willing to hear someone’s point of view. I also agree that the American talk show circuit is often powered by sensationalism. As I’ve *never* really watched those talk shows – and especially since I’ve been in France for so long! – I don’t take my opinions from them. And really, I wasn’t trying to drag up an old controversy – just reporting on an enjoyable reading I went to. I’m happy to have everyone express their opinions here. You have a great day, too.

  8. 18 Shan June 5, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Terry – just throwing my hat in here, though I’m no expert and I’m most definitely more naive than Sion…

    Memoirs are obviously embellished to make the main character look more angelic than they are. No one’s perfect, and no one wants to write a book about how shitty they are in real life. Understandable.

    But we don’t want to read pure fiction either or we’d just go to the fiction section. There is a difference in the genres for a reason seems to me. We expect memoirs tell the story of someone, not of their fictional image of themselves. I don’t think so many people (including O.), would’ve made such a ruckus if it wasn’t a deal.

    If we remove the fiction/non-fiction labels, it changes the context of what we’re reading. A good story in non-fiction doesn’t have the same criteria to be “good” in the fiction section. We look for different things in the respective types and I for one would like it to stay that way.

    PS – I don’t really agree with your portrait analogy. We don’t call paintings “photographs” just because they look real. I prefer to call a spade a spade.

  9. 19 terry June 6, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    According to the NY Times, about 85% of Frey’s book was true. Is that enough for you? And the analogy does work. He painted a portrait of himself, and took liberties in doing so. He did not call his book a newspaper, as your painting/photograph example would be, he called it a book and said it was about himself, same way a painter makes a self-portrait.

  10. 20 pariskarin June 6, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    After reading all the comments here debating Frey and his work, I decided to go to his website and check things out a little. http://www.james-frey.com/ What I read there really intrigued me and has really turned me on into checking out his writing in more depth. I’m excited about his books and I am now feeling a little envious I didn’t get to see him speak. Thanks, though, for posting about this, Sion, and for allowing comments which continue the debate about what constitutes “genre” and whether or not it matters.

    • 21 paris (im)perfect June 6, 2010 at 7:12 pm

      Hi Karin. Glad the discussion here has fueled your interest. I certainly need to read some of his work now! We’ll all have to compare notes.

      As someone who writes both fiction and nonfiction, I think about the genre question. If you can believe it, I was actually in a “fictional memoir” writing class when A Million Little Pieces first came out (before the Oprah controversy). Ha! If only we’d known then how the topic would blow up!

      Good writing is good writing; but I do approach fiction and nonfiction differently. It’s helpful for me to know what I’m looking at when I read. And I’m all for experimentation and hybrids, too; just like to know that’s what it is! The stories we tell are unique – and even our own reality can only be considered subjective. None of us has the absolute truth. Here’s to the continuing questions of art and life… :)

  11. 22 dee June 8, 2010 at 9:58 am

    “good writing is good writing”??
    if it was so “good”, he would have sold it as fiction… not as a memoir.
    i read it. it wasn’t that good. it got considerable buzz because people thought it was “real”. they thought he truly lived the things he had said.
    he hadn’t.
    how would you feel if you read great journalism and later found out it was made up?
    “good writing is good writing”?
    LYING IS LYING.

    • 23 paris (im)perfect June 8, 2010 at 10:58 am

      Hi Dee,

      You’ll see from my first comments that I had the same point. He did try to sell it as fiction and no one picked it up. Then it got sold as a memoir. Obviously that’s incredibly shady! I never read the book, so I can’t comment on its quality – this post was just a report on the reading I attended and the snippets of work I heard from his novel.

      It is interesting to see how vehement the reaction remains to him years later. I agree that when we read something called a memoir, we connect to it because we imagine the person actually lived through those things – and readers would be upset to find out that wasn’t the case. I don’t think I said otherwise.

      Thanks for your comments.

  12. 24 Little Miss Cupcake June 8, 2010 at 11:12 am

    I wasn’t in the US when the whole fray (yes, as well pun intended) erupted. But I read a Million Little Pieces and was mesmerized by the story. I don’t really care if he claimed it was autobiographical and then later it turned out to be mostly fiction. He is an engaging writer; books for me are an escape and I read it and the follow-up looking for something interesting to change my mindset for a few hours. Frey delivers and how! I am bummed that I missed this appearance.

    • 25 paris (im)perfect June 8, 2010 at 11:21 am

      I think we’re all looking to be engaged by a story – I’m glad you had that experience. Everyone obviously has their own reaction; it’s been fascinating to see these comments evolve! Thanks for stopping by!

  13. 26 terry June 9, 2010 at 3:36 am

    I’ll ask Dee the same question I asked earlier: do you hold yourself, your politicians, and your newspapers to the same standard as him? All flash and no substance? All three of his books hit #1, including two after A Million Little Pieces, and he’s published in 36 languages. You might hate him, but he’s not going anywhere. He has two books coming out in the next year and he gets big crowds everywhere he goes and sells ton of books. And as he says at his readings, he loves that people like you hate him. Once you stop hating, he’ll be doing something wrong.

  14. 27 Alysha June 29, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Hi
    Ive been following James Frey and his writings, and public controversies and what not since the first book ‘A million little pieces’ came out which was 4 or so years ago!
    Now.. I’ve stumbled across this blog reading about several people debating whether or not hes a ‘good’ writer, or if you can classify him as a writer at that?
    meanwhile… Im sitting here after reading his 3rd SUCCESSFULL book wondering why you people are still sitting there twiddling your thumbs wondering if hes good enough to be classified as a writer or not?!

    As far as i can see.. He is an individual who has once written a book that was misinterpreted as a written lie.. When it was just.. A great BOOK.. written by a man.
    Since has had hundreds of thousands of readers captivated by his WRITING.
    And since then… He has successfully achevied the same thing with TWO more books.

    I find it dissapointing and quite shocking that people that sound like they have a good knowledge outlook on literature, can have such a closed off direction towards… ‘Just a man who wrote a book’ as a human. When he is obviously and thankfully an individual writer (Its nice to read something that isnt from a cookie cutter mold of an author).. Isnt it?

    So instead of judging his writing because you dont agree with him as a person and how he does things ‘his way.’
    Judge him as the writer that he is… Which in my opinion is pretty amazing.
    Everyone of his books… I have thouroughly enjoyed.
    And hundreds of thousands of people are backing that same opionion. – Because of his WRITING, and how it has moved them.

    ~A

    er

    • 28 paris (im)perfect June 29, 2010 at 3:21 pm

      Hi Alysha,

      Thanks for stopping by. To be honest, I’ve been a bit surprised by how many comments this humble little post has engendered, too. I guess people are still very effected by not only his work, but also the controversy. You never know where the discussion will take you on a blog – even if my intention wasn’t necessarily to stir up an old debate.

      I’m glad you have enjoyed Frey’s work and have found an author that speaks to you. The best writing moves us, in my opinion. Glad you’ve had that experience.

      Happy reading,
      Sion


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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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