Fuck The Bullshit, It's Time To Throw James Frey Down

"James Frey is a liar. His best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is a fraud. It is a seamless mass of falsehoods, told deliberately, for the purpose of making money." Back when Tom Scocca wrote those words in the Observer last January, it was nearly impossible to imagine the disgraced memoirist would ever sell another book to a major U.S. publisher. Sure, he'd have little tossed-off pieces in magazines every once in a while, or maybe he'd go back to writing screenplays. Hollywood doesn't care about this kind of thing! But the idea that Frey would sell what amounts to his third novel, for more than a million dollars, to Harper's Jonathan Burnham, seemed as unlikely as, say, Ron Goldman's family pimping a book by O.J. Simpson. And then it happened. A lot of things happen that shouldn't.

I bought Frey's book, before The Smoking Gun debunked so much of it, and I liked it. I'm a sucker for confessions. (Hey, even Gawker loved him on first sight, back in January of 2003.) I love writers who specialize in wide-open honesty; it's sort of my favorite thing, actually. My favorite writers—Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, Jonathan Ames, David Sedaris, Cookie Mueller, Sylvia Plath, Colette, Mary Gaitskill, Phoebe Gloeckner, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Dawn Powell—are all expert confessors.

Oh, and here are the people whose confessions generally rub me the wrong way: Chuck Klosterman, Neal Pollack, Nick Hornby, Steve Almond, Julie Powell, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephanie Klein. The people whose confessions often reek of bragging, even when—especially when—the bragging is along the lines of "look how disgusting/uncool/modest/bad at relationships I am." Or: "look at what a lame person I used to be."

But I liked A Million Little Pieces specifically because James Frey seemed to eschew that kind of self-mythologizing. There was something about the book that just felt... honest. True. Which means, I guess, that Frey is a very talented writer? Or maybe just a very, very talented liar.

Frey didn't just pull an Augusten Burroughs—it's not like the lies were "discrepancies" attributable to "we all have our own personal truths," though he did use nearly that exact lame line. He blatantly wrote about factual things that never occurred as if they'd happened to him, and in doing so, made his readers feel sympathy and vicarious pain. He toyed with our emotions, and when we found out we'd been lied to, we felt betrayed. I did, at least—and, hey, Oprah did! And everyone who said, "well, it's still a really well-written book" seriously has something wrong with them.

But apparently it's a big so-what. Our culture isn't into consequences. Shame is the new fame. What yesterday's news means is that James Frey's career will continue, and as it does, the story of the fraud he perpetrated on four million readers will drift further and further down the page in any profile written about him, until it's in the last paragraph, until it's in the last line, until it's not there at all.

George Saunders, in an essay about how reading Johnny Tremain changed his life, wrote:

Working with language is a means by which we can identify the bullshit within ourselves (and others). If we learn what a truthful sentence looks like, a little flag goes up at a false one. False prose can mark an attempt to evade responsibility, or something more diabolical; the process of improving our prose disciplines the mind, hones the logic, and most importantly, tells us what we really think.
I wish James Frey believed in this dictum, but the fact that he lied to Motoko Rich yesterday about something as basic as whether he'd ever written a short story—not to mention his utter lack of real contrition on Oprah and, well, anyplace when the news of his deception originally broke, as well as his perpetual victim act—says that: No. He still doesn't get it. And neither do people like Jonathan Burnham or Frey's agent, Eric Simonoff, who are happy to profit off all of this.

You know that Miss Teen USA contestant Lauren Caitlin Upton, the one who gave a retarded answer to a stupid question and became an instant YouTube sensation? Last week, the wire services were full of pictures of her, going to fashion shows and parties. She's famous now. In a few more weeks, no one will remember what she originally became famous for. They'll only know that they know her name.