Home / James Frey and Doubleday: Putting the “Fiction” in “Non-fiction”

James Frey and Doubleday: Putting the “Fiction” in “Non-fiction”

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So James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, is a big lying liar? The Smoking Gun says so, and their evidence rings more true than the book did. Frey’s lawyer is threatening suit, but Smoking Gun editor William Bastone isn’t worried … presumably because the best defence against libel is truth.

Frey apparently not only embellished, but fabricated details of his sordid criminal past – lies that call into question what else in the supposedly non-fiction book, which contained none of the usual disclaimers about altered characters and situations, was invented for dramatic purposes.

The line between fiction and non-fiction is always blurry. Memoir writers invent dialogue and tweak or misremember situations. But Frey went so far across that blurry line, that even the blurriness is blurry in the distance.

Because Oprah Winfrey relaunched her book club with Frey’s memoir as her choice, helping it become the second most popular book of 2005 (Harry Potter was first), she is accused of being duped. But the primary dupe was the publisher, and Random House’s Doubleday division was even complicit in the deception, either through negligence or manipulation of the truth.

I was one of the duped, too, on a much smaller scale. After I wrote a silly little piece about my aversion to Oprah but happiness that she was restarting her book club, the audiobook publisher of A Million Little Pieces contacted me to do a review of the abridged audiobook version. I did, and liked it, though I was taken more by the lyrical staccato style than the story. It was compelling for a look at a world I couldn’t imagine – but, apparently, Frey could. It had the air of being too outrageous to be fiction. I could not have taken it seriously as a novel.

In fiction, our willing suspension of disbelief is often a fragile thing, and it is more important that something rings true than that it is or could be true. But when a publisher labels something non-fiction, there is an assumption that we can suspend our suspension of disbelief and buy into the story as at least a close approximation of reality.

That assumption has been called into question before, and it will be called into question again, and publishers hungry for a piece of the sensational memoir market are either turning a blind eye to fact checking, or are encouraging authors to stretch the boundaries of truth beyond credibility. Why? Because we’ll buy it, literally and figuratively. But by labelling A Million Little Pieces non-fiction, Doubleday went beyond selling a book for people to enjoy. They sold a man to be touted as an inspiration of what it is possible to overcome, sold him to people struggling with addiction, and there should be some responsibility for truth in advertising with that kind of product.

The unvarnished truth about Frey overcoming his addictions, written in his distinctive style, should have been compelling enough, but it would have been competing with countless similar books out there, and would have been blown out of the water by Augusten Burrough’s Dry, for one. Readers crave bigger, better, badder. Combine an author desperate for publication with a publisher desperate to satisfy that craving and you’ve got A Million Little Pieces, and JT Leroy, and who knows how many others.

Some readers and reviewers wondered about A Million Little Pieces‘ veracity before the recent revelations, but to accuse someone of fraud without proof should be as big a sin as the fraud itself. Smoking Gun found the proof. Oprah could have. Doubleday should have.

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About Diane Kristine Wild

Diane travels. She doesn't tan.
  • Scott Butki

    Most telling thing I’ve read yet on this is a comment by the author – in today’s New York Times piece on the issue that it was undecided whether to publish the book as fiction or nonfiction but when they chose nonfiction he didn’t change a thing.
    And just as I was thinking,”Hmm,maybe you should have changed a few things…” I got to the next paragraph where it mentions he has his first novel coming out this fall.
    Insert joke here about how if only he said his other book(s) were novels!

  • He’s coming on Larry King Live tomorrow

  • Yeah, the Larry King interview should be interesting. I suspect he’ll deny, though, so it might be more frustrating than interesting. On the other hand, the last line of the Smoking Gun article is a quote from an interview he did with Publishers Weekly: “I’m looking forward to showing people that I can write fiction.” Maybe this is his opportunity to say “See? I can write fiction!”

  • Scott Butki

    That should be interesting.

    Here’s what I’d love to see JT Elroy calling Frey and they can compare notes on how they conned people.

    A new development on all of this:
    Not only are there questions about how much of Frey’s book is fake but now the whole identity of another trendy popular writer, JT LeRoy, is also getting busted for lying and deceit.

    A story about it is here.

  • Thought some of you might appreciate a piece I wrote up last nite pointing out that the James Frey problem has now come back and kicked some reporters and book reviewers on thebutt via Oprah’s new pick and the question of what to call it.

    The BlogCritics story on it
    is here.

  • What’s really strange about A Million Little Pieces is Frey’s caustic, contemptuous commentary on people who put on false fronts.

    He tells a very similar story over and over throughout the memoir, and the gist of it is this:

    James meets a guy who claims to have had it rough, been down and out, gotten mixed up in seriously dangerous business; James thinks the guy is full of it, driven by insecurity or stupidity to exaggerate the extent of the problem; James compares this pathetic liar to himself and comes to the narcissistic conclusion that he, James Frey, Drug Addict and Alcoholic and Criminal, is the ultimate authority on suffering.

    I don’t doubt he has suffered. I think it was not just money and fame he wanted from this book. Perhaps he wrote a false memoir in order to escape the torment of his hatred for the real James Frey.