Protecting The Innocent

January 19th, 2006 · 9 Comments
by Booksquare

We have a friend — let’s call him Peter — who has been trying to get us worked up over the James Frey flap. Other individuals have given up on the goal, but Peter keeps trying. It’s simply not going to happen, but he’s stubborn.

He tries little things, like pointing out that he was three chapters into the mess, but now has to give it up. “Return it,” we say. “You kept your receipt, right?” Of course he didn’t. “Here’s someone who’s all worked up,” we say, forwarding endless links to endless articles. He reads them all, only temporarily satisfied. “Write a letter,” we sigh after an hour of this conversation, “about how your normal, non-addicted life was completely destroyed by the fact that this was not true.”

Peter feels cheated, but doesn’t seem to be able to explain why. It seems that as long as he feels the need for justice, we’re going to be subjected to this same conversation. Do not feel sorry for us; such is our lot in life.

We know we should care. We know it’s a big deal somehow. We’ve tried to find a smidgen of energy from deep within our cold heart to work up righteous anger. We’ve read every email and followed every link from Susan Gable. We bit our tongue when Jill tried to bring Vanilla Ice into the conversation (Vanilla Ice!). We even dredged up a bit of concern for those whose lives were changed forever by the thought that this was non-fiction.

But as Peter himself keeps saying (and we paraphrase), there were things that felt made up. And that leads us to our final thought on the issue:

The controversy, combined with the Leroy situation, called into question whether readers were willing to purchase novels that were conjured up from imagination, rather than memoirs where the work at least partially came from personal experience.

And thus we expend our last spark of interest with a deep thought, “Huh?”

Which was our replacement thought for, “You are only half-kidding, right?” in response to this:

“If you want a first fiction author on any radio station in New York and San Francisco and you produce middle-aged women who created it all,” you’re going to be out of luck, the agent said. “When you’re trying to get attention for a book, you need something or someone interesting and captivating.”

Because in radio, everyone can see your age.

File Under: The Business of Publishing

9 responses so far ↓

  • Lorra // Jan 19, 2006 at 11:31 am

    Dear Booksquare —

    Wish I were out in your neck of the woods so I could join up with Peter and Susan and whoever to try and convince you that a million little lies equals moral rot.

    AND, just because some blow-hard literary agent says something, it doesn’t make it true. From where I’m standing, a lot of these people are cut from the same cloth as real estate agents (don’t scream – one of my sons does this for a living, but said son could talk you out of your wallet in under a minute.)

    AND – I swear for the last time – the apathy with which many of us now greet liars and thieves is a pitiful commentary on our society and it makes me very sad. BUT, I’ve got bigger and better windmills to tilt at.

    Lorra Laven

  • SusanGable // Jan 19, 2006 at 11:55 am

    Oh, you’re just posting this today to make Peter, Jill, and I surface and rant at you! Well, okay, then… (g)

    Look, fiction writers, we lie all the time. But we’re HONEST about it. We tell you we are writing FICTION.

    I have not tried to pass off any of my novels as stuff that actually happened to ME. (That might annoy my husband, and I’d like to keep him.)

    I have not held myself up as a shining example that with the right attitude, anyone can overcome…serial chocolate eating and bookaholism. No, wait. I’m misremembering. It’s…crack coke and alcoholism that I have a problem with. Yeah. That’s it. And also I had a heart transplant from my twin sister when she died in a freaky accident, and now I hear her voice in my head all the time. Yeah. And I had to kick the coke and booze BEFORE the transplant because otherwise they wouldn’t put me on the list. Yeah. That’s right. That’s what happened to me. I am an inspiration for millions.

    Sigh. Not.

    If this moron had sold and promoted his book as the NOVEL it is, no one would care. In fact, no one would care because no one would have bought it. (He got a number of rejections on the novel form of this “story.”) Which is why, clever liar that he is, he decided to sell it as non-fiction. It made the story more important. More relevent. More inspirational.

    He CHEATED. He made the story have more value because he claimed it happened to him. Now, while memories may be fuzzy and subjective, there is no way to say you “misremembered” a parking ticket as three months in jail and a beating by cops.

    My mother always said you can trust a thief, but you can’t trust a liar. (There’s a lot of sense there.) So, if big chunks of the story are known to be lies, how do you know that anything in it is true?

    You should be outraged because it’s just one more example of how truth no longer has value in our society. How it’s OKAY to make crap up, just don’t get caught doing it. If you get caught, LIE some more. “No, I have no idea how those secret documents got caught in my socks.” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” “And then, these three guys wearing masks jumped me, beat me up, and spray painted those racists words on my car.” (That’s similar to a story a college professor told – turned out she’d made up the attack all by herself and spray=painted the nasty words all by herself. One can only hope that she at least spelled them all correctly. Sigh.) “I do not recall.”

    A man’s word used to be his bond. Honesty meant something.

    Frey’s word is LIAR. Not addict. Not survivor, or overcomer. Not badboy. Not ex-con. Not inspirational. Just plain, simple LIAR.

    Rant over. (g)

  • SusanGable // Jan 19, 2006 at 12:04 pm

    Oooo, I just “recovered” another surpressed memory. I was tortured by my nun teachers as a child. Yeah, and the psychologist who helped me recover these memories had a torrid affair with me, too. (Don’t listen to my mother if she tells you I never went to Catholic school. What’s that got to do with it? As long as the EMOTIONAL truth of what that experience MIGHT have been like, what difference does it make?? As long as I write a compelling version that resonates with people, hey, cool. And don’t ask me to produce receipts for my therapy bills. You know that stuff is CONFIDENTIAL, even if I did write a tell-all book.)

    That is what Frey and Oprah want us to believe. That the truth doesn’t matter as long as the story is “inspiring to millions.”

    Okay, NOW I’m done ranting. At least for now. (For my next recovered memory, I’ll either have been abducted by aliens or have had sex in the White House. In the Oval Office. While the Secret Service people watched. Don’t tell my husband.) (Snicker. Now we see why I write fiction. Actually, my imagination hasn’t been this active, or this cliche, in quite a while. LOL.)

  • Booksquare // Jan 19, 2006 at 3:49 pm

    I am so glad the two of you are willing to keep me on my toes. I think I’ve beaten poor Peter into submission — either that or he’s found someone else to talk to.

    I still don’t have the appropriate level of outrage because I don’t expect this type of book to err on the side of unvarnished truth. It would be nice, but when I read this type of book, I expect that the author has a certain spin or story to sell. I don’t pay James Frey to tell me the truth, but I do pay politicians to tell me the truth. That is their sworn job — but even then, every human being sees reality in a slightly different manner.

    I am, of course, professionally skeptical. I don’t believe what people tell me until I have made myself comfortable with the facts or developed a rapport with the seller of the story.

    I think one aspect of this, from my perspective (and recall I haven’t nor will I read this book), is that everyone I know who has read it indicates that it doesn’t feel real. That it feels made up, over-the-top. Maybe this is why I’m not hearing a real outcry from readers (your experience may be different — my sample group is relatively small) — they didn’t read this as one man’s true experience.

    I don’t know — I’m simply not feeling it here. I’ve tried. I’ve even tried to write myself into outrage. I am outraged when my presidents looks me in the camera and lies.

    Susan — bummer about the bad Catholic School experience. I’m still recovering from being forced to wash dishes when I was two years old. Could barely reach the sink, despite the stool on the chair…my mother can only laugh as the starting age for my childhood housecleaning torture gets earlier with every telling.

  • SusanGable // Jan 19, 2006 at 5:18 pm

    I’ll bet she made you scrub the uterine walls while you were in there, too. Don’t you remember that? (g)

  • Booksquare // Jan 19, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    You’ve met my mother! I tell you, my imagined childhood traumas would be a bestseller and if I promised a cut of the riches (ha!) (ha to riches, not me shirking my promises), she’d probably play along.

  • Joan Kelly // Jan 24, 2006 at 9:13 pm

    I’ve had a fair amount of people ask me what I thought of the Frey thing – including my therapist, hello – and I don’t know whether they expected I would be outraged or sympathetic, but I feel much like Booksquare, which is to say, very little about it.

    I’m extremely new to book-writing, but I do know that I was told by more than one person to concentrate more on what made sense for the story arc and to not be so uptight about actual facts as they happened. (I have a memoir coming out shortly.) And when I wanted to write about some of the bitterness I’ve experienced from being a rarely-solvent kinky sex worker over the last five years, never mind the sometimes-crappy clients and the disappointment of never even coming CLOSE to a “Pretty Woman” experience, editors responded by saying the book sounded “too dark” in the proposal. I was advised to consider talking more about the good stuff that came out of the last five years, which I did, which didn’t render the finished book untrue but merely incomplete (in my view).

    Why am I rambling about all this? I know what it’s like to want to sell my soul to the devil just to get my book published already. I know that there is a fair amount of “wisdom” that gets passed on to non fiction writers about why it’s okay to make shit up. So what if I’m better at doing potentially disgusting things than at making them up – I personally am just not in a position to judge Mr. A Million Little Excuses.

    But if I were, I still wouldn’t care. People lie to impress each other and sound cooler than they are all the time, and so far it’s never once caused me pain in my life to be a witness to such. But there are a lot of lies that get told that DO hurt people, and that’s where questions of ethics are rightly raised.

  • Peter // Jan 25, 2006 at 12:45 am

    Dear booksquare,

    While most memoirs massage the truth and are by definition subjective, Mr. Frey crossed the line is his apperance on Oprah, where he looked millions of potential readers in the eye and proclaimed “it’s all true”. Then he proceeded to spread his anti-12 step motto “Just hold on” among fresh junkies. (Although I am not one of them I could have been…)
    At least I was lucky enough to read only 3 “captivating” chapters. How am I supposed to “return it” now. Can you un-read a book?
    Plus he raised the bar for all of us macho men – root canal with no anesthesia anyone?

    PS: Your mac & cheese was delicious and its no fib!

  • Booksquare // Jan 25, 2006 at 9:02 am

    Joan — I understand your pain. Your comment about your book not being complete is very interesting. There is, inherently, a selective nature to memoirs. There has to be. Memory dumps just aren’t good, and, frankly, there must be a narrative flow. Though one must wonder what kind of publisher wasn’t thinking, Hmm, I wonder if readers are into the world of rarely-solvent kinky sex workers?

    Peter — So glad you finally finished your snack. I will, for the sake of brevity, bypass the macho men comment and offer to go with you to the bookstore and help you return your book. Perhaps you can exchange it for Joan’s book (which Amazon said would ship immediately, but that was a lie)? You cannot unread a book, though you can forget through the use of meditation.