Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Tuesday, February 07, 2006

    A Million Little Pieces of my PC

    And they fixed all the ones that were broken. Hello again!

    Stephen Newton said,

    When you're back online, I would be interested in hearing your perspective about the controversy surrounding James Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces.

    OK. I haven't read the book. But what I can't particularly understand is why people feel so very betrayed by the fact that Frey has embellished and exaggerated the details of his life.

    Frey's book fits in to a recent trend for memoirs of personal ruin and redemption. We had Dave Pelzer a while back telling us about his horrible childhood for money; then Dave telling us about his horrible childhood again, for further money; then Dave again; then Dave's brother wanted to cash in; then everybody else who ever had an abusive or addictive background got a book contract and made Oprah cry. I find these books, on the whole, to be emotional pornography, and the publishing trend to be a somewhat distasteful bandwagon.

    It seems to matter to Frey's betrayed readers that these things Actually Happened. Why exactly is that? Do the events he recounts have no power to move us unless they occurred? They must feel that they were sold a ghoulish souvenir of somebody else's misery, and discovered that it was counterfeit. (Or, more charitably, a holy relic of a miraculous cure.)

    If A Million Little Pieces were a novel, and it was being evaluated on its literary merits, none of those concerns would have come out. So, I can only see this controversy as existing at all because this is a kind of book that has value to its readership for reasons other than its literary merits (whatever they may be.) Oprah's involvement is interesting: a TV show whose successful model is to feed its audience vicarious emotional highs and lows. If that's how you get your fix, you want it to be pure. You want the author, the victim, staked out in front of the cameras, truly confessing. Putting it another way, they are the goat. They take the sins of the congregation away into the world. James Frey says 'I am an alcoholic' and all the viewers and readers who drink alone feel purified, because they do not end up in rehab, in jail or on a tri-state crime-spree, or whatever.

    Anyhow, that's my theory. Frey's agent has been nicely dealt with by Miss Snark, so no need for me to rehearse that. The publisher should be trying to sell as many copies as possible, and I don't think they should have much trouble getting the book to stay on the shelves. As for Frey himself, without having read the book I can't blame him. He told a story and people loved it, then they attacked him because the story wasn't true. I simply wouldn't care, if it's a good yarn told well.

    The one similar book I would like to recommend is Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors, which is beautifully written and very, very funny. You alternately giggle helplessly and gasp in horror the whole way through, a tough thing for Burroughs to pull off technically, and it would stand up just as well marketed as fiction.

    I've retrieved my emails and thank heavens have all your MSs intact, so we should be back on track this week. Meanwhile at work things have slowed down a little - my big ol' project went off to print the other day. The previous one I ghosted has sold 40K copies so far, which teaches me a valuable lesson: ALWAYS GET A ROYALTY. Tattoo that one on an easily-accessible part of your body, dear reader.
    Torgo, 7:03 pm

    18 Comments:

    It matters because a big part of what made the book so powerful was the idea that it "really happened." If that didn't matter, then why market something as a memoir versus a novel? Just publish everything as a book, list them alphabetically by author's last name, and have at it.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:18 pm  
    But why does it matter that it should have happened? You're right, it was marketed as a memoir, not a novel. That's because there's something else besides literary merit being bought here - something I'm personally not in the market for.
    Blogger Torgo, at 8:35 pm  
    I can respect that you may not be in the market to hear about people's anguish, joys, etc., but people who buy memoirs are in that market.

    I personally feel the same way- I don't need to pay to read about real life or hear the highs/lows of other people's "experiences." I can see/hear about that for free;)

    However, for the people who are into that type of thing, they should get what they pay for- a fairly accurate accounting of someone's experience, if that is what they are told they are buying.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:01 pm  
    OK, we're pretty much in agreement here, then. What seems disproportionate to me is the amount of outrage and vitriol directed at Frey for something that I can't see as being that much of a big deal. Nobody ever complained about Hunter Thompson mythologising himself, as long as he was entertaining.
    Blogger Torgo, at 9:50 pm  
    Say someone pretended to have terminal cancer. They tell their school, their church, whatever, and a collection is taken up to buy them, say, a trip to Italy. The truth comes out--the person has never been sick a day in his life.
    Should the donators be mad?
    They still got what they paid for--they made the "sick" person happy.
    But it was under false pretenses.
    How is the situation with Frey any different?
    Blogger Elektra, at 3:32 am  
    So, you're turning the purchase of this book into a pure act of charity, whose object is the author? I'm surprised to find that people would buy A Million Little Pieces in order to make Frey feel better.

    Sure, if a friend of mine, God forbid, had cancer, and asked me to chip in to send them on holiday, certainly; and I'd be devastated if they turned out to be lying. But I'm not going to send money to a stranger on the basis of a hard-luck story, even if Random House implies that they think it's true. A better outlet for that charitable urge would be an actual charity, let's say Cancer Research UK, which is going to improve the lives of many more people.

    If we establish that a book does not need to have literary merit in order to take a nice slice of the book-buying dollar, one of the inevitable results is con-men trying to get rich, in the same way that mediaeval beggars used to glue fake buboes to their faces or simulate epilepsy. Another result is that people like you and me who aspire to earn their living telling stories have to compete for space on shelves with a bunch of people displaying their injuries for cash. I would rather see a situation in which memoirs have to be first and foremost good art, which is exceptional, rather than merely a list of true events, which is not.

    Let me take the question another way: if Frey's book had been true, but had merely contained a bald 5-page summary of its contents and 200 blank pages, would it be worth the same? Surely not. And yet buying it would have made the author just as rich and just as happy. That's why your analogy does not hold.
    Blogger Torgo, at 12:30 pm  
    Thanks for that thread of comments. I'm reminded of Clifford Irving's bogus biography of Howard Hughes. The McGraw-Hill Book Co. claimed, Hughes had struck a deal with writer Clifford Irving, an expatriate novelist living on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza. The hitherto reclusive billionaire had met clandestinely with Irving in Mexico and the Bahamas, in order to tell the 40-year-old author the true story of his life. It was a no-holds-barred autobiography, "warts and all," from a living legend who was dying and wanted to set the record straight. First reports hinted that it told of Hughes' manipulation of the stock market, his bribery of American presidents, his secret wartime combat mission under the aegis of President Roosevelt, his friendships with Cary Grant and Ernest Hemingway, his behind-locked-doors life in Las Vegas—and it revealed details of affairs with movie stars from Katharine Hepburn to Ava Gardner. It disclosed a secret love with the European wife of a member of the diplomatic corps. . .

    McGraw-Hill's announcement of the impending publication ignited a firestorm of controversy. Everyone was surprised —many were upset—a few panicked. Executives of Hughes' corporations insisted the book was unauthorized. Finally, on a national radio hookup, an invisible Howard Hughes spoke from his darkened hotel suite on Paradise Island.
    "This must go down in history," he said. "I only wish I were still in the movie business, because I don't remember any script as wild or as stretching the imagination as this yarn has turned out to be. I don't know what's in [the autobiography]. I don't know [Clifford Irving]."

    McGraw-Hill, Irving, and Life, which had bought serialization rights, were not fazed by the denials. Clutching a bulky manuscript annotated with hundreds of Hughes' alleged handwritten comments, the author appeared on 60 Minutes after the 1972 Super Bowl to tell Mike Wallace: "For better or for worse, I think I know Howard better than any man alive. The autobiography is genuine." Mike Wallace had read the manuscript; he believed that Irving was telling the truth.

    For months the debate was front-page news, often eclipsing the Vietnam War. Publishers Weekly quoted a McGraw-Hill spokesperson: "No one who has read [the autobiography] can doubt its integrity." Some said that revelatory material in the book might topple the Republican administration. Albert Leventhal, editor-in-chief of McGraw-Hill, chiding the idea that the autobiography was not authentic, announced that "We who have had the privilege of reading the manuscript know that it would take a Shakespeare to invent such a work."

    After what amounts to a virtual 27-year publishing ban on the manuscript, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes is at last being made public.
    If Howard Hughes didn't dictate it, as Irving first claimed, why should it be published?

    Here is one answer.
    In 1971 before they heard the book was a hoax—Book-of-the-Month Club called The Autobiography of Howard Hughes "the most important document in American literature published in forty years."

    And in a recent interview, Clifford Irving said: "I had access to the secret files of Time magazine and the Los Angeles Times. I dug up unpublished memoirs and private tape recordings of conversations with Hughes. I interviewed men and women who knew Hughes intimately and had never been willing speak to anyone about him. I grew to understand the man. The truth of a life is elusive and always subjective. The novelist is a kind of channeler—he can often get deeper into the subject than the historian, especially when the subject is a reclusive phantom like Howard Hughes. He was a tremendous force in 20th-century American technology and finance. His views are raw, powerful. His revelations are stunning. His life was a modern myth."
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 1:59 pm  
    You don't read anything differently whether it's presented as fact or fiction? It's all the same to you?

    If I read something completely outlandish that is billed as fiction, it might not ring true. I roll my eyes and assume the writer is trying too hard, because that wouldn't really happen.

    If the very same event is in a memoir, my jaw falls open and I tell someone, "You're not going to believe what happened to this guy." (Or at least I would have, before all this. Now I'll just assume it's made up.)

    If you don't find true stories particularly compelling, then no, you're not going to get it, no matter how much we try to explain it.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:02 pm  
    Hi Torgo...glad to see you back. The James Frey thing only bothered me because it was portrayed as 'fact' , when in reality most of it turned out to be fiction. And they the pubishing world blatantly turns a blind eye to the lie, and said, "Oh well!"

    The only redeaming value I saw in the whole charade was Oprah's reaction at being duped....She was so *P.O.ed* it was worht the whole thing! LOL

    Oh, can you retrieve the Easter Island thingy...I miss it..it's so YOU!
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 12:10 am  
    See, anon, it's not that I don't have the same reaction when I read a true story. I do think there is a qualitative difference between a text that you know to be fiction, and a text that you believe to be a true account; and it affects the way you react to it. What I don't get about this affair is the palpable bitterness directed towards someone who has written a book that you presumably liked in the first place! As if suddenly the experience of reading that book had been completely soiled and made repellent by the fact that the author had enlarged on his own tale. The outrage that goes far beyond the mere loss of ten bucks, and seems to imply some deeper investment by the buyer in the possibility of the story's truth.

    It simply doesn't matter to me much whether a story is true or false. A true story adds an extra frisson, but it's not such a big frisson that it's going to have a big swing effect on my enjoyment of a book. Your mileage may vary. I can understand where Frey's critics are coming from, but I really can't persuade myself to feel too het up about this. There's bigger liars knocking around the world at the moment causing far more distress than this guy.
    Blogger Torgo, at 1:35 am  
    "The outrage that goes far beyond the mere loss of ten bucks, and seems to imply some deeper investment by the buyer in the possibility of the story's truth."

    A ha. Yes, I agree with this. I think many people were deeply invested in James Frey, the real person, and were angry and maybe embarassed to find out they'd idolized a fraud.

    Signed, Third Anonymous (who forgot her Blogger name and should really just sign up for a new one.)
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:22 am  
    I think people felt betrayed because Frey's book was about conquering your demons. They might not be wrestling with a monkey on their backs but A Million Little Pieces told them that, yeah, you can deal with your problems and move on.

    It's probably a stupid analogy but it's the difference between a memoir about someone losing a lot of weight and a novel about someone losing a lot of weight.
    Blogger The Gambino Crime Family, at 10:14 am  
    Torgo, I get Elektra's point. Hard luck stories inspire us. We give the cancer patient money because we are stirred. We bought (caveat: not me, saved $10) Frey because we were buoyed. Both duped us. Both earn opprobrium. Our reactions are going to be scaled, of course. We'll put the cancer patient in prison; we'll say bad things about Frey. But they both still earn a valid outrage.
    As for Thompson, most of us knew he was out there. Frey, though, sold himself as sincere. That analogy doesn't hold up.
    Anonymous exeye, at 11:43 pm  
    Also, I think it is worthwhile to mention that Frey did not *invent* the happenings in his book. He ripped them off from a book by a much better writer, Eddie Little. Besides being a better writer, Mr. Little was a better human being. Although his book was autobiographical, it was sold as a novel -- while I don't know the motivation for it, I suspect that it was the reluctance of a decent person to wallow in and profit from claiming victimhood. And Little's book did not have a happy ending.

    Dr. Dolan at exile.ru wrote a few articles on the matter; he was also the one who spotted similarities between Frey's and Little's books, and he was the first to question the veracity of Frey.

    To quote Dr. Dolan, "A Million Little Pieces is the dregs of a degraded genre, the rehab memoir. Rehab stories provide a way for pampered trust-fund brats like Frey to claim victim status. These swine already have money, security and position and now want to corner the market in suffering and scars, the consolation prizes of the truly lost."

    Full review is here: http://www.exile.ru/2003-May-29/book_review.html
    Blogger Fish Monkey, at 4:12 am  
    Oh, well, if he's a plagiarist, fuck 'im. Thanks for the heads-up, fishmonkey.
    Blogger Torgo, at 1:59 pm  
    Without trying to get involved in a raucous debate over a book I have never read (nor would I), please allow me to make the following statement:

    Who cares?

    I know this is going to put me squarely in the cross hairs of those folks who are rabid on their condemnation of James frey and his book, but serioulsy, get a life. get over it. It amazes me how many people seemed to take this whole thing personally.


    I would also like to thank Torgo personally. Until reading this post, I thought I was the only person on earth who thought Dave Pelzer's cashing in on his rotten childhood to be just about the most testeless thing I've seen. One book would have been ok, laudable, even though the goal was always money. But come on... three books? All about how bad his childhood was? And his brother, too? Please, draw the line somewhere.

    Inspirational stories DO have their place, but all this "Feel bad for me and buy my book because my life sucked" garbage is getting very, very old.
    Anonymous Mister E, at 2:29 pm  
    Gads, I'm sick of hearing (reading) about this book and this man. Who gives a flip? He wrote a book. He lied. Okay. Slap him on the wrist and hush up about it. I bet he sells more books than he would if nothing had come of all this hoop-la. Let's move on. Find something better to read.
    Anonymous C.J., at 3:28 am  
    wow i'v only just heared of the book so im just trying to see what its about but by the looks of your comments i don't think it is verry good!
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:23 pm  

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