Saturday, March 18, 2017

James Frey in a Million Little Pieces

Just read the decade+ old not-a-memoir, not knowing about the controversy until I was a only a few pages from finishing the book.

I have trouble believing any one who read didn't see through some of the details as hyperbole. The fact that so much of it was written as dialogue would have to clue the reader that this was a story about his experience, rather than his experience.

I remember thinking that it reads like a male version of Pretty Woman. And, I qualified much of what I read with a heavy dose of authorial creative license. That was the only logical way to read it. Still, I enjoyed the story of the author's stance against AA rhetoric. I revelled in hearing his preference for the Tao te Ching over the Bible. I was happy to have the 12 steps questioned as the ONLY solution for sobriety.

I read it as fiction, with a personal message, even before learning it had been incorrectly classified as a memoir in order to get it published. And I find it amusing that the media took it at face value.

Was it well-written? It was OK. The style was interesting, but obviously not interesting enough to stand on its own literary merit and be published as a novel. But as a memoir! It was a miracle? Jeez.

Where to catalog a book makes a big difference on where it sits on a shelf in a library. And the same goes for a book store. Publishers look at who is reading. Are people more likely to pick up a story about addiction in fiction or non-fiction? Publishers look at their catalogs. They have a surfeit of novels but not much selling as memoir. So they tweak it to fit what will sell.

As a naive, unpublished author Frey just went along with the hype to get it out there.

I'm sure reviewers (including Oprah) were embarrassed to learn they had praised the book based on a lower bar having been set for a memoir than a novel. To me, this speaks to our own hungers and needs to feed on the adversity of others more than our ability to judge a book by its cover.  Yes, I find this disturbing. But not anything new.

Frey wrote something timely. Wrote it from his own experience, in his own voice. And, I believe, his experience of writing was an excellent example of an exercise in bibliotherapy. His fictionalized story was his confession. His confession was a catharsis. And the catharsis was instrumental in his recovery.  I applaud the semi-autobiographical novel for its cathartic success, if not its literary merit. Read it as entertainment, rather than as how-to conquer addiction.

Memoir doesn't have to be a trainwreck in order for us to not look away. The writing itself can carry us forward, can provide the impetus of not being able to put a book down.

Frey as an inexperienced, but not untalented, writer served as his own fluffer. He couldn't get it up without overstimulation. "It" being the genius of an memoirist who not only tells a story, but tells their own story, with truth and beauty.

The publishing industry has to take the fall here. In the end, Frey's book speaks to his readers on their own level and conveys his message. For Frey, the success is in being heard. For the publishing community, the failure of categorical integrity resulted in financial success.

And the whole Oprah component, well, that WAS unfortunate...