Did Harper Purchase a James Frey Short Story Collection for $1 Million?

While Gawker merely reports rumor, I decided to make some calls. According to a decidedly nervous Tara Cook, who is Jonathan Burnham’s assistant, Harper can neither confirm nor deny that Harper purchased a new James Frey short story collection for $1 million. I have also left a message for Tina Andreadis. If I get anything substantive, I will let you know.

[UPDATE: Confirmed by Jeffrey Trachtenberg. Press release here. And, yes, Gawker, you are vindicated — somewhat.]

Laura Barton Likes Her Interviews Sugar Coated

From Laura Barton’s interview of James Frey:

“It asserted that a six-week investigation had cast doubt on some of the details in Frey’s memoir.”

Cast doubt? If by “cast doubt,” you mean show without a shadow of a doubt that Frey had fabricated substantial details, I suppose you’re right.

“Of the 5,000 letters sent to him, he says, only 50 have been hate mail.”

You can always trust a liar.

“And maybe this is one of the things about Frey, whatever he does, whether it be tubes of glue or writing books, he wants to do it the most – to be the hardest, to be the strongest, to win and to defeat.”

That and thousands of other would-be writers who subscribe to Writer’s Digest without writing anything. Big whoop.

“a persecution that seems particularly vicious when you consider that a man who is known to have manipulated the story of his own past is allowed to occupy the White House.”

Politicians do this all the time. Memoirists do not. Bush was smart enough not to write a book on the subject.

“He sits here before me, an impermeable rock of a man, and his very solidity, the unassailable fact of James Frey, seems strangely reassuring.”

Yeah, I’ve seen plenty of guys like this cruising in the Mission on a Friday night. Get out of the house much, Laura?

Terms from Random House

TO: Buyers of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces
FROM: Random House

We here at Random House are pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement with readers who were misled by James Frey’s “memoir.” If you purchased a copy of this book, you are entitled to the following refunds:

  • If you return the dust jacket of the A Million Little Pieces hardcover and draw a moustache through Mr. Frey’s author photo, you are entitled to a refund of $4.24.
  • If you return page 23, fold it in half, and highlight all traces of the word “the” with a 3M Yellow Highlighter, you are entitled to a refund of $12.92.
  • If your first name is “James” and you incurred psychological damages because you observed another “James” lying through his teeth, we want to assure you that Mr. Frey was not one of the “good Jameses” and that his actions do not reflect Jameses at large. If you fall into this category, return page 118 unmolested, along with a certified copy of your birth certificate. This is good for a refund of $21.82.
  • If you are a friend of Mr. Frey or a member of Frey’s extended family, you are entitled to a refund of $0.14, with the envelope being sent to you with postage due.
  • If you send us a videotape, a VCD, or a DVD, in which you can demonstrate that you led or coerced a group of people to throw at least 200 copies into a public bonfire, we would like to offer you a promising career here at Random House. Please get in touch with our Human Resources department.

Please note that all refunds are subject to a number of city, state, and federal taxes. The above costs reflect the amount that Random House will issue you. We cannot guarantee that some irksome governmental agency won’t take a big bite out of our checks. We feel your pain. Oh, boy, do we.

We promise you that we here at Random House are very, very sorry for having misled you. And if you see Mr. Frey in your neighborhood, please tell him to report to the Random House building. We have a windowless room in the basement that we’d like to invite him to spend the rest of his days.

Thank you for your attention.

Random House

Julia Scheeres: Freygate II or Troubling Trend?

Sherry Early over at Semicolon notes of Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land:

The most appalling abuse that Ms. Scheeres documents in her book is spiritual abuse. Counselors and house parents force teens to mouth words of repentance and faith in Christ in order to earn “points” toward release from the school. Even though the James Frey debacle has placed a pall of suspicion over the memoir genre, and even though I have grown up around evangelical, fundamentalist, and Calvinist Christians and have never witnessed anything like the kind of abuse that Ms. Scheeres tells about in her book, I am forced to believe that New Horizons Youth Ministries has been guilty of a serious betrayal of the trust placed in its program by parents and their children.

In the ongoing debate over whether memoirs are “true” or not, this is certainly a good point. When one’s experience is translated and reconfigured upon the page and the words, in turn, become shocking or even run counter to conventional wisdom, at what point must we send in the journalists to corroborate or disclaim a person’s experience? Part of me tends to think that, at least in Jesus Land‘s case, there might be a tad too much scrutiny being applied here, which is an understandable impulse after the James Frey scandal.

But I think Early unearths a far more substantial issue in her questioning. Have today’s memoirs become too subjective? (And by “subjective,” I mean to suggest centered almost exclusively around the memoirist’s redemption. Perhaps “solipsistic” is a better word, although this is, in my judgment, a mite too harsh a modifier.) Part of me suspects that most memoirs published today are near-Pavlovian experiences. The memoirist tells his tale of abuse and the reader is then obliged to feel pity and/or moved for the memoirist, until the inevitable film adaptation, in which the reader transmutes into a filmgoer and is obliged to sit through a five-hankie Hollywood tearjerker of the same experience, the contents further divested of integrity.

This might be oversimplifying the problem, but one need only look at the pre-scandal marketing of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces to see this wholesale celebration of bathos. Consider the sentiment expressed by Oprah in which she declared to Frey that, while reading the book, she flipped back to the cover to see if he was all right. Is this really the stuff that makes memoirs so rewarding?

Allow me to put forth the following hypothesis: Is the memoir so locked in the personal experience of one that it is now impossible or less likely, due to current market conditions or what is currently expected from contemporary memoirs, for the memoirist to even get inside the head of her abusers or those who she would decry as evil, much less herself?

What, for example, makes Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story or Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind good memoirs? I would argue that it isn’t the personal salvation component, although the aftermaths of both women are certainly comforting to hear about, but that it’s the humility and candor that Knapp and Jamison contribute when describing their respective experiences. Both writers are self-critical and both are unafraid to reveal their behavior, warts and all. But simultaneously, they don’t completely demonize themselves or others, nor do they paint themselves as total victims. They are respectful enough to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Indeed, it is the very lack of solipsism that makes these two memoirs striking.

So what happened to the memoir in the past ten years? Was it Dave Eggers sullying the memoir genre with his endless pop cultural references? Was it Angela’s Ashes demanding that all memoirists up the existential ante if they earned the right to chart their experiences?

Whatever it was, I think some sincere component was lost along the way. The memoirists forgot that their purpose was to paint important portraits of human behavior, rather than cater to a specific marketing niche or impress the crowd with stylistic pyrotechnics. Which is a pity, because before all this nonsense (and even after), I always thought that the memoir was one of the most promising places to read about the human experience. And so did William Zinsser in On Writing Well.

(Major hat tip to Brandywine Books)

Yippie Kayee, Mother Oprah

In an utterly baffling development, James Frey has found an unexpected supporter in Bruce Willis: “Look at what happened to James Frey in the last two weeks,” says Willis. “That’s a great book and so is the follow up book. And just because his publisher chose to say that these were memoirs, it took it out of being a work of fiction, a great work of fiction and very well written to this guy having to go be sucker punched on OPRAH by one of the most powerful women in television just to grind her own axe about it. ‘Hey, Oprah. You had President Clinton on your show and if this prick didn’t lie about a couple of things I’m going to set myself on fire right now.'” (via Defamer)

Pat Holt on Frey

The James Frey scandal is enough to awake Holt Uncensored after a nine-month absence. Pat Holt’s latest column (#396), which isn’t up at her site yet, suggests that Doubleday & Co. hire the Smoking Gun to vet every memoir that comes through the house, offer a refund to any reader who wants it, and refrain from issuing the book with an expalanation. And Holt’s just getting started.

Did Anybody TiVo Oprah?

The New York Times: “In a live broadcast of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ from her studios in Chicago in which she interviewed Mr. Frey, Ms. Winfrey apologized to her audience for her call to ‘Larry King Live’ earlier this month defending the author. Today, Ms. Winfrey, alternately fighting back tears and displaying vivid anger, berated Mr. Frey for duping her and her audience.”

I’m really in no position to judge until I’ve actually seen the broadcast, but the immediate thing that comes to mind here is Jim Bakker, who cried on camera and confessed that he had sinned only after his debauchery had been exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt. Perhaps I’d have more sympathy for Oprah, had she had the courage to call Frey out during Frey’s Larry King Live appearance. But career opportunism is a tricky thing. So I can understand why Oprah played the status quo.

Maybe I’m naturally skeptical about television figures. But the sense I’m getting here is that Oprah assembled her top people into an expensive hotel conference room with a slide projector and a Powerpoint presentation and, over twelve hours, hashed out the pros and cons of all possible responses — in the end settling for the same “tears while the camera’s rolling” approach that worked so well for Nixon.

If I had to make any predictions here, I’d say that Oprah will stray away from any “gritty” titles for future Oprah Book Club offerings, opting for safer titles in which the events themselves aren’t so subject to questioning. Which is a pity, because of all people, Oprah’s audience needs to be exposed to these stories the most.

[UPDATE: Gawker liveblogs Oprah.]

If Disclaimers Told the Truth

Yahoo: “On Thursday, the book’s publisher, Doubleday, announced that Frey was writing a brief author’s note for future hardcover and paperback editions. Spokeswoman Alison Rich would not say what would be in the note.”

DISCLAIMER #1:  “The following events have been considerably fabricated, because the author wants to be ‘the best writer of his generation.’  More importantly, he wants to sell a lot of books and be showered with attention for a tale of survival that’s nowhere nearly as crazed and troubled as he makes it out to be.”

DISCLAIMER #2:  “The characters and events were once fictitious, because they initially started out as a novel.  But this being the publishing industry, we’re well aware that ‘Based on a True Story’ sells a book almost as swiftly as the fear of God.  Forgive the author and the publisher’s opportunism.  It’s been a rough year.”

DISCLAIMER #3:  “Yes, we were exposed by a website.  We’re not happy about this.  And neither is Oprah.  But if entertainment’s your game, James Frey’s your name!  Buy and read this book anyway.  We promise that we’re withholding certain royalties from Mr. Frey.” 

(via Babies are Fireproof)

Transcript from “Larry King Live”

The Larry King Live James Frey transcript is now up and features the following exchange:

KING: Do you ever worry, Lynne, that your son’s blatant fabrication might be part of some pathological impulse? I mean, the kid’s clearly sold his soul and lied to the world. That can’t exactly be the mark of a healthy human being.

L. FREY: I never worry, Larry. You see, I’m getting some of that money too. That’s why I showed up tonight. I, or rather the woman I’ve been hired to fill in for, have a vested financial interest in my son’s career. And, well…between you and me, Larry, I’ve got a fabricated memoir in me too.

KING: Do you worry that your son might hole up in his $2 million apartment and start writing an angry book with strangely capitalized nouns about Neal Pollack?

FREY: Allow me to jump in here, Larry. Pollack is clearly a hopeless case. I’ll never be able to live his kind of life. Understand that I hate nobody here and I’m not about to confess to you and the people watching that it’s amused me greatly that you all believed the lies. Even though that notion is wrong. The fact that Oprah was duped and is too proud to confess this has me seriously considering a return to the high life of drugs. But I won’t. Because for all my lies and deceit, I’m a reformed man. And why shouldn’t they believe me? They believed Nixon when he gave his Checkers speech.

KING: You know, Jerzy Kosinski killed himself.

L. FREY: So did Hemingway.

FREY: Greatness, Larry. Isn’t that what we’re really talking about? I’m the greatest writer of my generation. That’s why Oprah picked me. I’m a walking inspiration for hoodlums everywhere. Fabricate your lives and feel the soothing sting of easy cash and liberation.

James You Know It’s True

Some scientists have observed that rats start scurrying around in their cages once the cyanide pellets drop. And sure enough, it looks like Big Jim Frey himself is in denial, grasping at straws, claiming that Random House isn’t offering a special refund on A Million Little Pieces, that it is standard policy to issue refunds on all books, and that there were fewer than 15 calls to Random House customer service. While the policy has been confirmed by the Book Standard‘s Kimberly Maul, you have to wonder why Frey thinks that anyone will trust a man who has been so clearly identified as a liar.

Frey needs to understand something. Nobody likes a bullshit artist. This morning at the bus stop, I got into a conversation with two people. One of them had just started A Million Little Pieces and the second person had informed this reader that it was all a lie. It broke my heart to see the guy’s face crack like that. This reader really thought the book was real and was in utter disbelief. And that had to be a horrible way for this guy to start his day. I told the guy that most writers were liars and recommended him Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story as a good memoir to pick up. Since the book has sold 1.7 million copies, I can’t imagine how many others are going to have the same kind of horrible wakeup call.

Round Robin

  • In light of the assaults on eminent domain and flag burning (and with the frightening prospect of Justice Rehnquist resigning looming in the air), there’s at least some good news on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting/PBS budget cuts. Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted by a 284-140 vote to rescind the $100 million cutback. And that’s really what current politics is about these days: finding scant hope in small victories while the fiber and sanctity of this nation is gutted. So bust out the party poppers while the apocalypse ravages across the heartland.
  • The so-called “Pope” has published a book that urges all non-believing Europeans to live as though God exists. If that fails, then there’s always putting on a tin hat and looking for crop circles in the hinterland.
  • It looks like Limbaugh and Noonan are running away from the Klein book. Their latest amusing claim is that The Truth About Hilary was “written and published by a bunch of left-wingers.” Well, that’s pretty interesting, given that Sentinel, the publisher of the book, describes itself on its webpage as “a dedicated conservative imprint within Penguin Group (USA) Inc. It has a mandate to publish a wide variety of right-of-center books on subjects like politics, history, public policy, culture, religion and international relations.”
  • Cynthia Ozick talks with the Melbourne Age.
  • The Connection continues its series of writers talking about other writers who have influenced them. The latest audio installment is Russell Banks talking about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
  • Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell is on a book tour for his new novel, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way.
  • So can James Frey follow up the intensity of A Million Little Pieces with his new memoir? Mike Thomas of the Chicago Sun-Times talks with Frey and learns that Frey’s life is “sort of surreally magnificent.”
  • James McManus has been tapped to write a poker column for the New York Times. Executive editor Bill Keller says that McManus’ column will be “a literate combination of the drama, strategy, psychology and color of card play that should interest both serious players and the simply curious.” This from a guy whose idea of literacy is questionable at best.