Killer Year–The Class of 2007

I’m having a hard time feeling indignant
January 19, 2007, 12:30 pm
Filed under: Bill Cameron, Killer Year Members

Okay, on the surface, I get it. People read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces thinking it was a memoir. Turned out it was a novel instead. Oprah beat him up, ensuring his universal pariahhood for all eternity. Nobody, and I mean nobody, cross Teh Oprah. Folks were upset. They felt betrayed.

And then the other day the duo who created JT LeRoy, Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop, went to some Chelsea shindig and people were all up in their grills. “Yo! Why don’t you apologize?” was the question du jour. And Knoop answered, “What for? Because you bought a book? Because you were moved by the words?” To which I say, duh.

James Frey is particularly interesting to me because of how much grief he took. He wrote a book. He called it a memoir. People read his book. Teh Oprah did her couch orgasm thing with it that authors everywhere crave. It sold a jerbillion copies. Folks were moved. It changed their lives. Then it turned out to be, er, exaggerated. Oh. My. Gawd.

It was a “memoir,” for cripe’s sake. Are those things ever real? Maybe it’s just me, but when I see “memoir” I think “autobiographical fiction.” Sorry, but I don’t trust many folks to speak accurately of themselves in print.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no James Frey fan, nor trying to be an apologist. I attempted to read the book in question and found it too purple, even by my standards. But, come on, Teh Oprah, it didn’t become a different book just because it turns out James Frey is a fabulist. Also known as a writer. The words didn’t morph on the page as if Voldemort waved his wand over it just because he made some stuff up.

So it wasn’t all the “true.” But it’s still what it is. An account of a life. If you’d never found out, whatever you got from the book would have still been there, inside you, doing whatever it is books like that do to people. If you think it meant something only because you think it was “true,” then were you never moved by a novel?

Even when you’re not as cynical as I am, you gotta admit memoirs are pretty elastic things, aren’t they? Subjective and messy and prone to hyperbole and confabulation. But if they move you, they move you.

I’m not saying writers of what is ostensibly non-fiction get a free pass to make stuff up. I think there are places where complete dedication to accuracy are critical. But I think you gotta think in terms of what a piece of writing is attempting to do and at least evaluate it on those terms. Make stuff up in scientific research or journalistic reporting and I think you should burn in hell. Or, even (and I know this is extreme) have to abase yourself before Teh Oprah. Make stuff up in a memoir and you’re, well, you’re writing a memoir.

I will say this. Probably Frey should have called it a novel. Maybe it wouldn’t have been published, or maybe it would have been published anyway. I don’t know. I’m not really the target audience for those “I was an unrepentent, bottom-feeding skank” books anyway. A friend of mine read it and liked it. After all the folderol, she said, “Well, I still think it was essentially true, even if most of it didn’t really happen.” In other words, she left her pitchfork and torch in the barn. Now, to be sure, I think it was appropriate that he was outed. It was a novel, not a memoir. Like I said, I get that. I just think all the hand-wringing, all the abuse he took, was an absurd overreaction.

The Ladies of JT LeRoy got it right, I believe. “What for? Because you bought a book? Because you were moved by the words?”

Good for them.

Bill Cameron
Author of Lost Dog
Available April 2007


12 Comments so far
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I believe, if I remember correctly, part of the problem is Frey couldn’t sell the book as a novel and then slapped “Memoir” on it and it sold… I could be wrong here, but I think that’s part of the problem…

Comment by Dave White

You might be right. I was reminded of it by the JT LeRoy Ladies comments, which struck me as the only reasonable response being outed as a “hoaxer” in such a case. As I said, I found the Frey unreadable, but I’m not in the audience for that kind of book anyway.

If slapping “memoir” on it was what made it publishable, then I have to wonder at both the publishing rationale and the reading mentality behind memoirs. It’s “true” so it’s okay if it’s shit? But the instant it turns out it was fictionalized, then, suddenly, we recognize the shit?

Oh well. I’ll stick to fiction. I know what’s true there.

Comment by Bill Cameron

The whole Frey hoopla makes my butt tired. He lied. He lied big & passed it off as the truth. Memoirs are not strictly the truth (duh!), but he made up a whole bunch of stuff to make his story more exciting. Stuff like getting arrested & having a girlfriend commit suicide while he was in jail. Fine in fiction, not okay if you’re trying to pass it off as your life story. And it was incredibly stupid – he didn’t think anyone could look up his arrest record? Not only a liar, but an idiot. I don’t know that the public crucifixion was appropriate & I didn’t read the book (not my cuppa), but I’m really, really tired of the kerfluffle.

Comment by Angie

I think the public should be protective of Frey. This isn’t his fault. He lied to get his book published. That would have been the end of the story if Oprah hadn’t got involved.

Her followers followed, blindly as followers tend to do, and then they were made to feel stupid. I don’t get why they never blame the preacher.

Comment by bekbek

Understanding, of course, that they should blame themselves…

Comment by bekbek

Even if he lied, the book is still selling big time. And I agree about memoires. Of course they’re embellished. Who the hell would ever read them otherwise?

Comment by Tracy

I think you’re missing the point, or perhaps I should say, the point of the whole for me is not whether a memoir is “real” or not.

Why I feel Frey is a dick and deserves all the bad press is because he didn’t just “lie to get a book published” as someone suggests. After the book was in print he went out and toured and told people the book was real. He recounted tales as actual events – but they were all fiction. That’s a huge difference in my opinion.

If the book had come out as a memoir and that was that, then I agree with everything you’re saying. But I feel if Frey (or anyone) chooses to do this, then have the nuts to stand up and say – WHEN ASKED DIRECTLY – that yeah, I made it up.

But he didn’t. He punked out. And would have continued being a punk if people hadn’t discovered the truth.

And none of this has anything to do with the Big O.

Comment by Guyot

You haven’t convinced me that the reaction wasn’t overblown, overwrought, and hysteria-laced, and the torpedo volley from the Oprah Couch mothership was part of the hysteria. Like I said, I think it was appropriate that he was outed. And, hell, probably he’s a punk.

But. Well. So?

Comment by Bill Cameron

Actually, in Oprah’s defense, she stuck by the guy for awhile, saying that even if the book wasn’t strictly true, it was true at heart. It wasn’t until things started getting pretty ugly in the press that she decided to take him to task.

Frey pretending to be something he isn’t in order to get work doesn’t strike me as all that big of a deal. People do it all the time. Remember the 18 year old girl who was on staff of the TV show Felicity, being hailed as a genius, until they found out she was actually thirty years old?

Then suddenly she was a shitty writer.

It’s all about perception and Frey was wise enough to understand that. Unfortunately for him, it all backfired. Of course, he’s a rich man now…

Comment by Rob Gregory Browne

Remember that all of this happened in the atmosphere of a country in which the majority feels that the President has lied to them and gotten the country involved in a war that we shouldn’t have gotten ourselves involved in. In this context, I can understand why the reaction was an overreaction and blown out of proportion.

That being said, I believe Frey wrote the book intending it to be Fiction but a publisher suggested he call it a memoir (I think this is how it went, I can’t remember exactly) and so he changed it to a memoir since it was based on true events. I’m fine with that except he should have changed some of the exaggerated parts at that time, such as his prison sentence.

Whatever, at this point I’m so over it.

Comment by mai wen

Seriously – has anyone READ JT LeRoy? To even think that is non-fiction… to even assume? Come now. Just… really… come now.

Comment by Justin Buchbinder

funny, my hairdresser just mentioned JT Leroy the other day, whom I have not read, whom she loves but hadn’t heard about the whole brouhaha… so I did some web research, to make sure I hadn’t confused this case with another and read up on some details, such as claiming to be HIV infected to get celebrities to support the author. If that part isn’t true or exaggerated, please set the record straight but that’s the part I find rather cold-blooded.

Comment by AS Meredith

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