Four People Sitting Around Talking About James Frey, None Read the Book

January 15th, 2006 by Larry Smith

It was 12 minutes (though that’s just a guess) into an agreeable pot roast dinner with a few friends in Brooklyn when the inevitable (yet still good) discussion of the unmasking of Million Little Pieces author James Frey began. After yammering on for a while, we realized that none of us had actually read the book (1. Been meaning to; 2. Don’t care for the topic; 3. Heard it was clichéd/poorly written; 4. Read other books on addiction: Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story). I’m of opinion #3, yet more curious to read it now than ever before … which just goes to show that bad behavior is constantly rewarded.

The Amazon customer reviews tell my favorite version of this story. The first one (April 15, 2003) blasts the book (”This is the type of book Vin Diesel would write if you gave him a dictaphone and a pot of coffee”), and as my friend Mark Schone pointed out, even way back before the Smoking Gun stunner among the thrilled throngs were readers smelling something fishy. “When the book is eclipsed by the story of the author then the book begs closer scrunity [sic],” wrote a anon reviewer on April 29, 2003. Fish for yourself among the 1100 reader comments and counting—it’s a trip.

Once you know that Frey submitted the book to multiple publishers as novel, had no luck, and then sold it as a memoir is there anything left to say? Yes. Been-to-rehab-and-back media critic Seth Mnoonkin does so with care and caffeination in Slate.

Without getting into or anywhere near Frey (these video interviews took place long before this scandal, though post-Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass) on Current TV’s terrific Storytelling Guide Dave Eggers’ take on the process and nature of memoir is honest and real and fresh. I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to the rest of the interviews with Sarah Vowell, Bonz Malone, Xeni Jardin, Ira Glass, Elvis Mitchell and others about how and why and when they tell stories. Those comfy-yet-conducive-to-good-work backgrounds—the pleasant yards and booklined offices!—are inspiring too.

This just in! A reader sues James Frey.

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