As the Smoking Gun website reported, and as legions of commentators have argued, James Frey, the discredited author of the faux memoir A Million Little Pieces, is a liar and a fraud. But he still doesn’t deserve to take all the blame for pulling a fast one on the public. His publisher should come in for a few insults too. Venal and foolish would do.
It’s no secret that as book publishers struggle to maintain levels of growth even television networks can’t achieve, editors increasingly crave titles that come with marketing plans built in. Yes, worthy books get published–quality has a market too–but corporate publishers keep the lights on, or try to, seeking out authors with their own media “platforms” or back stories ready-made for Hollywood and the press.
A Million Little Pieces displays a clumsy beginner’s prose style, and its overblown story of addiction and recovery aroused suspicions long before thesmokinggun.com revealed that, contrary to what Frey wrote, the author did not serve time in jail and was never wanted in three states. But Frey wasn’t without cunning or foresight. He built the book with an essential piece of marketing bait at its center: It’s true! As in any good con, greed made his publisher bite.
Frey’s actions should not be confused with those of J T LeRoy, the cult fiction writer who was exposed as a hoaxer at the same cultural moment. A supposed former child prostitute who published his first short story at 16, LeRoy, we recently learned from New York magazine, is the creation of a middle-aged writer named Laura Albert. But Albert/LeRoy’s years-long imposture was a kind of performance art compared with Frey’s desperate and humorless con.
If it’s any comfort to Frey or his supporters, he does seem genuinely troubled. A healthy person who flogged his book on The Oprah Winfrey Show and was caught lying to millions of readers might have wanted to come clean. Instead the con artist blamed the mark, telling Larry King that he “initially shopped the book as a novel” but that his publisher, Nan Talese/Doubleday, decided to “publish it as a memoir.”
When Frey was promoting Pieces three years ago, his saying it was a “novel” meant it transcended the recovery genre. This time, that claim helped cover his tracks: Frey hadn’t wanted to exploit his personal history for marketing purposes; that had been his publisher’s decision.
It was thus heartening, a week later, to read Nan Talese in the New York Observer denying that Pieces was ever “once discussed as fiction.” The publisher was honorable, or at least she and the acquiring editor, Sean McDonald, were the marks and not the accomplices. But the outsized needs of the industry and its hunger for bigger, faster-selling titles still pose an invitation to enterprising operators to try to pull a fast one again.
Not surprisingly, the feeling in some quarters lately is that Doubleday got what it deserved in being tarred with Frey’s brush. A writer I know went so far as to applaud Frey for playing on publishing’s soft spot, gaming a system that’s “unfair to start with.” Even Oprah, the best friend of the industry, took out her embarrassment on Doubleday, sniping that it was the publisher’s job, not hers, to figure out which category a book belonged in. (Never mind that counselors from Hazelden, the rehabilitation center where the book is set, warned her producers that Frey’s descriptions of treatment couldn’t be true.)
But publishing shouldn’t shoulder all the blame either. In focusing on publicity-friendly books, houses are just doing what they have to in order to get attention. “The media needs nonfiction handles,” notes an editor at a major publisher. “Otherwise they’ll cover Paris Hilton’s book.”
At the same time, publishing might do a better job protecting itself from itself if it fact-checked more often. But that’s not a lecture it wants to hear right now from the press, most of which doesn’t use fact-checkers either. Besides, the feeling among some editors who passed on Pieces was that fact-checking was beside the point; nothing in the book rang true.
“Our authors are not unknowns; we believe them,” says Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal, explaining why the industry has no plans to start fact-checking. “You do need to look someone in the eye and ask questions. If the anecdote seems too good to be true, it likely is.”