Whose Fault Is Frey?
Who gets the blame when a con man robs the congregation blind? That's the real question in the case of James Frey.
Frey was nobody a few years back, a hack screenwriter whose best-known credit was an obscure romance movie with the weirdly prescient title "Loving A Fool" That changed suddenly in 2003, when his debut rehab memoir "A Million Little Pieces" (2003) was published -- after being rejected by 17 publishers, who all deserve medals for service to literature.
AMLP was a huge success, with copies of it disappearing faster than cocaine at an advertising company's Christmas party. Amazon named it "Best Book of the Year." Frey's follow-up, "My Friend Leonard" (2005) was even worse than a AMLP, a thing I would not have thought possible, and almost as successful. A few months ago came the high-water mark of Frey's fame, when he went on Oprah and was welcomed as a saint of self-help, a paragon of romance and a literary genius.
Then, just a few days ago, Frey fell. The Smoking Gun website published an expose detailing all the lies and exaggerations in Frey's boasts about his bad-boy past. It turned out that Frey's total prison time amounts to a few hours, and his crimes were what you'd expect of a frat boy, infractions involving beer and cars.
The reaction was fast and violent. America, a nation that often behaves like a congregation, was outraged, as if the preacher had been found in the wrong bed on Sunday morning.
Although I understand their shock, I can't share their indignation. As a former academic who's written extensively on reader belief and forgery in literature, I've come to realize that it's the audiences who create forgeries like Frey's. Audiences who fall for this kind of forgery usually know better; they buy the fake because it confirms beliefs that are seen as fragile. Forgers count on that and happily rake in the cash and the adoration in return for shoring up shaky tribal myths.
Frey did exactly that for his readers, his "true" story reinforcing their belief that drugs = evil, that people are transformed in midlife, and that the individual can do miracles. In other words, Frey did a favor for a very mixed-up set of audiences, from DEA creeps to fans of Hollywood love stories, to wavering followers of self-help manuals.
So there's much more at stake here than a literary dispute. In fact, one of the more striking aspects of the current Frey debate is that Frey's fans don't care about literary quality one way or another. After two years of squabbling with these people online, I know what matters to them. Aesthetes they are most definitely not. What they valued was the moral of Frey's story, and the bad-boy bio authenticating it.
When that crumbled, nobody thought he was a good writer anymore. This too is typical of response to literary fraud; as long as the faked background of the book is believed true, the book is praised as magnificent. Once the readers know its grimy, self-serving origins, nobody sees any merit in it anymore. English professors may invoke that very slippery term, "fiction," saying that Frey's readers have no right to demand truth -- but they're dead wrong. Frey's history has nothing to do with fiction.
Indeed, anyone who's had to wade through Frey's godawful writing should have seen that he has neither literary talent nor authenticity as a druggie.
Perhaps that sounds a bit cocky. Well, I've got the record to back it up, because in a review I published in May 29, 2003, I started off by saying that AMLP was "the worst thing I've ever read" and went on to say that Frey was a phony, his characters recycled Hollywood types, his female lead, "Lilly," wholly invented and his story downright silly.
Now that Frey's been caught, I'm getting lots of emails praising me for seeing through Frey. But it was easy. The real question is, why couldn't the rest of the literate public see it?
In researching literary frauds, I've learned that the quality of the fraudster's writing is surprisingly unimportant in the success of the fraud. Thomas Chatterton, one of the most talented 18th-century fraudsters, killed himself, bitter and ashamed because no one wanted his faked medieval texts, whereas a few years later, James MacPherson, a cunning fake, became wealthy and adored for ridiculous "ancient Celtic epics" that were obvious pastiches of Milton, the Bible and other grand literature.
The reason the hack MacPherson succeeded and the brilliant Chatterton failed is that MacPherson's Scottish readers wanted desperately to believe in his faked texts. Expanding in confidence, growing rich after union with England, Scots wanted a national "classical" literature and took it when offered, ignoring the cheesy, obvious absurdities it contained.
By contrast, Chatterton failed to interest the English elite in his medieval fakes, because England, never short of self-admiration, simply didn't want them, brilliant or otherwise. It is the readers' desire that gives birth to such books, and it's the intensity of that desire that determines their fate.
And in his cunning exploitation of American values and his striking lack of literary talent, James Frey could serve as a textbook illustration of the successful forger. Like most successful forgers, he spun a story designed to bolster the audience's most fragile yet cherished belief. In MacPherson's case, these were the myth of ancient Scottish greatness.
Frey's books reinforce equally dubious national beliefs: a conviction that drugs are evil incarnate, faith in transformation via romantic love and finally, personal responsibility.
And Frey's readers take these issues very seriously, as I've discovered in my email debates with them.
Several were worried that Frey's tough-guy faith in personal responsibility might harm Alcoholics Anonymous. That prospect appalled them, while bad prose didn't bother them at all. In other words, Frey's readers skip the literary aspect, jumping directly to the sermonic, concerned only when one core value demonstrated by Frey's story might be damaged by another. The only "literary" quality readers mentioned to me was pathos, Frey's ability to arouse emotion. They thought he was brilliant at it, because he uses the words "cry" and "hug" more often than any public figure since Barney, and many wrote that their tears were all the proof I could want that he was a great writer. It was remarkably like the standard of success in late 18th-century sentimental fiction, a grotesque and deservedly forgotten genre in which writers tried to jerk as many tears as they could in as few pages -- usually by skimping on dialogue, background and those other frills that interrupt the tears.
But if he hadn't invented that fake bad-boy bio, none of it would have mattered. Ordinary readers understand this perfectly well and had the good sense to be angry when they learned Frey had lied to them. Only English professors are dumb enough not to see that.
Frey writes sob stories with himself as central character. These stories are not just used to make him rich and famous but to attract the adoration of his fans, to make him a star. It's not fiction, it's plain schoolyard boasting.
Frey's readers were right to think it's a matter of true/false, not "fiction." Their mistake was the same one Bush's voters made in 2000 and 2004: In their Calvinist obsession with public affirmation of the congregation's values, they welcome any con man who talks their language.
And like Bush, the stranger is usually there to rob them. Frey robbed them of their trust and adoration. But that's what happens when you believe stuff you know is crap.
Which brings us to drugs. Yes, drugs. Like Maude Lebowski repeating "vagina," I feel like saying it again.
Frey knew that if he blamed drugs, he'd be in there. And if he found redemption, he'd con them out of everything. Better yet, these poor suckers were so used to lies about drugs that he didn't even have to make it convincing.
On this topic, nobody will even risk truth in private. In this we're very Soviet -- in fact, like the Soviets of Stalin's time, we never even think about the disappeared of the Drug Trials, all those harmless druggies who have been shipped to the gulag to be raped and killed.
Like Soviets of Stalin's time, we've learned never even to let ourselves think about evidence that might undermine the Drug War's premises. For example, a few months ago Italian scientists analyzing the water of the Po River found that cocaine traces in the water indicated people were using two-and-a-half times more blow than official estimates.
That story generated lots of blogger jokes but nobody raised the point that if drugs mean crime and death, how come the Po River Basin, swamped with coke, is one of the most crime-free, prosperous, pleasant parts of the world?
So of course Frey fooled you; you'd spent decades chickening out, purging your own experience. Have you ever said publicly, "Well, I've taken drugs and I loved 'em, and none of my friends are addicts, so I think the whole thing's crap"?
And that's partly why it was so easy for me to see through Frey. I know druggies, and he didn't have the guts to be one. He had "cowardly booze hound" written (literally) all over him. Besides, his drug lore was laughable, as when including "glue" and "gasoline" in his long, boastful lists of stuff he'd used. No rich American boy like Frey ever resorted to that toxic filth -- but no mainstream reviewer could say that, for fear of being implicated in "drug abuse" and destroyed. This was Frey's most impressive move: getting the DEA, the only cop agency that really terrifies law-abiding citizens, to put The Fear into anyone who questioned his story.
Once Frey had tapped that nerve, he was ready to reward his readers' pleasure centers by indulging another of their fragile beliefs: our faith, despite all evidence to the contrary, that people redeem themselves, learn from their mistakes, change. I've gotten hundreds of furious emails insisting that Frey's characters are "real," just like his "pain." It took me a while to realize that what these fans mean by "real" is "something I desperately need to believe." In the more conventional sense of "real," as in "believable," or "stretched from life," Frey's characters are somewhat less "real" than intelligent design, another absurd fiction believed in desperation.
Here's one of them: "Ed," a steelworker, drunk and brawler Frey seems to have borrowed from a Spencer Tracy film:
"Ed is a hard man. Big, strong, tough as the material he works with, and I have never seen him be vulnerable in any sense of the word, but as he talks of his sons, his eyes get soft and wet."
Actually, Ed is one of Frey's more restrained, elegant attempts at characterization. The rest are much sillier, as I said in my review of AMLP: "Frey's pals [are] Leonard, a highly placed Mafia killer from Vegas; Matty, a black former world champion boxer; [and] Miles, a black federal judge from New Orleans who plays the clarinet."
There they are, the most childish dreams of every little rich white boy -- being down with the brothers and the Mafia. The tough guys. The Jazzmen.
Those of you reading Frey's work for the first time might well wonder how such transparent pandering to boyish fantasy fooled anyone. The answer is strange, counterintuitive but inescapable. Frey's books succeeded not despite but because of their sheer crappiness. His case offers to literary historians the same grim lesson it offers to all the American factions swept up and then embarrassed by this affair.
The lesson is simply that everything we believe is a lie -- not because we lack data or wit, but because we're desperate to hold on to our lies. Even Frey's most benign touches leave a lasting bruise; his invention of two cool black guys as friends flips suddenly from a cheering fact to a sad fantasy, and the only truth it leaves is that black and white don't have those friendships.
We could learn a lot this way. Flip every Frey character, plotline and autobiographical claim on its back and see the shameful truth crawl out. Take Ed the steelworker. Just flip him over, and you get the nasty truth: There are no steelworkers left, and we wish they'd come back -- guys who drank and got in fights, the good old Hemingway kind, no Mac 10s.
And when you flip the drug theme, yikes! What a nasty bunch of crawlies comes pouring out. When you flip Frey's brave confession, "I am an addict," you see first of all that he never was. Then you see his real affliction: an effectless, cunning ambition machine, poster boy for the culture's real epidemic, which of course it worships as "ambition" or "drive." If only Frey could be an addict! As Mephistopheles might say, addicts can be saved, whereas husks like Frey are long, long gone.
As you flip the lies, you'll note that it's when Frey is loudest about being honest that he's hiding his really shameful stuff. So when you flip Frey's "confession" of addiction, you see it was actually a boast, because in his world addicts are exciting. They actually do imprudent things! They get arrested! As raw mad courage becomes a scarce resource with the delayed-gratification crowd, it becomes an aphrodisiac -- witness Oprah and her entire audience swooning for Frey.
The confession was bragging. The real confession would have been that he made it up. And that's one confession we'll never hear. Confessing that kind of thing would be truthful; and literary forgeries, like most literature, aren't intended to show truth, seek light or do any of those nice-sounding things. On the contrary, they're weapons used to bolster the culture's weakest points, and their consumers are both their source and their victims.