When I read about James Frey’s collaboration on a series of young adult novels, I found myself immediately irritated. Frey’s bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was exposed as wildly exaggerated if not wholly fabricated. In a world where even respected editors admit plagiarizing Wikipedia, and where every year as a professor I have to explain to a law student the difference between paraphrasing and verbatim quotations without quote marks, do we really need the literary world’s most infamous fibber to become the next generation’s C.S. Lewis, Judy Blume, or J.K. Rowling?
But then as a writer, I found myself questioning my first instincts. Had it been up to him, he would have sold A Million Little Pieces as a novel, but publishers only wanted it as a memoir. Sure, he should have put down his foot and cleared up the record, but wouldn’t other struggling writers be tempted? And he has paid a price for his mistake. This country doesn’t imprison writers who lie, but I’d rather be sent to the clink than face the wrath of Oprah. Her on-air excoriation of Frey is the closest thing I’ve seen to a contemporary flogging.
Writers write, even the ones who screwed up. Is he supposed to suppress his urge and his talent for the rest of his life because of one (colossal) error in judgment?
But then, in my ever-Cybil-like way, I found the original, disgusted me arguing with my newly sympathetic me. James Frey isn’t just any writer. His million little fabrications were on Oprah, for pete’s sake. The book sold more than five million copies worldwide, topping the New York Times bestsellers list for fifteen consecutive weeks.
And as the fiction writer he’s always been, Frey has apparently found redemption. His novel, Bright Shiny Morning, reportedly earned him a million dollar advance and debuted at #9 on the New York Times list. Can’t he continue to write for adults? Does he have to move into the lucrative young adult market, selling the movie rights to Dreamworks before the book has even been sold?
I didn’t buy a copy of A Million Little Pieces, and I don’t have children. But if I had and did, I don’t know how I’d feel if Frey’s latest venture becomes the franchise he’s envisioning. On the one hand, any author who gets a kid to read a book is making the world a better place. On the other, we don’t need any more little fibbers out there. The question, I suppose, is whether the target audience for this new book — young adults — can distinguish the work from the author. My guess is they can. Still, I have to admit, watching that guy get richer annoys the heck out of me.