In 2003, James Frey published a widely acclaimed memoir, titled A Million Little Pieces, about his experiences as a young addict struggling to rehabilitate his life back to sobriety. It is a dark and engaging account of the depth to which a person can fall as his inner demons–in this case, manifesting externally in the form of crack and booze–brings him to a crossroads in which the next handful of decisions could literary be the determining factor between life or death.
Needless to say, the reading public responded very well to the book, and Frey was heralded not just as a great writer and storyteller, but as somewhat of a hero for those who have been affected by the horrors of addiction (either personally, or vicariously), for whom he served as an eloquent communicator to the general public on how to emphasize with their less-than-sober counterparts in society.
As time went by, praise and attention continued to grow, and Frey’s star shined bright enough to even warrant attention from Oprah Winfrey’s coveted Book Club (surely, the hallmark of any author serious about actually selling her or his book in the industry). Around this same time, however, a different sort of attention was also creeping up and casting a more accusatory shadow over Frey’s spotlight. Eventually, after much push and pull, and pontificating about integrity and trust, it was revealed that a large chunk of the details concerning Frey’s lived experiences in the book, were not lived experiences at all. Although we don’t know exactly to what extend things have been fabricated in the faux-memoir, we do know that just about every event detailed that ought to be verifiable (i.e. police records, specific people and interactions, etc.) simply aren’t. So much so, that the book nowadays sits in the fiction section of your local bookstore, and serves as a case in point of a literary forgery.
Despite all the controversy, it needs to be said that James Frey is actually a decent writer, and A Million Little Pieces is not a badly written book, and given his knack for storytelling he has gone on to write several subsequent works that are equally engaging and enjoyable (though, since the incident, he has wisely kept both feet squarely within the realm of fiction; showing that a person truly can learn something from a degree of public shame). Thus, the question I’m more interested in concerning this entire mess isn’t really about Frey’s stand alone role in this matter, but rests more on the issue regarding the extend to which the writing world (writ large) has a professional obligation to maintain honesty with its readers?
The question should be an easy one on first sight, for who would say out loud that writers need to be free to unabashedly lie to their audience? This is especially true for writers whose prose rests in the realm of non-fiction. Yet, although certainly true, I think just repeating a platitude on this matter does little to really convey the seriousness of an incident like this.
Sticking with the example at hand, I read Frey’s book after the drama had already unfolded, and was never in doubt about the faulty veracity of its claims as one might have been if they came to the work under the ruse of it being an honest memoir of a person’s private struggles. I can see how someone who had become emotionally invested in the story of the flawed-yet-persistent person fighting to gain back some semblance of meaning and sanity in his chaotic life, would have felt more than a little betrayed on hearing that this “real” person was a mere sensationalized character in one authors hopeful attempt at circumnavigating through the competitive hoops of the publishing world. They felt duped, and rightfully so, because in a very clear way they were. And this one experience could very well sour the public and harden a cynical attitude towards the apparently appalling lack of a rigorous vetting process on the hands of publishers more concerned with making a buck of off people’s empathy, then researching on whether the “real-life” story they’re selling is in fact bunk.
This is where the responsibility lies, in my opinion. The literary world as a whole has an obligation to at the very least accurately promote the product they are selling. And to do so prior to publication, not post-public outcry, which (let’s be honest) will still push sales by virtue of secondhand curiosity alone. I accept that I’m naive in my thinking to expect a business to prioritize integrity and honesty over financial imperatives, but seeing as how–if I’m inclined to share an opinion on the matter–I feel obligated it be an honest one; be it idealist, if it must.