Anyway, I never read A Million Little Pieces. I knew lots of people who did and who loved the book with an unimaginable type of enthusiasm, people like my sister, who felt compelled to write him a note, post-reading. And maybe that partially explained why I wasn’t that upset about finding out he’d fabricated and expanded on sections of the book. I fell under the camp of people who remained confused as to why he didn’t just offer up some sort of disclaimer at the front, much like Dave Eggers did in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. People, I thought, don’t care about whether or not something is completely true–the imagination and the senses care more about whether something is moving, well-written, and powerful– they just don’t want to be lied to. In other words, Frey’s post-story lie was much more powerful and ultimately fatal than his fictions within the book. And yeah, Oprah did her holier-than-thou Chi-town stomp on him in real time, and yeah he became a walking billboard for the death of the memoir (speaking of which, fantastic article about Augusten Burroughs and his memory in last weeks New York magazine), and yes, there were and are many reasons to never read anything else by Frey, but, still, I couldn’t help but find myself enthused by the positive review in the Times.
You see, I have this theory about writing and writers. My theory goes like this: no matter who you are and where you are from and what your parents do for a living, if you can write and you know you can and you work at it every day and you know deep below the surface in that place where only the truth exists that you’re not just being daft and irrational, you will get discovered. This may take weeks or it may take years or it may take decades, but my feeling is that good, solid writing rises to the top. Editors can spot it. Agents can spot it. Other writers can spot it. And this is the beauty of the writing world. You always have to fall back on your own talent. Yes, you may get put in a prime spot by things like connections or nepotism or the lottery, but if the writing doesn’t hold up, you will fall and ultimately you will fail. That–more than anything else– is the powerful self-correcting agent in the writing world. And–despite all of my cynicism and my love of irony and all of the other knee-jerk reactive habits infused in me by my age, social standing and penchant for limited edition sneakers– I believe in that. If I had a mantra, that would be it. Good writing rises to the top. It’s not catchy, it doesn’t sound good in a Nike commercial or on a lower back tattoo, but that is what I believe.
ANYWAY, the reason James Frey’s positive review sparked this stream-of-conscious impromptu speech is because, ultimately, maybe his writing holds up. Maybe his writing is good enough to supersede all of the stupid personal egotastic mistakes the rest of him made. I say maybe, because I don’t know. And I’m sure there will be people coming down hard on both sides; people hurt by his fabrications or people who just think he’s a crappy writer or don’t read this sort of stuff or people mad because he already got his time in the light and they want it too. And yes, these are all valid reasons not to read his work, but those don’t matter to me as much. I don’t think people should be forever buried on one mistake.
To illustrate my point, I leave you with a quote from the first scene of the pilot of my favorite creative vice of all time, The Wire. Detective McNulty is sitting on a Baltimore stoop talking to a witness who was playing dice with the victim of the homicide, a kid whose name is–awesomely–Snot Boogie. The wit is talking about how every time Snot Boogie played he would inevitably steal the money from the dice game and so McNulty asks him a question:
McNulty: I got to ask you, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away, why did you even let him in the game?
Snot Boogies Pal: What?
McNulty: If Snot Boogie always stole the money why did you let him play?
Snot Boogies Pal: Got to. This America, man.
His point being that, in America, everyone gets a second chance. And if the person doing that good writing just happens to be James Frey–sinner of sins, liar of lies, anger-er of Oprah–well..I say good for him. After all, this America, man.
Apologies for the book-length work. I hope you find pleasure in the knowledge that we are giving the music of 1988 a second chance as well.