A Heartwarming Blog of Staggering Length: James Frey's Redemption, My Mantra, and More

Look, friends, I was going to tell you to read the book Lush Life by Richard Price. This blog entry was supposed to be dedicated to my own personal love letter to Price’s work, how ever since I first read Samaritan I’ve been captivated by Price’s mastery of dialogue, his ability to capture slang, his understanding of the gritty underbelly of city life. I was going to point you in the direction of a fantastic New Yorker article about his use of dialogue, and then make some comments about the NYC hipster culture he skews in his new book, and how I can relate to that because I know, understand and sometimes feel like I get caught up in the terrible toolness that comes with said culture, and then I was going to sign off with a song from 88 and we were all going to go about our day and do some bikram yoga. But then I read the NYTimes, and I realized that James Frey has a new book and I decided I would rather talk about that. So I deleted my Price post. That doesn’t change the fact that I think you should still read Price and that New Yorker article about dialogue and anything else I might have mentioned, it just means that we are shifting topics, and I  have an issue focusing.

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.

One More,

George Michael

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14 thoughts on “A Heartwarming Blog of Staggering Length: James Frey's Redemption, My Mantra, and More

  1. Tom

    I’m late to comment on this one, but as Kev says, "in that place where only the truth exists," we have:


    Frey "didn’t just offer up some sort of disclaimer at the front" like Eggars because he was in the act of deceiving his publisher as to the nature of the work. He wrote it once, took it to them, and they asked if it was all true. He said no. They said, "We don’t want it." He rewrote it, changing a few things, but leaving very large parts of it fully fictional in nature. He took it back. They asked again if it was all true. He said "yes." They published it.

    Everything we do in life has consequences. Frey is reaping the rewards of his actions one way or another. He’s made a good sum of money so far, apparently, and he has garnered another book deal. There are those who revile him for his first work based on its obfuscations of the truth, regarless of the quality of his writing. If it is not wrong that he is now establishing a career based on an initial work that was dishonest, how can it then be wrong for people to continue to judge him for his past work?

  2. Genevieve

    Thanks, Kevin. It would be an honor to have you at the blog. I will take you and Shelly’s advice. I’m in the process of writing another one this morning, but I keep having to stop to do things for work and do things for children.

    I think you should write the kinds of things you wrote about the other day whenever the mood stikes you. Don’t worry about length with this audience. we’re writers, we enjoy a good read.

    Thank you too, Stacey. Oh Mary, I dig how you called Mark Twain "Mark." I imgaine a frat guy at a bar. I think Mark Twain would like the association. Kevin, where did Tom go, man? I expected enlightened musings. Did he sling his guitar over his shoulder and decide to walk the Earth, like Jules in Pulp Fiction?

  3. Kevin Alexander

    Thank you to all who actually read this long post. I–for whatever reason– occasionally get motivated to actually say something and James Frey set that off… I hope people will read some of the things i linked to– the New Yorker article and the New York Mag one are both particularly useful/interesting.

    In other news, it’s Friday and the weather in Boston is trying to go retro-early Spring. Don’t fool yourself Mamma Nature, it’s nearly summer. Do with the sun and the heat and what not.

    (It seems appropriate/logical to post these type of pleadings on my writing blog)

    And Genevieve! Your own personal blog, huh? Congrats, I’ll have to check it out. But I agree with Shelly–be careful lest you find it overwhelming everything else in your life. Repeat after me: you own the blog, the blog does not own you. Now rinse and repeat until you get the desired effect.

  4. Shelly

    Great post Kev. Gives good food for thought especial when one is having a down day. You can just shift the paradigm, grab the second chance, and be like cream and rise to the top.

    Genevieve, I hope your enjoying blogging. Just be sure that you don’t end up using all your creative juices in writing the posts. Blogs have a way of becoming overhelming and stucking up more time and energy. See when I moved to Vancouver, a lot of friends asked that I start a blog talking about what it is like being an ex-pat living among the Canucks. So I started. And before I knew I was wondering more about what I was going to blog about then working on my novel. But that’s me. So with my little disclaimer stated, I can’t wait to read your musings.

  5. Stacey

    Mary Ulrich – Check Kevin’s March 11th post to see what The Wire is. Nice Mark Twain quote. The truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good story, but sometimes the truth is a good story… 🙂

  6. mary ulrich

    Thanks for the thoughtful and sincere writing. I am going to put one of your sentences in the quote section of the forum. Hope that is not tooo establishment for ya.

    Remembered another quote- Mark Twain: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." Hey, if it is good enough for Mark, then it is fine with me. Wonder what Oprah would say to Mark?

    ps. What is The Wire? Book? Movie?

  7. Kim

    Dude, don’t apologize for the book-length work. I completely agree with your sentiments.

    I haven’t read A Million Little Pieces either, and I don’t understand what all the outrage was about. I’m born and raised in Chi-town and, until her self-serving and very public thrashing of Mr. Frey, could take Oprah or leave her. But my opinion of her changed for the worse after she called him on his sin of fictionalizing his life story. Winfrey’s interview with Mr. Frey was replayed on all the news shows, and she was so over-the-top that I couldn’t stand to listen to her berate the guy. Yeah, he made stuff up and no, he shouldn’t have without, as you point out, putting a disclaimer on the front page of the book. But don’t we all screw up at one point or another? The guy seems genuinely remorseful and deserves another chance. He also must have some talent. I’m thrilled he’s taken another stab at writing and was able to get his book published.

    Haven’t read him before, am gonna read him now.

  8. Stacey

    Kevin, that was marvelous! It was very inspiring and even though I’ve never heard of James Frey, I learned a lot from what you wrote. It’s nice to know that we all have a second chance – and sometimes even a third, fourth, or fifth in certain situations. "This is America, man." I thought this was your best post ever and it really made me think a lot, especially since it was easy for me to relate to because it evolved around a theme that I’ve heard many times, but never quite like the way you told and developed it. Thank you for that inspiration. Absolutely lovely job, Kevin!!! 🙂

    Genevieve, I read your blog and I love it! You made me feel so nostalgic and happy. I really like the point you raised with using pay phones rather than cell phones and being hunted down rather than always accessible. It really gave me something to think about. Pay phones are rarely used or acknowledged now with all the technological advances in society. Thanks for making me appreciate something that I never did before! 🙂 I agree with what you said about the rhythm of prose. I find that there’s sometimes stronger rhythm in prose than in poetry. I too, am truly moved.

  9. Genevieve

    First to our worldly Renee, how was Ireland?

    The post reminded me that I should watch The Wire too. I like your longer posts, Kevin. You’ve always got interesting stuff to say. And I agree with what you said about second chances. The only thing that’s certain about any of us is that we change. And I find that books by an author are like children. You can like one book and not the other the same way that you might be friends with a girl, but detest her sister. His whole career shouldn’t hinge on one book.

    I don’t care if he fabricated stuff either mostly because I feel that when it comes to writing, ideas on paper exist in a different reality anyway. Since you have to visualize everything, words are more vivid. Have you ever noticed that? Colors are dazzling, the man on the train is so fat he can barely breathe, the chocolate cake is so good it’s like what sex in heaven must be like if such a thing is allowed. Everything is larger than life. I’ve written articles where I wish I could change someone’s quote or I’ve asked them questions hoping that they’ll say what I’d like to write in the story to make my article better or gvie it an edge. I understand the temptation to change stuff for the purpose of a good story…What was that you asked? Have I? Never! The very idea!

    For me what matters the most is the rhythm of the prose. Sometimes when I’m reading I’ll say a line out loud because its got words I enjoy saying, or because they go beautifully together. I don’t care what they mean. I’m moved by their power.

    I’ve blathered nonesensically, but you knew I would. Thanks for everything you said about good writing standing on its own. I hope mine can with practice and all that good stuff.

    Oh yeah, also, um (gulps nervously) I’ve set up a blog. My husband and friends have been badgering me about writing one for a while so I did. It’s http://payphonevigilante.blogspot.com/

  10. Kristan C.

    Ditto on the inspiring and lazy comment that Renee made. I wish I could say more but clearly, my writing does not rise to the top, at least not today.

    The post does also remind me, yet again, that I should go find The Wire instead of having endless repeats of Clean House and Scrubs running in the background.

  11. Renee

    That was very inspiring…and it sort of made me feel lazy.
    Oh and Tom, you were right Galway had some amazing pubs. I don’t remember the names of them or the street there we on, but they were great.