Facts and fiction

by Henry Farrell on February 1, 2006

Two interesting perspectives on the James Frey affair.

First, “Scott McLemee”:http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2006/02/01/mclemee (who is celebrating his one year anniversary as a columnist at _Inside Higher Ed_ today).

bq. Why the furor over Frey? “I think the vilification he has been subject to in the media is extreme,” writes Farr, “and probably stems from some larger discomfort about dishonesty from sources who are (and ought to be ) culturally more responsible to the ‘ascertainable facts.’” There may be something to that. And yet it begs any number of questions. The man has made a small fortune off of fabricating a life and selling it — while loudly talking, in the very same book, about the personally transformative power of “the truth.” Oprah Winfrey endorsed it, and (at first anyway) insisted that mere factual details were subordinate to a larger truth… A personal truth….A truth that, it seems, is accountable to nothing and nobody. Suppose this becomes an acceptable aspect of public life – so that it seems naive to be surprised or angered by it. Then in what sense can we expect there to be institutions that, in Farr’s words, “are (and ought to be ) culturally more responsible to the ‘ascertainable facts’”?

Second, “Patrick Nielsen Hayden”:http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/007215.html#007215 at _Making Light_.

bq. Echoing Maureen Dowd, Arianna Huffington is exercised over the fact that James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, now comprehensively exposed as fraudulent baloney, is still listed by the New York Times on their nonfiction paperback bestseller list. … This is a silly argument because calling a book “nonfiction” has never meant any kind of certification that its contents are true. Edgar Cayce books are “nonfiction.” Immanuel Velikovsky is “nonfiction.” Self-published tracts about how bees from Venus are attacking Your Child’s Brain are “nonfiction.” All of these are packs of lies. They’re also not fiction, which is to say, narratives put forth under the rubric of “I’m now going to tell you a story which I made up.” Yes, there are books which fall into a gray area. (Into which category would you put Avram Davidson’s _Adventures in Unhistory?_ You have five minutes. Show your work.) A Million Little Pieces isn’t one of those books, any more than “this”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000C4SV2I/qid=1138715421/sr=2-1/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_1/102-3450522-9649706?s=books&v=glance&n=283155 particular pack of lies. What’s more, as an editor devoted to the value of good fiction, I wouldn’t want the Times, or anyone else, to start using “fiction” as a dumping-ground for works of nonfiction which have proved to be full of lies. There’s a good discussion to be had of whether respectable book publishers should make a greater effort to ensure the basic truthfulness, or at least truthful intention, of work published as “nonfiction.” But using “fiction” as a synonym for “lying” isn’t the way to go.

As always in _Making Light_, there’s more meat in the comments (including the utterly wonderful news that Avram Davidson’s _Adventures in Unhistory_ is being re-released by Tor in December).



togolosh 02.01.06 at 5:38 pm

I haven’t followed the Frey affair closely, but I’m struck by the fact that people apparently expect an alcoholic crackhead to have a reliable memory.


JJ 02.01.06 at 5:44 pm

Let’s agree, at least for argument’s sake, that the book is full of whoppers – even as much as 95% B.S. (which may be overstating, but keep reading).

Why is this getting so much attention? Why is more being made of it (at least in the mass media) than of other very obvious lies that have been told over and over?

Has anyone DIED because of the lies in the book…?

I feel like the duck in the tv commercial, after it listened to Yogi Berra.


Frank 02.01.06 at 5:49 pm

>Why is this getting so much attention? Why is more being made of it?

Because he lied us into a costly and destructive war?


Jim Harrison 02.01.06 at 6:10 pm

Ever since “Based on a true story” replaced “Once upon a time” as the canonical formula for beginning a fairy tale, I’ve been struck by the public’s weird faith in the theological potency of fact. As if, for example, everything would be explained if we really knew who fathered Jesus or whether the Memo about the National Guard were a forgery.

History begins in myth and ends in fact, but the last of the myths is the myth of fact.


derrida derider 02.01.06 at 6:59 pm

John Dolan at Exile (www.exile.ru – caution, may not be work safe) declared the whole thing a fake when the book first came out in 2003. It just didn’t square with his extensive experience with drugs and their users.

What’s dismaying is not that Frey’s a liar but that his very crude Cinderella story was swallowed hook, line and sinker by a public and media that willed to believe. A bit like the case of a certain feckless President. And in both cases preferring to believe comforting lies has real-world consequences.

Mind you, I do agree with the librarian’s point that authorial intention as to what they want the reader to believe, not objective truth, is the marker between fiction and non-fiction.


roger 02.01.06 at 7:30 pm

You forgot the WAPO parody of the State of the Union address as a non-fiction memoir a la Frey. Pretty funny


Bruce Baugh 02.01.06 at 7:41 pm

JJ: If people haven’t died from it yet, it may be just a matter of time. Frey’s alleged path to recovery is being touted as an alternative to any sort of group recovery or method with accountability of any kind in it – tough it out and if you’re cool you’ll make it, basically. And this is just not what an addict wishing for improvement needs to hear. In my experience and that of folks I’ve known, it takes having someone else to whom you owe access and the truth.

Furthermore, it’s being sold on the basis of his having done it. It would make a difference if he said, “I’m this guy with a very boring life and a big imagination, and I have no qualification beyond my fantasy life to suggest that this can work, but why not give it a shot?” Then those who have experience would be more clearly distinguished when they say, “This is what we’ve tried and how it worked.”

Genuine recovery is almost always hard work. Addictions mess up soul and body alike. You have to recover physical health, and you have to develop changed habits and ways of thinking about your problems and solutions. There are people who can drop something cold turkey and come through – I have a friend who did it with heroin, though getting clear of tobacco was harder for her. But for most of us, with most addictions, it’s laborious and often at least sometimes humiliating, because most of us don’t feel very good admitting our failures and struggles.

This is, actually, one of the most insidious things about Frey. What he describees would often be that kind of humiliation if it were real. But since it’s not, it’s a very different kind of thing. It’s a trhill more like playing the junkie part in a big film. It would be theatre if admitted, and a lie because it’s not. He’s quite deliberately soliciting a trust that addicts have a hard time giving on the basis of this lie. i think that’s lower than whaleshit. And if any of them end up taking his advice on how to handle their problems, then I would wish (for a moment) that there really were a Jack Chick-style God to return every bit of suffering his lies cause.


Walt Pohl 02.01.06 at 9:39 pm

jj: You clearly don’t understand what makes something newsworthy in this world. He lied to Oprah. I’m surprised it’s not a capital crime.


Dan Kervick 02.01.06 at 10:00 pm

I don’t understand why this is so hard.

If you tell a story that is false, and you present that story to your audience as a true story, then you are a liar.

If you sell something to some buyers, and the thing you sell lacks certain properties you present it as possessing, and you know that the supposed possession those properties is part of the reason your buyers were willing to pay the price they paid, then you are a fraud.

If the lie you tell others is about a path you followed to the achievement of some good, and if you intentionally lead them to believe that they can follow the same path and reach the same good, and you never did follow that path to that good, then you are not just a liar and a fraud, you are a malicious liar and fraud. Malicious liars and frauds shoud be publicly exposed and castigated, and forced to pay a penalty for the harm they have done.


Dan Kervick 02.01.06 at 10:32 pm

History begins in myth and ends in fact, but the last of the myths is the myth of fact.

Ohhh, that’s clever. Can I play too?

“Achievement begins with vain hope and ends in success, but the last of the vain hopes is the vain hope of success.”

“Love begins in fantasy and ends in consummation, but the last of the fantasies is the fantasy of consummation.”

“Daily life begins in dream and ends in wakefulness, but the last of the dreams is the dream of wakefulness.”

“The cosmos begins in chaos and ends in form, but the ultimate chaos is the chaos of form.”

I love this game. The results sound so profound – and yet it’s so easy to play.


Fergal 02.01.06 at 11:02 pm

Don’t take that game too far, Dan, or Daniel will accuse you of “hard-science arrogance”.


Jim Harrison 02.01.06 at 11:44 pm

Meanwhile, minus the rhetoric, the point stands.


Dan Kervick 02.02.06 at 12:54 am

Meanwhile, minus the rhetoric, the point stands.

Ah perhaps. Yet as we all know, discourse begins with incoherent utterance and ends with standing points. And the ultimate incoherence is the incoherence of the standing point.

Seriously Jim, if you went to a store and purchased what you were told was a computer, and then found out when you brought it home that it was only a metal frame filled with welded scrap metal, would you accept the claim that your irritation was an expression of your weird faith in the theological potency of the microchip?


frumiousb 02.02.06 at 1:24 am

The fact that some people are clearly naïve about how they read memoir does not mean that there is no difference at all between truth and a lie.

He initially tried to market this book as fiction. It isn’t as though he got a few bits wrong as a consequence of a drug-addled memory.

Is it the end of the world? No. (Although the point is well-made above about the nasty message that the book sends about overcoming addiction.) Is it getting too much press coverage? Possibly. Is he still a liar? Yes.


nick s 02.02.06 at 1:49 am

The vehemence of certain cable newsers (Cooper, Olbermann, etc) is interesting, and Jon Stewart’s juxtaposition of Oprah’s angry exchange with submissive political interviews seems to point to one possible bit of projection.

I also think that the appetite for redemption tales as an extension of the self-help book somewhat soured. Anyone looking to bring his/her own story to market may well find life less lucrative.

Was it a good book? I have no idea. (I wouldn’t hold a grudge against Thomas De Quincey for inaccuracies, because it’s a damn good book.)


Jim Harrison 02.02.06 at 3:13 am

Maybe I’m reaching, but it seems to me that the notion that what matters in the Frey case is the factual accuracy of the narrative is rather like the idea that the Noah story in the Bible is vindicated or refuted by whether or not there was once a big flood in Iraq. On the other hand, I guess Frey can be justly attacked for violating a genre convention. A more careful liar would have kept the illusion of realism intact.


john m. 02.02.06 at 4:17 am

I think it’s the mirror image of the Da Vinci Code flim flam, which I never tired of pointing out to its many detractors was filed in the fiction section. It is also, along with the Da Vinci Code saga and as several commentors above have pointed out, completely unimportant. Gore Vidal had it best when in the introduction to his memoirs he asserts that his account may not be actually what happened but what he remembers happening. Is Oprah et al going to go after the Coen Brothers for Fargo? Spielberg for Munich? and so on and on…


frumiousb 02.02.06 at 4:21 am

Maybe I’m reaching, but it seems to me that the notion that what matters in the Frey case is the factual accuracy of the narrative is rather like the idea that the Noah story in the Bible is vindicated or refuted by whether or not there was once a big flood in Iraq.

Well, yes. I’d say that you are reaching.

But even if you weren’t I think that you undercut your own point. If you are a literal-truth fundamentalist about the Bible then the existence of the flood matters very much indeed. If a scientist claimed to have proved once and for all that no such flood had ever happened and you were such a literalist, then hearing that would either seriously affect your reading of the Bible or your willingness to believe the scientist. (Hence the current ridiculous debate about evolution.)


Bruce Baugh 02.02.06 at 9:32 am

I am feeling maybe a bit too much in real pain myself right now over other things to feel much sympathy at all for the goddamned laid-back cool condescension. Look, this is fucking simple: Frey claims an authority to tell others how to deal with very difficult problems on the basis of experiences he didn’t have. Not just experiences that weren’t quite as he tells them, but that never happened at all. He is lying. He is playing with other people’s hopes and fears on the basis of lies. It’s disgusting when that happens in poltics and it’s disgusting in any other part of life, too.

The vindictive side of me wants to see some of the hipsters here get into something painful and get ripped off by this sort of con too. Then the rest of us can quote aphorisms and blame the victims and it will all be very goddamn jolly.

Sorry to be so uncool about this, but I don’t think some past stupid decisions – which addiction nearly always involves – should make people pariahs, and I care about the scum who prey on those who are now trying to get out of the messes they got into.

I also think that one of the clear lessons of the last century is that social elites who become uninterested in questions of basic honesty are useful preconditions for the emergence of political tyranny, but I don’t want to harsh anyone’s mellow by pointing out how much some of this sounds like Weimar Berlin after that vulgar Hitler fellow became Reichschancellor. On with the mocking of the lumpenproletariat and anyone who might be mistaken for them. Surely such things cannot bear on the lives of the bourgeoisie, let alone we favored intellectuals.


John Emerson 02.02.06 at 9:47 am

There’s actually a genre of fake memoirs, often people pretending to be Native Americans — Carlos Castenada may have been the first. There’s also a genre of fake ghetto experience, often by genuinely-black authors. The fake memoir can be repurposed as imaginative fiction, but unless it’s very good there’s no real reason to do that. Some claims in non-fiction really do depend on their non-fictionality to be valid, as Bruce Baugh says.

About 20 years ago a friend of mine explained that “impression management” is the key to life. If people think you’re wise, you’re effectively wise, etc., whereas if you really are wise but no one respects you, you’re nothing.

There is a perception there, but a lot of people take the wrong lesson from it. The level of cynicism I see among young (under 40) educated people these days is pretty appalling. They’re not saying, “Our society is fraudulent, I need to escape from that.” They’re saying “Our society is fraudulent and if you don’t get in on the action you’re a sucker.”


Giovanni Ribisi 02.02.06 at 9:58 am

It doesn’t matter whether it’s “true” or not – the problem with Frey is that the writing is atrocious. The people who have a lot to answer for are the many critics and book reviewers who extolled the virtues of Frey’s books. Apparently when the story was “true”, the bad writing could be excused becuase it was “authentic” and “from the heart.”


Bruce Baugh 02.02.06 at 10:22 am

John: The Bogus Indian story was a big deal in the spiritualism era of the late 19th and early 20th century. Castenada may be the ancestor of its modern incarnation, though.

Giovanni, so lies are okay if the phrases are turned well? I agree that Frey’s book is horribly written – really, really horribly written – but it seems just plain weird to me to say that its dishonesty would cease to matter if it were written better.


Marcus Stanley 02.02.06 at 12:22 pm

Nobody is really grappling with Bruce Baugh’s comments #7 and 19 above. The issue with Frey is that he has written seriously morally depraved books, really corrupt and debased stuff, a kind of spiritual pornography. They are based on turning real human pain into a fun, sentimental, fantasy thrill ride. They rely on the pretense of being true to get readers to buy into the idea that self-destruction and violence are in the end enjoyable adventures in personal growth and marketable authenticity. The Frey character in the book committs assault and (almost) murder several times in the book. All just more proof that he’s really cool and, like, tough and a badass.


Jim Harrison 02.02.06 at 1:00 pm

Somebody likened Frey’s book to a television set that was really just a box full of metal scraps. But that’s quite wrong because unlike the fake TV Frey’s machine worked just fine even though it was stuffed with BS. It didn’t even have to be plugged in to run, but it was vital that people don’t notice it wasn’t plugged in.


joe o 02.02.06 at 4:45 pm

I am with Bruce Baugh and John Emerson. I like my non-fiction with very little lying. Frey’s book woudn’t be a bestseller without the lies.


Dan Kervick 02.02.06 at 9:57 pm

Somebody likened Frey’s book to a television set that was really just a box full of metal scraps. But that’s quite wrong because unlike the fake TV Frey’s machine worked just fine even though it was stuffed with BS.

Well that was me, and it was a computer not a TV. But the point is that it doesn’t matter whether the book “worked” in a manner acceptable to Frey, or to his publisher, or even to you or me. It doesn’t matter whether it worked in the sense of offering pleasure to the reader prior to the discovery of the hoax. The point is that when you sell something to someone, you make a contract with them, and the integrity of your contract depends on the undertanding that is reached between you and the buyer. You make representations about what you are selling, and your buyer is given by you to understand that the object has certain properties, which are part of the basis for the buyer’s willingness to part with something else in exchange.

Now I think you know very well that there are a lot of people who bought this book because they were deceived about the truth value of it’s contents, and that the deception was intentionally perpetrated by Frey himself. You know many of them would not have purchased the book if they had known at the time of purchase what they know now about Frey’s intentions.

You may believe that these people are an ignorant and contemptible hoi polloi, who lack a proper postmodern appreciation of the absence of the author and the myth of the fact, and are deficient in other sophisticated literary sensibilities. But nevertheless, they have the sensibilities that they have, and it is wrong to take advantage of people by using false pretenses to get them to hand over their money. Even if we accept your premise that the readers would never experience any distress or come to any real harm if they never discovered the hoax, they have still been defrauded – and assuming Frey perpetrated the fraud willfully (rather than through, say, a drug-induced failure to distinguish memory from fantasy), his behavior shows a selfish and deplorable contempt for the value and integrity of other people.

But turning now to that other point about the actual effect of the hoax on others, you suggest here, and I think in your example of the Noah story, that the truth or falsity of the story doesn’t matter to whether it will succeed in accomplishing its effect – that so long as the readers don’t discover the story is BS, it will “work” just as well as the real thing. You may be right about that, but it is a contestable empirical assumption. For example, if Frey had sold a book that descibed a weight loss method consisting of ingesting two pounds of lard a day, along with a certain quantity of arsenic, then I don’t think we would say that the method is sure to work so long as the readers don’t discover Frey never really employed that method. The psychological power of hope alone is not negligible, but at some point it runs up against the natural limitations of corporeal human beings.


nick s 02.02.06 at 10:07 pm

it seems just plain weird to me to say that its dishonesty would cease to matter if it were written better.

It really depends on the way the book is ‘sold’… and the passage of time. The honesty of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or even Naked Lunch or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas isn’t as much an issue, is it?


Bruce Baugh 02.02.06 at 10:27 pm

Well, yes, Nick, but since the manner of presentation is what’s at issue, surely the prose style is not in fact the problem.


Jim Harrison 02.02.06 at 10:56 pm

I’m not particularly postmodern, and I figure that truthfulness and accuracy really are important for many kinds of writing. From what I’ve heard about the Frey book, it’s hard to see what the consequences of falsehood could be from practical point of view. He wasn’t testifying in court or writing a sociological monograph.

I do think that there is a certain complicity between the audience and con man in these cases. To extend the metaphor of the TV/computer. What really upsets people is not discovering that the device isn’t plugged in so much as the chance that somebody is going to realize that much of the fans knew it wasn’t plugged in all along.


Bruce Baugh 02.02.06 at 11:48 pm

Jim, the practical consequence is the advice he’s giving on dealing with addiction, justified with the authority of his experience, whcih turns out to be a lie. He is telling people dealing with addiction problems that he has experience in beating it, and he doesn’t.

I don’t know if anyone will actually believe him. But he’s courting their belief, so there’s the intent to deceive regardless.


Bruce Baugh 02.02.06 at 11:49 pm

Oh, excuse me, Jim, I misunderstood your point.

I agree that it would be very hard to hold him directly liable in terms of fines and penalties, and wouldn’t really approve of the sort of law that would make it easier, I don’t think.

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