PICKING UP THE PIECES

I’m of two minds about the apparent unraveling of James Frey, the Oprah-canonized memoirist whose tales of drugs, crime, and personal tragedy have turned out to be more than a little embellished. On the one hand, Frey has always come across as a poseur – a wannabe tough-guy, a dime-store Mailer – and it’s nice when poseurs turn out to be frauds as well. Also, I didn’t much care for his first book – and of course, I share in the pathetic-yet-delightful schaudenfreude that any would-be writer feels while watching an overpraised (and overpaid) author go down in flames.

But then again, there was something occasionally bracing about the Frey pose, even when you could see right through it – the hard-case persona, the “F.T.B.S.I.T.T.T.D.” tattooed on his arm (for “fuck the bullshit it’s time to throw down,” which was my motto for a while too), the boasts about becoming the greatest writer of his generation, the profanity-laced attacks on other writers’ mediocrity. Sure, it was fake – but it was a relief to encounter Frey’s brand of fakeness in a literary world where too many writers seem to follow the Dave Eggers/Jonathan Safran Foer “let’s-all-be-nice” approach to the writing life. I’ll take a phony tough guy any day, for instance, over this kind of pious crap (from Eggers):

It was our hope . . . that the literary world could be one of community, of mutual support, of spirited but nonviolent discoursex97all in the interest of building and maintaining a literate society. It’s what we teach . . . that books are good, that reading is good, that everyone can and should write in some capacity, and that anyone pissing in the very small and fragile ecosystem that is the literary world is mucking it up for everyonex97and sending a very poor message to the next generation.

The gang at N+1 – who are neither as great as they’ve been made out to be, nor as bad as Stefan Beck suggests in this month’s New Criterion – offered an excellent response to this theory of literature in their latest issue:

The final, insidious manifestation of the reading crisis is the way it gives cover to the hostility to criticism. Onex92s critics x93piss in the fragile ecosystem that is the literary worldx94 (Eggers); or they are merely x93resentniksx94 (Foer). The real trouble of course is that if x93booksx94 are x93good,x94 as the mantra goes, you donx92t have to face how good or bad your book actually is. The criterion is only to x93make readers.x94 I make readers, the writer deludes himself, waving his sales reportsx97surely these millions came into existence only for him? It no longer matters what he wrote. In this way the novelist becomes as protected as the poet is today, a member merely of an endangered species (in the x93fragile ecosystemx94), or say of an identity group, who cannot be disagreed with, to whom certain months of the year will be dedicated, who is not only tolerated but encouraged and petted by the powers that be, not because of the content of what he writes (there is no content), but because, well, what sort of powers would they be, to discourage the flowering of such an art?

Social work is important, and so is novel-writing (at least if your novel is any good). But the two really aren’t the same thing. James Frey is a poseur and apparently a liar, but at least, I think, he understands that much.

– posted by Ross

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