I take back most of the good things I wrote about James Frey

I still love the book “A Million Little Pieces,” but having carefully read the outstanding investigative reporting done by thesmokinggun.com, I’m pretty disgusted that someone would try to pass this book off as non-fiction when it is mostly fiction.

I just watched Frey on Larry King Live tonight. His defense was not impressive. He argued that only 18 of 452 pages are in dispute. The reason why so few pages are in dispute is because thesmokinggun.com only looked into his claims about being such a badass criminal, and those claims were only on 18 pages. He argued that the boundaries of how much you can distort in a memoir is something still being worked out. That this is “his story.” It is one thing to forget a few things. It is something altogether different when every single time the facts don’t match the story, the story grossly exaggerates the facts in a particular dimension. My guess is that just about every detail of this book that one looks carefully at will turn out to be false, except for the fact that he was an alcoholic and drug addict and spent time in rehab.

My suggestion is that the next printing should just call it fiction. It is a great book, it just isn’t non-fiction. I still will make my kids read it when they are 15.


asutton

I think the scrutiny this book is undergoing is unfair. The book is based on a subjective drug filled life, and should not being experiencing so much ridicule. The number of lives that this book will potentially help is inestimable, which outweighs the fact there are minor fabrications.

minniema

I read today that the publisher is going to offer refunds to their wholesale customers who bought the book. When you mentioned your support for the book, I read the article on the smoking gun. In addition to a book that appears at this time to be a virtually complete fabrication, the fact that he will now probably sell even more books is sad.

RambleinGrl

How is it that so many people have nothing better to do than pick an author to "peices". Is it not the responsibility of the publisher to make sure that all thoughs facts are true? How could a publisher let something this so seemingly large get past them? I have seen nothing thus far about talking to the publisher. I wonder if anyone thinks about how difficult it would be to recall such things in the midst of such a drinking and druging problem anyway. I don't care who you are, anyone who tells, or repeats a story embelishes. It's almost imposible to recount something with out adding to, or leaving some of the information out. I say leave the man alone. There are alot more serious issues to discuss and report about in the this world.

dana

Here's the deal (to my way of thinking): If he'd published the book as fiction (writers are told to "write what you know" so much fiction is semi-autobiographical), it would not have stood out. The book is not that good as a novel - there are whole storylines that are beyond the "willing suspension of disbelief" threshhold I have for fiction.

I would not have read the book if I thought it were fiction.

And I don't think the story of redemption works for me if I have questions about whether he was ever really the level of addict he claimed - or whether he was just the same functioning alcoholic many priviledged college students are for 6-8 years...

I was surprised Oprah was defending him on Larry King - I haven't watched the show, just read the recap on CNN.com. I watched her interview Frey and she kept coming back to the "factual" nature of the book - and Frey never equivocated on that - she asked how he was able to be so detailed after all these years have passed. He had an explanation of his research process and never said anything about embellishing for effect...

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mobiusmodx

Prof. Levitt,

Wouldn't it sort of be counter-productive to have your child read it at 15. I mean, I think that the biggest problem with drug education is that adults say, X, Y, and Z horrific thing will happen to you if you do drugs and the kid just says, no it won't. You've just made it up to scare me. And the kid would probably be right in most cases. This book would have been useful for kids if it was true because then one could point to an actual person and say, "see, this is how drugs destroy real people." But, now that's out the window and this book just becomes another "DARE"-esque piece of anti-drug propaganda.

econopete

Dr. Levitt:

I agree with mobiusmodx. If you've ever spoken to someone who has ever had a bad trip on LSD or who has gone through withdrawal, you don't need anything else to convince your kids.

Trent

Exactly what memoir, in all of the course of history, do any of you believe is 100% non-fiction? If you have a problem with fiction in memoirs, you should talk to the people who classify them as non-fiction, not complain about their authors.

Further, isn't this like the island of liars and truth-tellers anyway? Won't all authors, fiction or non-fiction, say they write non-fiction?

kimi619

I happened to read AMLP this past weekend before all the scrutiny became public, and I was pretty upset when I heard much of this "memoir" was not factual. I finished the book in 2 days not because it was a literary masterpiece, but because I was engrossed by the fact that Frey's accounts were real.

Larry King pointed out that Frey had many failed attempts trying to sell AMLP as a fictional novel, and his success came only when his publisher decided to push the book as non-fiction. The fact that Frey did not originally consider AMLP to be a non-fictional memoir makes me doubt the credibility of the remaining 434 pages of the book. The marketing tactics used by Double Day and Frey to sell AMLP were/are unethical.

I feel cheated not only out of all the hours I spent reading, but also out of the powerful feelings that were evoked by AMLP. Other than attending rehab, who is Frey now to claim that his story is real?

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econopete

Trent:

When I read non-fiction, I expect some discrepencies between the "truth" and what I'm being told, since every opinion and tale is (supposedly) biased. This, however, is a case of outright lying, and if you had any respect for non-fiction authors you would scold this attempt at autobiographical fabrication as well.

Trent

Actually, I am a non-fiction writer. I have also written fiction. But if you believe non-fiction implies factual you are simply incorrect. Fiction describes a particular art form. Non-fiction by definition is anything that does not fit the fiction category.

Non-fiction can include many opinion-based categories. Is a cookbook lying if it offers a different chocolate-chip cookie recipe? Philosophy and religion are both typically classified as non-fiction, yet are highly subjective areas.

In the case of the Frey book, the "lie" was easily outed, and the consensus above seems to be that the story did not meet the artistic merit required of fiction, a point-of-view enhanced by the fact that it was declined publication as such. So, while "the story is not true, I see an argument that because it lacks artistic merit it cannot be classified as fiction and is therefore correctly categorized as non-fiction.

What has always puzzled me is the notion that some stories are interesting because they are "true." To me, a story is interesting or uninteresting and that is that.

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Anna

I've not read this book, but I have seen some of the articles detailing the controversy. One of the characteristics of chemical dependency is "lying, when it's just as easy to tell the truth". In fact, when I learn that someone has lied to me over something minor, I look for other evidence of alcoholism or drug use, I'm more surprised if I don't find it than when I do. The same could be applied in reverse.

greenie

I'm an addiction specialist with a personal history of addiction. I read Frey's book because several of my patients urged me to. While I thought the book was fantastical (particularly the dentist episode, where anesthesia wasn't used because Frey was an "addict", seems an act of malpractice)and self-aggrandizing, I was glad that many people who struggled with addiction found hope from his account. That is, until I discovered his dishonesty. Honesty is the foundation of a life without addiction. Obviously, Frey doesnt' respect truth. Even more disturbing, The Smoking Gun has a clip of an interview Frey did where he characterizes addiction as a "choice" and that he stopped using simply when he realized he needed to. I have many patients who intellectually "know" they must quit, yet are unable. Addiction is not cured by "just say 'no'".
There are roomsful of research proving the neurochemical, genetic and biological components of addictive disorders. Medications exist which ameliorate the preoccupation to use and help people not succumb to the compulsion. Frey's misrepresentation is reprehensible and tragic, particularly for those who saw him as a sort of badass hero.
What Tom Cruise did for mental health, James Frey has done for addiction.

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SeansW

I had not heard of the book before it had become such a controversy. How important were these first hand accounts in providing the writer authority on the subject? Would you have given his words as much weight if he hadn't had these experiences?

designbot

What has always puzzled me is the notion that some stories are interesting because they are “true.” To me, a story is interesting or uninteresting and that is that.

So, if you read in the newspaper that a man has the ability to fly and shoot flames from his eyeballs, that's no more interesting than reading the same thing in a comic book?

When someone actually goes through rough experiences and overcomes his addiction through the force of will, that's impressive. When someone is a spoiled rich kid who makes up stories about what a bad-ass he was and then gets sympathy & millions of dollars acting sorry for himself on Oprah, that's just pathetic. You honestly can't tell the difference?

Trent

To be faithful to the context of the quote, my answer is that I don't find that story very interesting, regardless of whether it appears in a newspaper of comic book.

In the broader context of whether it would be appropriate in a newspaper, I think I would quickly figure out that the newspaper was incorrect (as they frequently are.) In fact, most of the time that I read a newspaper article on a subject I am familiar with I discover that it is pretty unreliable. The point being "Don't believe everything you read." Period. Instead, the level of interestingness is any book's sole value. A biography of George Washington that simply consisted of what he had for breakfast each day would be a lousy book regardless of how it is classified and whether or not his meal on January 13, 1872 was correctly itemized.

In the specific case of AMLP, we have fiction that was written in the style of a memoir (easily not the first time) which was then marketed as an "actual" memoir. Also not the first time, and a memoir is a class of non-fiction that is perhaps lowest on the expected-reliability scale. Even an autobiography is expected to have less of the author's perspective and more fact. Other forms of non-fiction have a much higher burden to be factual, mainly because the readers are buying them to get those facts and, again, will easily figure it out if the book is wrong. It is bad marketing for the book to be intentionally incorrect. "The Beginner's Guide to Statistical Analysis Software" is an example that comes to mind.

Disguising AMLP as a non-fiction memoir (from a highly suspect narrator in terms of expected honesty levels) as opposed to fiction seems a very narrow distinction. If the book were instead renamed "The Beginner's Guide to Statistical Analysis Software," and was marketed as such, things actually would get interesting. There I could see a need for the publisher to offer refunds to people who bought the book on under false assumptions, if the lie was outed. On the other hand, if AMLP was renamed and marketed as "The Beginner's Guide to Statistical Analysis Software," and the readers - after reading the book - continued to believe in that fiction, I would then consider Frey to be unrivaled as a literary master.

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Anna

Anna...

I Googled for something completely different, but found your page...and have to say thanks. nice read....

asutton

I think the scrutiny this book is undergoing is unfair. The book is based on a subjective drug filled life, and should not being experiencing so much ridicule. The number of lives that this book will potentially help is inestimable, which outweighs the fact there are minor fabrications.

minniema

I read today that the publisher is going to offer refunds to their wholesale customers who bought the book. When you mentioned your support for the book, I read the article on the smoking gun. In addition to a book that appears at this time to be a virtually complete fabrication, the fact that he will now probably sell even more books is sad.

RambleinGrl

How is it that so many people have nothing better to do than pick an author to "peices". Is it not the responsibility of the publisher to make sure that all thoughs facts are true? How could a publisher let something this so seemingly large get past them? I have seen nothing thus far about talking to the publisher. I wonder if anyone thinks about how difficult it would be to recall such things in the midst of such a drinking and druging problem anyway. I don't care who you are, anyone who tells, or repeats a story embelishes. It's almost imposible to recount something with out adding to, or leaving some of the information out. I say leave the man alone. There are alot more serious issues to discuss and report about in the this world.

dana

Here's the deal (to my way of thinking): If he'd published the book as fiction (writers are told to "write what you know" so much fiction is semi-autobiographical), it would not have stood out. The book is not that good as a novel - there are whole storylines that are beyond the "willing suspension of disbelief" threshhold I have for fiction.

I would not have read the book if I thought it were fiction.

And I don't think the story of redemption works for me if I have questions about whether he was ever really the level of addict he claimed - or whether he was just the same functioning alcoholic many priviledged college students are for 6-8 years...

I was surprised Oprah was defending him on Larry King - I haven't watched the show, just read the recap on CNN.com. I watched her interview Frey and she kept coming back to the "factual" nature of the book - and Frey never equivocated on that - she asked how he was able to be so detailed after all these years have passed. He had an explanation of his research process and never said anything about embellishing for effect...

Read more...