Final Thoughts on James Frey... For Now

So I decided yesterday that my recent meditations on James Frey would be a three-part thing. But I didn't say anything about it, because... Well, what if I'd changed my mind? But this is part of three of three in my ongoing explanation as to why people need to stop defending James Frey.

Much of this post was originally published on my old Livejournal blog last fall, when Creative Nonfiction devoted an entire issue to discussing the Frey scandal and the ethical issues it brought up. Enjoy.

The new issue of Creative Nonfiction is out, and it's devoted entirely to genre issues and theories, particularly in the wake of the James Frey scandal. There's Lee Gutkind's regular introduction to the issue-- which is even better than usual this time, as Gutkind points out that the Frey scandal really has nothing to do with the field of creative nonfiction as Frey is, of course, a fiction writer. Nevertheless, Gutkind acknowledges that the mainstream media (The New York Times in particular) took the opportunity to indict creative nonfiction along with Frey, so that the issue has to be addressed. Following that is something of a "greatest hits collection" from previous Gutkind editorials-- all good stuff-- and then, the bulk of the issue: An exhaustive description and discussion of the techniques, decisions, and controverises inherent in the genre. I haven't finished reading it, and I don't agree with everything the collection of writers who assembled the list have to say, but I think I might start using it in my classes. It's really interesting, really useful stuff.

The issue concludes with an interesting but (I think) ultimately misguided article by the lyric essayist Daniel Nester. Nester's positon is that-- given other controversies surrounding creative nonfiction-- the Frey scandal isn't that big a deal, as "writers will always have the desire to imitate and transform, not simply record, real life." The writing in this essay is, of course, quite good, and some of Nester's arguments are intelligent (although he does recycle that tired bullshit "no one can really remember dialogue the way memoirists claim to" non-argument), but for the most part, he ignores the fact that the central understanding between memoirist and reader is that the memoirist promises to attempt to be as honest as possible with the reader, and to avoid deception. Yes, some conventions of memoir (compression and composite characters in particular) can seem to complicate this understanding, but it's not the same kind of self-aggrandizing melodramatic lying that Frey engages in when he pretends to be a tough-as-nails ex-con and ladies' man.

Anyway, perhaps the most misguided moment in Nester's essay occurs when he points out that, as a 14-year-old punk, he would have been disappointed to know that Joe Strummer (of The Clash) wasn't really a working class tough guy the way he pretended to be-- he actually grew up rather priviliged. But, Nester says, he's grown up, and he can still appreciate Strummer's musicianship despite the fact that the man didn't quite match the persona he created. "Maybe," Nester writes, "those post-Oprah readers and critics of Frey are the equivalent of 14-year-old punk rockers who denounce their heroes when they find out they don't get their clothes from the gutters."

Interesting theory. Those of us who don't like being lied to by people who insist that we trust them are simply petulant adolescents, disappointed that those we thought of as "cool" turned out to just be an average person.

Or, on the other hand, maybe we feel like memoir's strength comes from the fact that it's a subjective record of reality. Maybe we feel betrayed by James Frey and other fake memoirists because they've built their careers upon our trust, and have then broken that trust. Maybe, some of us are just still simple and naive enough to think that truth matters, and that those who lie in order to profit from our misplaced trust are wrong.

But maybe Nester's on to something. I mean, I thought Dennis Hastert lying about George Soros being involved with the Mark Foley scandal was pretty rephrehensible, but I guess it's just like Elton John pretending to be in love with Kiki Dee in "Don't Go Breaking My Heart." Everyone knows how much I dislike Bill O'Reilly's distortions, but I guess it's pretty much the same as Alice Cooper acting like a Satanic monster. Sure, George Bush lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction, but only a teenager would really care about that, since the members of KISS weren't really demon rock stars from outer space.

Ridiculous? Sure. But the big difference is, rock stars are allowed-- even expected-- to create personas that don't correspond to reality. It's understood. Politicians, pundits, and writers of nonfiction, however, have an obligation to tell the truth as they understand it. Deception is not allowed in these spheres, and some of us still believe that honesty matters.

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