There are few authors who can say that they have been accused of betraying millions of readers. Yet James Frey was charged with doing just that when he was dragged onto "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2006. It was discovered that elements of A Million Little Pieces, Frey's visceral memoir about his time as a drug and alcohol addict, were falsified (or "embellished" as Frey continues to maintain).
A Million Little Pieces had been part of Oprah's Book Club juggernaut and was both a critical darling and a bestseller. But then the Smoking Gun website reported that several sections of the book didn't ring true. This included an incident where Frey claimed he hit a police officer with his car while buzzing on alcohol and drugs, violently resisted arrest and was subsequently sentenced to almost three months in jail after being charged with, among other crimes, assault with a deadly weapon. What actually happened was Frey received two traffic tickets and spent a mere five hours in jail.
Winfrey initially stood by Frey but then changed her mind, giving him an extremely public dressing down. The book was reprinted with a new preface where Frey admitted that he "embellished many details about my past experiences, and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book". In the US Doubleday offered refunds to readers who felt they had been defrauded by buying a book classed as a memoir.
Two years on and Frey is back with his debut novel, Bright Shiny Morning (John Murray, August, £12.99). Perhaps in response to the claim that the novel serves as his second work of fiction after A Million Little Pieces, it has a dry disclaimer that "nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable". Set in Los Angeles, it has a sprawling ambitious narrative to match the city.
Interspersed among a potted history of LA and snapshots of its art scene, music industry, business owners and sportspeople, are the tales of four characters: Amberton, a deeply in-the-closet film star; Esperanza, girl genius who works as a cleaner for a monstrous Miss Haversham type; Old Man Joe, an alcoholic tramp who searches for divine inspiration; and Dylan and Maddie, a young couple who fled their abusive homes to set up a new life on the West Coast.
However, the central protagonist is the city itself. "It's a book designed to tell a lot of stories and to look at a lot of different aspects of contemporary American life," Frey says. "It's the city that I believe most embodies America. It's a book about the American Dream, in all of its glory and all of its horror. I tried to write a big, ambitious, very unconventional but also very accessible work."
Frey says that while authors such as Bret Easton Ellis, James Ellroy or Charles Bukowski have written "beautifully" about LA in the past, few novelists have been able to nail the city in its entirety. "A lot of those books are about Hollywood culture or LA criminal culture. They are good books about the city but they didn't take in a lot of what is there."
He believes the city will become an increasingly important cultural-centre as artists are priced out of New York. "Artists can afford to live and work there so a lot with the freshest, newest ideas are there. There's a massive economic base for collectors who will pay for their work. There's still a lot of physical space where people can live in a reasonable way and produce good stuff."
LA acts as a global "bridge" between east and west, he adds. "It's the primary destination point for Asians coming to America, and the leaping-off point for Americans going to Asia. LA is the new world."
Lamb to the slaughter
Frey is frank about the reception he believes he'll receive for the novel. "I know I'm going to get slaughtered but so be it. A lot of my favourite writers got slaughtered during their careers. I don't care. I'm much more concerned with what the people who spend their money on my book think of it rather than the people in the ivory towers of the intelligentsia."
He is admirably direct when discussing A Million Little Pieces, answering questions in a slack drawl. "I was in rehab. I am a drug addict. I am an alcoholic. I embellished. I exaggerated." The only time he becomes evasive is when he was asked why he thought Oprah went from initially defending the book to attacking him on her show. "I guessed she changed her mind. Why? I don't know. I don't even care."
However, he places some blame on his former US publisher Random House and how memoirs are marketed. "Frankly the real problem is the genre. Memoir is a corrupt genre. Publishers want to make money by selling these books and at the same time want great books with compelling narratives and want them to be structured in the way that novels are. There are no specific guidelines."
He claims that if On the Road or Tropic of Cancer were pitched to publishers now, they would be published as memoirs. "In many ways publishers' concerns are about the bottom line, which is fine. For them that genre tends to be easier to promote and market. A lot of books fall into this grey area—they are not really novels and they are not really autobiographies. In Europe the acceptance of memoirs containing fictional elements is much greater than in America, which is a puritan society."
Frey points out he is not the only author to have fallen foul of "embellishing" a memoir (he cites David Sedaris, Ishmael Beah and Augusten Burroughs). "You're coming to find that most big memoirs that are examined under the same microscope have the same issues. The reasons why there wasn't a massive backlash against those guys was that Oprah wasn't part of it and they didn't sell as many copies as I did."
So does he believe that he betrayed people? "Millions of people were offered their money back and 1,700 took us up on it. So did I betray millions of readers? No."
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