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11.16.2010

How James Frey Became The Most Hated Man In Literature

Writers are always known to be unabashed, self-centered self promoters of the worst kind. We like to brag. We like gimmicks. (E.g. Tao Lin). We don't like to cut down our biography: So-and-so just doesn't live in Maryland, he's has works published in so-and-so magazine, been awarded so-and-so prize, AND has been compared to Raymond Carver. Like hipster culture, writing culture (sometimes intertwining with hipster culture, depending on who you talk to), is about one-uping the next the guy. Writing is a vain art.

James Frey (of Oprah fame) proves this in the controversial article by Suzanne Mozes in New York Magazine last week, who went uncover into his fiction factory. Read as Mozes describes her first encounter with Frey when he visits her class:

"Frey arrived in a white T-shirt and khakis, promptly removed his boots, and walked around on a soggy carpet in his socks. Grinding down on a piece of gum, he asked the name of the class. Leslie Sharpe, the professor who had invited him, explained that we were studying the differences between “factual truth” and “emotional truth” and how memoirists address those disparities in their work. We all laughed awkwardly.
But he was game. “You don’t have to hold back,” he told us. “I’ve been asked everything.” And for the next two hours, as the snow piled up on the arched windows behind him, Frey delivered his opinions on the memoir genre (“bunk,” “bullshit,” a marketing tool that didn’t exist until several decades ago); fact and fiction (there’s no difference); truth (it doesn’t exist, at least not in the journalistic sense); Europe (where he turns for validation); America (which is obsessed with honesty and raises people up only to tear them down); the best writers (Mailer, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Henry Miller, Cormac McCarthy); documentary (“a thesis on truth that hasn’t been proven yet”); Oprah (“I should have never fucking apologized”); the kind of writer he wants to be (the most controversial and widely read of his time); making literary history (he’s in it to “change the game” and “move the paradigm”; he won’t write anything that doesn’t change the world); self-editing (a trap for young writers); mistakes (part of the spontaneity of a work of art); and, most important, how to write (“don’t give a fuck”; sit for ten hours a day, 600 days in a row; “write what you want to write, and make sure there is one hell of a disclaimer at the beginning”)."

The picture one can easily get is of a gruffy man in sunglasses (he likes to be called Hollywood), with hair laid askew (made unkempt with 2 hours worth of effort), and breath that smells like alcohol (the expensive kind you can't afford). He kicks back in a chair, pops his collar, and eases his feet (soaked socks) on the  round table (it's seminar class, it's a square table, but everyone calls it the round table) and tells you how he's like Mailer, Vonnegut, Hemingway, how he knows for sure that fact and fiction are the same thing, how he's in it to change the game: it's not just a writer, he's revolutionary.

As he says, “I have very few friends who are writers … I’m a big fan of breaking the rules, creating new forms, moving on to new places. Contemporary artists like [Richard] Prince, Hirst, and Koons [more self comparsions] do that, but there are no literary equivalents. In literature, you don’t see many radical books. That’s what I want to do: write radical books that confuse and confound, polarize opinions. I’ve already been cast out of ‘proper’ American literary circles. I don’t have to be a good boy anymore. I find that the older I get, the more radical my work becomes.”

Frey's radical idea? Fiction at the rate of capitalism: "A lot of artists conceptualize a work and then collaborate with other artists to produce it," he says, and he's doing exactly just that.

Frey's Full Fathom Five's plan: hire MFA graduates (through listserv advertising), pay them $250 plus unnamed royalities to write an outline based on an idea they think might be a bestseller, aim your books at teenagers--teen-fic is where the money is. Full Fathom Five is not a publishing house. Instead think of it as a factory producing goods. Once the goods are finished (or in this case nearly finished), products are avaliable to publishing houses to buy, publishing houses can then sell these products as their own. Think of Full Fathom Five as a type of private label.

Frey's company has already been somewhat of a success. Mozes's article goes on to profile Columbia MFA graduate Jobie Hughs, who was one of the first to contact Frey about working for him. Following an outline and signing a contract, Jobie Hughs wrote I Am Number Four ("It made it onto the Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books, but it failed to make a larger cultural impression," reports Mozes) for Frey who sold it to Harper under the pen name Pittacus Lore. While it's an open secret that Jobie Hughs was a collaborator in the project, his contract forbids him from talking about it. (Read the full contract here).

What I think is most surprising is not the coauthorship and the tight contract--James Patterson has been doing it for years, Janet Evanovich has also been doing it--but the fact that Frey seems to be trying to establish a company and claim himself as doing something revolutionary.Ironically, he cites "Andy Warhol's factory." He also cites Damien Hirst who also had his own factories ("[Frey] was modeling his company on Damien Hirst’s art factory, a warehouse in which a reported 120 employees work to create fine art signed by Hirst." says Mozes). (If you have to cite people to explain yourself, you're clearly not revolutionary, just name dropping). He doesn't however (as Rob Wolfsham points out) cite Thomas Kinkade, who not only sells his art at Walmart, but is also a writer via coauthorship.

Frey is doing nothing revolutionary as an artist. Instead of making art, he is trying his hand at capitalizing on major publishing trends: paranormal teen fiction. The scary part is not the tight contract or what he's doing, it's the fact that publishers are eating it up. The Power of Six, the sequel to I Am Number Four will be released next year. Full Fathom Five is working on a project about a girl raised in a cult who 'suddenly begins to remember her previous life'; an 'untitled paranormal love story' about teen lovers, one dead, in which 'we watch the couple struggle to communicate: he miserable in heaven, and she understandably distraught; an 'untitled apocalypse idea' about a girl who enrolls in a summer camp and finds herself in for a hell of a lot more than rope climbing; and a 'high-school revenge project' in which “four girls from separate cliques at a high school discover they’ve all been date-raped by the same guy and team up to plot vicious revenge.”

In an age where book publishing is becoming a difficult business, Frey has offered a solution and publishers are obviously listening: they're thinking about putting ads into books (a la Fay Weldon), they're thinking of books as "happy meals" (Frey's word), they try to befriend known enemies of literary culture. With Twilight Mania, the teenage market (the middle class teenage market with disposable income) is a strong market to invest in. To get money from it, publishers must compete with one another with shelf space: the more shelf space (that is titles) they have, the higher chances they have of making money.

Thus the last thing a writer wants to write is a coming of age tale of a teenager that perfectly potrays youth angst and outsider syndrome, or a short story collection concerning mid-life loneliness.

Your art doesn't sell. Publishers don't want art. They want products. Don't send poems, send money.

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