A Million Little Pieces

Crimes Against Writing

I just read A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, not the most timely of reads given the circumstances, but I wanted to see if the book was worth anything beyond Oprah’s stamp of approval and a little controversy. I treated the book as fiction and it was fairly easy to see why people were so made. The book simply isn’t good. Now that’s not to say A Million Little Pieces was bad, it just wasn’t particularly good. There weren’t any moments that the so-called memoir flopped, but there wasn’t any place it shined either. To hear Oprah talk you would have thought this book was a masterpiece, like Nabokov and Faulkner made sweet, sweet love and that baby was A Million Little Pieces. Sadly it was just an average piece of non-fiction.

James Frey

I do have a biased against non-fiction, I’ll admit it. I’m a fiction man. But there are plenty of non-fiction books I enjoyed, but for the most part I find memoirs bland and lifeless. “Lifeless!?” you say. “How can it be lifeless when it’s based off of life?” The problem is that non-fiction sells, so two things happen: books are pushed out way before they’re ready and the books are conceived by writers with only a small amount of talent but big ambition. Ultimately though the biggest problem with creative non-fiction is the people reading it. For some reason, if a story is true or claims to be true readers give it a sort of special dispensation. Which means they’re much more forgiven with the prose and more likely to cut the writer some slack. They believe that even if the writing is bland the truth in the moment makes up for that. Does truth equal beauty or does beauty equal truth? For me, if something is magical it becomes true, and a hack is a hack no matter how much of himself he puts on the page.

But as non-fiction goes, I’ve read worse than A Million Little Pieces. I can’t go so far as to say that the writing is good, but it wasn’t outwardly bad (which I think is saying a lot for the genre). Personally I don’t care that James Frey lied, I was much more concerned with the style. However, the back lash against him was because readers felt robed. However, the book was somewhat true, it can’t be completely discounted. His only real crime was that he made himself a tough guy. I’ve been in countless writing classes with dudes who think they’re Hemingway man’s men, and while the results were usually less than spectacular, I never held it against them. James Frey painted himself to be a major league criminal that hit a rock bottom that just didn’t hit. What we know for sure about Frey is that he drank too much, he was arrested for a traffic violation, at least once, spent three hours in jail, and maybe did some coke. He’s definitely more of a bad boy than myself, but not nearly the menace to society Frey painted himself out to be. It’s that story of recovery that moved so many of his readers. By painting himself to hit an ultimate low and being able to recover (and being able to recover through sheer force of will), he gave hope that his readers could recover just as easily. By lying about his story, he suddenly deleted their prospects.

The second problem readers would have had was that James Frey talked at length in A Million Little Pieces about truth. About the importance of truth. About the Tao ringing true. And he painted the boastful, lying character of Bobby as despicable. The fact that Frey was proven to falsify much of his life then puts into question basic tenants of his book. That truth will save you and admitting the truth to yourself is the beginning of recovery.

A Million Little Pieces was originally written as fiction and rejected something like 14 times. The reason, of course, was pretty simple: mediocre prose and a melodramatic atmosphere. I don’t blame Frey though, I feel like he got cornered into it by his publisher. Given the choice between not being published at all and hundreds of thousands of dollars, it was a pretty simple choice. I do blame him though for killing off his great love. Through there wasn’t anything even approaching genuine emotion between Frey and Lilly, but I kept wondering how was Frey going to get out of this. Their relationship was hokey love at first sight. That’s not real love and it’s kind of hard to pass it off as that in a memoir. So, how does he got out of this fake relationship? He kills her. And not only Lilly, but James Frey killed everyone—he killed anyone that could possibly corroborate any of his story.

As it turned out, the scandal didn’t hurt Frey’s sales one bit. The sequel became a best seller. And Frey recently published his first book of fiction (which turns out to be his third book of fiction). All in all, the moral of the story is to lie your ass off, but if you do, make sure you kill all the witnesses.

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