Yet more pointless comments about Frey and LeRoy
…with some Greil Marcus thrown in.
I have been thinking about this, a lot, partly because if you are a writer you have no choice; if you and read writing/publishing blogs, the subject is unavoidable; and, frankly, if you breathe air in the U.S. right now, it is everywhere. I didn’t watch Frey on Larry King last night; I missed the 9pm showing, and caught highlights later on Anderson Cooper, where Frey’s attitude was so – unabashed – that I realized that They have decided to let him get away with it, because he was still an addict and blah blah blah blah blah.
That was when I went on Amazon and put my copy of A Million Little Pieces (hardback, no Oprah’s Book Club here) up for sale. It took all of 90 minutes before someone bought it.
To be fair, I stumbled onto that book accidentally, not through the hype or the hoopla around its original release. I heard or read something that made me go seek it out and it helped me, greatly, gain some much needed insight into a situation I was tangled up in. Of course I have to wonder how valid my conclusions were, but it doesn’t matter much any more. I still hung onto the book for that reason, but last night I was just pissed off and figured I might as well profit from the situation.
I am intrigued by reports that the original, fictionalized manuscript was rejected by the publisher and Frey allegedly took out the “fictional” bits. (When I went to buy the book at a mom & pop bookstore, I didn’t know what it was called or who wrote it, so I had to describe the plot as I knew it, and the clerk laughed and said, “We have it in both places: fiction and non-fiction.”) I think I would have had more sympathy if he had said, “Listen, I wanted a fucking book deal and so I was going to do whatever they wanted me to do and write whatever book they wanted me to write.” I do, however, seriously believe that his publisher knew exactly what was up. I just think they never thought it would matter *that much*.
So the question is, of course, would it still be a good book if people bought it as fiction? Would it be as compelling? Would it have become what seems to be a virtual cult of James Frey (stories of parole officers handing the book to clients, etc.)? The answer should be: if the writing and the story made you believe it then YES. I am not sure if I would have been as moved by it if I didn’t believe it to be someone’s life story, simply because of where I was at the time and why I was reading that book. I excused the unconventional style for that reason, too. And for the many people who were reading, maybe because they know someone who is an addict or is in recovery, they were looking for some truth. So in that situation: yes, it matters.
But for the most part, the general audience, the people watching Oprah and reading along (and honestly, I say, more power to her and thank you for going back to living writers again, Steinbeck really does not need your help). The entire Frey fray boils down the fact that what matters to most people is:
Is it factually true? Did it really happen?
So the rock and roll tangent finally comes in here. As usual, when this debate about truth and fiction arises, I think of Greil Marcus and that great section in the Randy Newman piece in Mystery Train:
“The imagination has fallen upon sorry days in post-Beatle rock n’ roll. Audiences are no longer used to the idea that someone might make something up, create a persona and act it out, the way Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan used to do. Audiences take everything literally, partly because sensitive personal confession, “honesty,” and one-to-one communication between the singer and whoever is listening is so attractive and reassuring in times when pop culture and politics have lost their grander mythic dimensions, when there are no artists and no politics to create community, and every fan is thrown back on himself.”
How many times has complete and utter crap as songwriting been excused or promoted simply because “You don’t understand, this really happened to him!” And how many times have you seen fans defiant and proud that they had debunked the line in Song X because “that could not have happened to him, he was in California at the time!”
There is an alarming tendency of fans to use “true” as a barometer or substitute for “good”. Rarely do I see anyone ever stopping to consider that it was a song, that it was a story, that it doesn’t have to be true, that it doesn’t have to be linear, that it didn’t have to happen to him personally to be a good story or a good song, and if it didn’t actually ever happen to him, if he wasn’t a drug addict he could still write a song about being on drugs, or that a married man can write a song about infidelity without actually being unfaithful, or can write about dog sledding in Alaska without ever having been there. It’s not just the defense of truth as a superlative, it’s the exaggerated betrayal portrayed when a song is “debunked” as not being “real” because “that never really happened” or “it happened 10 years ago, and to someone else!”
I find a lot of discussion when an artist writes something, never alleging it to be autobiographical or factual, and fans “discover” that it isn’t. But I never find anyone dissecting the songs written by the sensitive, I-write-from-experience types to analyze if that is all correct and true and perfect. The Smoking Gun isn’t looking at that. (Well, yet anyway. But didn’t Jewel go on Oprah already?)
Back to the literary world: even in my own experience, when people read my manuscript, the first question I would get is: “Did that really happen?” and “Is it true?” Before anyone had ever read the manuscript, I had determined that I would never ever go through line by line and tell people what was a creation in my own mind and what might have been based on factual events, because at the end of the day, THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED FICTION. But during my process of obtaining literary representation, I received an impassioned note from one agent who said they loved the work but wanted to call me on not being willing to “claim” it and sell it as memoir.
Tempting, isn’t it? Not to me, because I *like* writing fiction. I like making things up. I like inventing worlds and people and places. Obviously, the fodder comes from real life, but the glorious thing about writing fiction is that it’s a story! Continuity and plausibility aside, IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE TRUE, it doesn’t have to happen the way it did in real life (if it happened at all).
But, as hard as it is to get representation and get published (and I will confess being very reassured that 17 publishers passed on A Million Little Pieces before it found a home), I could see a situation where, if a story was mostly true, or grew out of a personal experience, it might just be very tempting to say, “Sure, it all happened to me, just like it says,” because then there’s no doubt about How To Sell it. Your hook is built in. (And as any writer knows, the feedback of “We loved it, but we don’t know how we’d sell it” is quite possibly the most infuriating.)
As to l’affaire JT LeRoy: to be honest, I was not emotionally engaged in those books so I had less interest — except that a dear friend of mine was one of the countless many hoodwinked by this entire mishegoss. They were a friend of The Voice On The Telephone, they took me to the “Harold’s End” book release party where we were introduced to The Guy In The Hat and The Glasses, and I am more upset that they took advantage of this individual’s generous nature than anything else. I know they are in good company but still. But, again, it was more attractive if it was the truth and less so if it was just a good story. At least I was more interested in the writing in the LeRoy books. I felt there was a beauty and a fragility there. The fraud and the deception, however, is far-reaching and insidious. As I said to some writer-friends, ” It is sad and crazy and unbelievable and throws everyone off kilter, just a bit, in terms of belief and humanity and generosity of spirit.”
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