Finding Truth In Fiction


A marvelous convergence of events has taken place this week, providing a rich topic for blogification.

The notorious James Frey is talking about the Truth. And a web-foodie with ethics akin to his has been vanquished.

Frey is the fellow who wrote fiction, called it fact, got caught, and apologized on national television to Oprah Winfrey, his biggest fan.

As reported by Suzanne Moses in her New York Magazine article “James Frey’s Fiction Factory,” Frey was the ironic guest speaker at a Columbia graduate writing seminar aptly titled “Can the Truth Be Told?” If you’re guessing he chose to argue the negative, you would be correct. Among the opinions he offered were that (paraphrasing Moses) there is no difference between fact and fiction, and that truth does not exist (at least not in his own “journalistic” sense).

Think of that for just a moment. (Bear in mind, this came from the mouth of one who told the students, “Mailer even told him, right before he died, ‘You’re the next one of us.'”

On another plane of the internet, last week a peculiar story unwound at lightning speed and strangled a peculiar woman with a confused (to be charitable) understanding of truth. Judith Griggs, the owner of an on-line eZine called Cook’s Source (sorry, link is dead), was discovered to have purloined huge amounts of content for her magazine from dozens of people and places. She did this under the tragically flawed belief that everything that appeared on the internet was “public domain” that she was not only free to copy material without compensation or permission, but to be arrogant about it when confronted by one miffed writer.

The internet set her straight in a brutal and righteous fashion, giving a speck of truth to one of Frey’s opinions, that America “is obsessed with honesty and raises people up only to tear them down.” What a horrible thing, to be obsessed with truth.

It was reported yesterday that Cook’s Source is no more.

The convergence of these two stories prompted me to refer (as I am too often compelled to do) to Harry Frankfurt, Professor of Psychology at Princeton University and author of a (genuine) work of non-fiction titled On Bullshit. It is truly a seminal work (now printed in 16 languages), but here is the essence of his observation:

The difference (between a liar and a bullshitter) lies in the bullshitter’s complete disregard for whether what he’s saying corresponds to facts in the physical world: he “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

(There is an unusual juvenile pleasure in watching a man of Frankfurt’s stature engage in an academic discussion in which the word “bullshit” is uttered so often. There is an excellent video interview with Professor Frankfurt here.)

With that observation in mind, I return to Mr. Frey.

In his remarks to the Columbia students, he talked about “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).”

To achieve this end, Frey has created a new production dubbed Full Fathom Five, words from lyrics sung by Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and subsequently borrowed by screenwriters, novelists, singers, songwriters, painters and poets for the last 80 years – so there goes the moving paradigm.

And how is he going to make literary history, change the game, move the paradigm (I really am nauseous)?

Frey believed that Harry Potter and the Twilight series had awakened a ravenous market of readers and were leaving a substantial gap in their wake. He wanted to be the one to fill it. There had already been wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Aliens, Frey predicted, would be next.

Aliens. That’s never been done before.

So clearly the paradigm shift isn’t on the creative side. Where is the literary history to be made?

Ah. By abusing the creative talents of the Columbia writers, who will produce the work for him under the terms of an insane work for hire agreement that is aptly summarized thus:

It’s an agreement that says, “You’re going to write for me. I’m going to own it. I may or may not give you credit. If there is more than one book in the series, you are on the hook to write those too, for the exact same terms, but I don’t have to use you. In exchange for this, I’m going to pay you 40 percent of some amount you can’t verify — there’s no audit provision — and after the deduction of a whole bunch of expenses.”

So there you have it. No distinction between fact and fantasy. Moving the paradigm with more aliens. And as the clearest evidence that the whole thing is just smoke, mirrors and already-been-done-before, the first series of this stuff has already been bought by Harper Collins and optioned to Spielberg for a “high six figure” number.

To borrow a phrase from one of the Columbia students, “I feel like I need to go take a shower.”


4 Responses to “Finding Truth In Fiction”

  1. First, I’m boiling because I didn’t know about the event with Frey, live blocks away from Columbia and would have loved to have been a fly on the wall. I must see/hear the whole thing. Frey sounds from this like a lying piece of crap though my sympathies were with him (slightly) when Oprah gave him that talking to. I never read his books, but it seemed to me that the initial crime — writing a work of fiction and passing it off as memoir was interesting. More recently some nice middle-class white girl did the same thing in a book about her life as a foster child and gang member. In both cases I wondered whether these were simply desperate-to-be-published novelists who knew that people preferred “true” stories to fiction. What seems contrived as fiction, is allowed to stand if people are convinced that “it really happened.” Then again I’m also sympathetic to JD Leroy — the pen name of a fiction writer who published works presented as fiction — though she claimed to be an adolescent male and implied that the works were based on “his” life. That Frey could use his name to have others create fictional work that would sell is truly despicable, but says more about our celebrity obsessed culture than it does about Frey.

    • “That Frey could use his name to have others create fictional work that would sell is truly despicable, but says more about our celebrity obsessed culture than it does about Frey.”

      1. **See, e.g. James Patterson (although at least he gives his writers 10 pt type by-line).

      2. Perhaps “as much,” but dunno if “more.”

  2. 3 Christine

    The words that come to mind when I hear that man’s name?
    Other than that… I’m sure he’s a great guy.

  3. 4 M M Bennetts

    On the bookshelves of my study is taped this quotation from a speech by Ted Koppel: “Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is a howling reproach.”

    Frey is another great literary charlatan, or if you prefer, the most recent of newly-dressed Emperors in his fantabulous new clothes. And I wish here I could quote in its exactitude Carl Sandburg’s statement about greatness, that it’s not a thing one is but something conferred upon one by later generations.

    Whatever happened to modesty, anyway?

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