Fiction Factory

by wjw on November 14, 2010

Wanna write a novel for a $250 advance?  Apparently a lot of people would.

There are these organizations in our business called fiction factories.  They are run by people called “packagers,” who basically operate very much like Hollywood producers.  They come up with an idea for a book, or more likely a series, then sell the package to a publisher, hire a writer to do the actual work, and then collect something like half of the earnings.   They also try to sell the package in other media.

When I was coming up in the business, the premiere packager was Lyle Kenyon Engel, who packaged two hit series written by John Jakes: the Kent Family Chronicles and North and South, which were not only huge best-sellers, but television miniseries as well.

I remember one amusing afternoon I spent at a coffee shop with Victor Milan and Melinda Snodgrass at some point in the early 1980s.    We had all realized we had more ideas for fiction than we could possibly write in our lifetimes, and we thought we could maybe become packagers: hire other people to write our ideas for us, then sit pretty on a 50% commission.   Eventually we decided we didn’t have the contacts in publishing to pull this off; nor— as we were barely keeping ourselves afloat at the time— did we have the money to hire other writers.

As a writer, I’m not a fiction factory sort of guy.  I don’t write fast enough, for one thing.  If I worked on a automobile assembly line instead of on a word processor, I’d still be polishing my first 1978 Camaro, and the company would have gone bankrupt and sent everyone home.  Not that they haven’t managed that without me.

But now there’s a new fiction factory making the news, one bossed by the “thrilling, condescending, rude, empowering, and haughty” James Frey, who made headlines as the author of A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of his recovery from alcohol and drug addiction that turned out to be substantially fictional.  The result was an angry on-air confrontation with Oprah,  who felt she’d been betrayed by his lies, and a lot of headlines (and a lot of copies sold).    Frey apologized, on air and in print.  Frey was dropped by his literary manager, and his publisher backed out of a multi-book deal.

Frey got a new publisher and a new best-seller after that, and Oprah eventually apologized to him for being so mean.  Frey himself is no longer in an apologetic mood, and promotes the notion that truth itself is a fiction.

Not that this flexible view of reality doesn’t stop him from holding forth.

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”).

I find a certain amount of chutzpah admirable— I can’t object to an author being ambitious, and unapologetic in the way he plays the publishing game in order to earn himself fame and a ton of money.  It’s the way Warhol played the art market— he manipulated the reality of the market to produce the outcome he desired.   If I could play the market that way, I would— but if I tried, the publishers would just laugh, turn away, and go on dropping millions of dollars on turkeys like The Historian.

But apparently Frey’s decided that being a rich, famous, bestselling blowhard of a novelist isn’t enough— he’s decided to run a fiction factory producing best-selling YA fiction.  And he’s decided to do it by preying on the most vulnerable of wannabe writers, MFA candidates who are desperate for a sale to justify the tens of thousands of dollars they’ve invested in university writing programs.

This is not the place to discuss the colossal worthlessness of most MFA programs, which cost a fortune and which prepare most of their students only for a lifetime of minimum-wage jobs in the food service industry.   (Despite all the MFA programs in the country, there are only about 100 tenure-track creative writing positions in the entire USA for all these programs to fill.  As to how many MFA graduates actually go on to have writing careers outside academe, apparently no one’s keeping track.  Perhaps the numbers are too embarrassing.)

At any rate, Frey is soliciting MFA students who want to go into commercial fiction, specifically for the young adult market.  The students come up with the ideas, preferably for a multi-book series.  Frey orders edits and polishes in order to make the work more commercial and pays the student a $250 advance with a further $250 on completion.

Frey buys all rights.   The contract allows him to publish the work under someone else’s name, or to take his victim’s ideas and have someone else write the books.   The author is not allowed to take public credit for the book, do publicity, or speak about the experience of writing the book  without incurring a quarter million dollar penalty.  Frey promises to pay 40% of any profits to the author, but there’s no means by which the author can audit the books to find out if he’s being paid the proper amount.  And in any case, “profits” means after expenses.

Or, as Conrad Rippy of the Author’s Guild put it:  “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.” He described it as a Hollywood-style work-for-hire contract grafted onto the publishing industry—“although Hollywood writers in a work-for-hire contract are usually paid more than $250.”

You can read the actual contract here.

Frey knew better than to go after experienced writers with a track record, because we’d tell him to take a flying jump off the Chrysler Building . . . and maybe give him a shove to get him started.  Even inexperienced writers with a sale or two would know better to accept this deal.

But not MFA students, apparently, because they’ve already shown themselves to be incredibly gullible just by virtue of being in an MFA program!

Plus, these victims seem to maintain a touching faith in the notion that genre writers can make colossal amounts of money.  (While some writers certainly do, I suspect you might have better odds of becoming a player for the NFL.)

And not only that, I have to wonder where these students’ teachers were when this was going on?  Nodding and smiling down at the rectory while they were introducing Little Jimmy to Father McSpermy?

I mean, didn’t any of the teachers feel it was their place to warn their students about such a blatant and obviously one-sided exploitation of their talent?

I guess not.  Simple business advice seems not to be the province of your MFA prof.

Now here’s an exercise for you.  What is wrong with this setup, other than the onerous contract?  What is the basic problem that  would make these writers victims, even if the contract was fair?

Okay, here’s the answer.  If you have writing skill and a great, commercial idea for a YA series . . . what do you need James Frey for? Why can’t you write it and sell it yourself, and keep all the money?

If you’re thinking about sharing your money with anyone other than an agent, you are— “‘ow do you say thees in y0ur Eenglish?”— a chump.

So here’s the upshot: James Frey is a predator.  Stay the fuck away from him.

Griffin Barber November 14, 2010 at 5:08 am

Here! Here! I hope someone arranges for him to pound salt with his penga for pulling this shit.

Ken Thomas November 14, 2010 at 6:39 pm

It may simply be an indication of how cynical I am, but the single most upsetting thing to me in this post was seeing Cormac McCarthy’s name show up in the same sentence as Hemingway and Vonnegut.

Foxessa November 15, 2010 at 12:03 am

I tried reading the Jakes bs novels set in the Civil War, and they’re not only unreadable by someone like me, they don’t know shyte about the War or other U.S. history either.

Only somebody like a Frey could do this — AND get all this media attention that inflates his lying worthless mendacious reputation at the same time. Is this a great medialandia or what? Still, it seems to me the schools in which he’s doing his hustle on the creative writing programs should do something about banning him. This is illegal at any reputable school, one might think. But then, this nation’s given up the reputable on every front, so wot’ehhell.

The thing about MFA’s is they are terminal degrees, which allow one to teach in college. You don’t have to teach creative writing, necessarily. You might teach something else. If you would want to.

Love, c.

Foxessa November 15, 2010 at 12:08 am

I meant to include this info re a terminal degree which an MFA is — somewhere down the line for many an artist of many a kind, at least in ye olden golden days — when you start to get tired, and it hurts to do your work, and you don’t have health insurance — an academic gig was the answer. But you need a terminal degree to be considered for one. And the MFA is one. It won’t help you much now — unless you are one of a very special few — but down the line it will. Or at least it did. These days, not so much as tenured PH.ds are losing their jobs too in a lot of schools due to budget. Kinda plugged into this, for the obvious reasons, thus the screed.

Love, C

Ralf the Dog November 15, 2010 at 3:15 am

I like the idea. This guy is on to something!

If any of you guys want to make big money, just send me $1 to buy a lottery ticket and a $100 fee. If your ticket wins, we will split the money. Please remember to send me your email address so I can let you know your numbers after the drawing.

Good luck, I know you will win.

wjw November 15, 2010 at 4:23 am

Personally, I’d be wary of anything calling itself a “terminal degree.”

I am going to require a lot of convincing before I can think of the MFA as anything but a racket. It is the university system telling the artist: “WE DO NOT CARE WHAT YOU HAVE ACCOMPLISHED IN THE ARTS. We only care about THIS PIECE OF PAPER that says you’re entitled to our respect, and WE WILL SELL YOU THIS PIECE OF PAPER for a mere THIRTY THOUSAND DOLLARS! So FORK IT OVER, and then we’ll let you stand in line with TWO THOUSAND OTHER CANDIDATES to see if you’re worthy A JOB THAT PAYS FOR SHIT! And by the way, we reserve the right to fire your ass any time we like, tenure or no tenure.”

And it has to be said that I totally resent the presumption that I’m not qualified to teach writing because all I’ve done is successfully write fiction for the last thirty years.

Out of curiosity, I’ve looked at the universities’ help wanted ads, and while they all require an MFA or equivalent, none of them ever require that their teachers write, compose, perform, or otherwise create anything that anyone has ever seen or would want to see, ever.

So . . . meh. It’s hard to view this as anything more than the incapable teaching the gullible.

John Appel November 15, 2010 at 4:54 am

My daughter – a high school senior – has ambitions to be a writer, but no ambition to pursue an MFA. Instead, she plans to get a BA (in what, precisely, is still TBD) and then pursue an MLS – a masters in Library Sciences, with an eye towards a job as a librarian, archivist or researcher to pay her bills.

In part that’s because my wife does institutional research for a major university, and has a pretty good notion about what the actual outcome for MFAs looks like.

Griffin November 15, 2010 at 4:57 am

Universities are big business, at least as concerned with the preservation of market share as furthering the boundaries of human understanding.

MFAs, and for that matter, any education, can only ever be what is made of it; how respected that lambskin is on its own is based strictly on how revered the ‘company’ that supplied it is. I would rather learn at the knee of someone who actually went out and earned a living in the field than someone who spent X amount of time pursue a pre-digested course of study at Y to arrive at Z, teaching me.

I’m far more interested to read stories of war when written by an author that went to war than one learned in the proper writing of and appreciation for the varied forms of fiction and meters of poetry. If they happen to have done both, then it might be that I’ll be in for a treat, but the education is secondary (and not inherently necessary) in my eyes.

Then again, I don’t even have a lowly BS, BA, let alone any other alphabet soup behind my name, so I may simply be showing my ignorance.

Ken Thomas November 15, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Geez, Dubjay – double and triple the dollar figures and your comment could (and does) apply to the higher education system as a whole. No reason to limit the vitriol to MFA programs alone.

wjw November 16, 2010 at 12:45 am

If you think my rant on the MFA is harsh, you should hear my rant on the MBA. Which is another colossal scam, except that it actually does earn the recipient a lot of money, which is more than you can say for the MFA.

My rant could stretch to many graduate degrees in the humanities, but only because the jobs aren’t there. I would argue that someone getting a PhD actually gets trained to be a professor, and that in the course of doing it you learn to do what professors you: you research, you learn, you publish, and you teach.

Whereas in a top MFA program, apparently they don’t even teach you to avoid exploitative contracts.

Foxessa November 16, 2010 at 4:56 am

Well, I’m speaking from the trenches of people who are artists who have accomplished and who are teaching now when they are tired and didn’t have health insurance, or got kids who needed an education, and if they didn’t have that terminal degree, they couldn’t teach. Thus and so on and so forth.

We’ve done a lot to bring some of our friends who were brought onto facultiess, friends who have accomplished and continue to accomplish huge amounts as the artists they are who did not have terminal degrees, to getting their terminal degrees, so they could be taken on faculty permanently.

I really do know about this in terms of all kinds of artists personally and upfront.

It’s the games you play for your chosen game.

But all over the place the rules and the games are changing all the time now because of funding ….

Love, C.

Ralf the Dog November 16, 2010 at 7:03 pm

My best advice for anyone looking for an education in any field? Start by going to the place you want to work, then ask them what schools they hire from. You might also ask them the number of jobs they have and how many people apply.

wjw November 17, 2010 at 3:41 am

C, I’m glad you’re able to get your friends work. That’s a worthy goal, in any case. My own retirement plan is pretty much based on winning Powerball numbers.

Though these programs are certainly good for the faculty, I’m still not convinced of their value for the students, especially at the rates being charged. I can see where mentoring in the graphic arts, and maybe music, would be valuable; but for creative writing there’s a ton of stuff available online, and for free, including critiques by professional writers.

Of course that’s if you actually want to write for a living. If you want to teach, I guess you still need the sheepskin.

Ian McDowell November 22, 2010 at 1:22 am

Re: the MFA-programs-as-ponzi-schemes link. I don’t necessarily disagree with the overall thesis, but this quote isn’t necessarily accurate:

“That maybe we were better writers before we entered The Program, and that we’ve actually just had a vacation with our student-aid money. It will have to be repaid!”

At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which used to have one of the more respected programs in the country (Kelly Link came out of it, as did I, and Fred Chappell was on the faculty), grad students were ineligible for traditional Student Aid, including College Foundation Loans and the like. Promising students were given Research Assistantshps, with a stipend, or if they had a previous MA or teaching experience, a Teaching Assistantship, with a larger stipend.

As far as the Research Assistantships went, you often had to do very little. My job consisted solely of being given catalogs in which the professor I was working with had circled books which she thought the UNCG library should have. All I had to do was go to the card catalog (the actual physical one in those pre computer days) and see if they were already there. If they were, I marked them out. She then took the catalog and ordered the ones that weren’t marked out. I spent maybe two hours a week doing this and was paid $1,750 a semster. Not great money, but I was able to defer all of my tuition and the cost of living in the graduate dorm and eating the cafeteria against it, and still got a couple of hundred dollars a month to spend on beer. Mind you, like Kelly, I was an in-state student. If I’d been paying out fo state tuition, my assistantship wouldn’t have so handily covered my bills. But regardless of that, in all my years of living next to the college and hanging out with MFA people, I’ve never heard of anyone coming out of the program and having to pay back a loan.

wjw November 23, 2010 at 6:39 am

Ian, that sounds like a great way to spend a couple of years. Did you get much writing done during that time?

I also can’t help but notice that you’re not employed teaching, and that, while you’re published, you’re not supporting yourself by writing. Though this is clearly through your choice than through any flaw in your MFA program, I wonder if the degree is more of a help than a hindrance in actually building a career.

Marilyn December 4, 2010 at 5:31 pm

The MFA is a so-called terminal degree in many of the arts – – writing, visual arts, dance, theater, etc. Academic positions are just one option, although I don’t know where that 100 tenured jobs figure comes from. I can count more than that in the greater Boston area alone, and far more that are long term contracts that do not include tenure.

Think Julie Taymore to expand your sense of options. There are careers in the technical side of the arts from set design, lighting, dramaturgy, all the business stuff, costume design (Bob Mackie’s not exactly starving), writing on the arts, management, book design, auction house positions, publicity — just to name a few paths to explore.

God, it’s such a bore to hear people sitting there making snarky (read: envious) remarks about Iowa and other MFA programs. The late Frank Conroy was a friend and colleague (not at Iowa). He was no huckster and his students certainly felt they received profound and rigorous intellectual and technical training from him that informs many areas of their lives. Excellent teachers can do that.

Want to be a writer, actor, musician, etc.? Who told you a cushy teaching position should be in your future? A life in the arts is a fine calling. We all agree Frey is a jackass. Back to work.

wjw December 9, 2010 at 8:07 am

There are a hundred tenured university positions in creative writing in Boston alone? Seriously?

Because it’s creative writing we’re talking about here, if you hadn’t noticed.

=God, it’s such a bore to hear people sitting there making snarky (read: envious) remarks about Iowa and other MFA programs.=

I don’t believe I mentioned Iowa, did I? And if you think my snark is caused by envy, then you’re just an ignoramus. You don’t know me at all. You just followed a Google link here.

If you want to know what’s boring, it’s a Bad Reader With an Agenda.

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