James Frey Responds

by wjw on December 4, 2010

Some of you may recall my post of a couple weeks ago, in which I lambasted author James Frey for the exploitative methods used in his fiction factory, Full Fathom Five.  According to an article in New York, Frey was recruiting naive MFA students to write YA series while paying them a big $250 advance and a promise of a share of any profits, all the while shackling them in a hideously one-sided contract that included huge financial penalties for breaking any of its terms.   The New York article went viral, and I was only one of many authors who went online to slag Frey that week.

Frey responded in an interview in the Guardian, and more surprisingly in a private email to me.   I was more than a little taken aback to discover that, while standing waist-deep in a storm of cowflop being hurled at him from all directions, he should choose to engage with one not-particularly-famous science fiction writer.   (Of course he may have written to dozens of people for all I know.)

Mr. Frey’s email was fairly civil, considering that I’d just spent several thousand words abusing him, and in it he makes it clear that he wants to set the record straight, and that he’s not the evil douchebag portrayed in the New York article.

He’s asked me not to quote him, which is a pity, because he defends himself much better than I can in a paraphrase.  I should point out that I have absolutely no way of verifying any of his claims.  But here goes:

The three writers (out of his stable of thirty) who have sold through Full Fathom Five have earned an average of $225,000. ((Very nice if true, though I should point out that averages are, statistically speaking, a bit slippery.  It would take someone a bit more cynical than me [in fact, my friend Mr. Moore] to point out that, if Mr. Frey is counted among his own employees, and he earns a million, and his three writers earn nothing, then the average is a quarter of a million each.))

The authors’ money comes through another agency, and the authors have the right to audit that agency. ((Also encouraging, though none of this is in the boilerplate contract published by NY.))

No expense money has been withheld from writers.  ((Good, though the contract permits it.))

In addition, Mr. Frey wrote out that FFF has established authors working for them, including two NY Times bestselling authors.  Most do not use pseudonyms, most do not have MFAs.  ((Fine, I guess.))

Mr. Frey’s tone slipped a bit in his final paragraph, where he complained about the media spreading lies about him, and sarcastically congratulated me for being a part of it.  (James Frey complaining that other people are lying about him is like British Petroleum complaining that it has to drill in polluted water.)

Mr. Frey also expressed his disappointment that I suggested he be kneecapped.  (In my defense, this was clearly phrased as a joke.)

He signed the email “All my best, James,” which I call civil.

The email arrived on a busy day, and I only had a minute or two to respond.  “May I share this with my readers?” I asked.  The response was in the negative, and Mr. Frey also complained that I had not addressed the issue of violence.   In my answer I pointed out that the comment was clearly a joke, that I had no legions of fans who were prepared to commit violence on my behalf ((and, quite frankly, if I did, there would be people ahead of him on the list)).  But since the comment clearly concerned him, I said I would remove it (and I did).

I followed with a bit of advice, which I will get to later.

That is the history of my correspondence with James Frey, the Bad Boy of American Letters.

Now assuming you care enough about this issue to have read this far, you will no doubt have observed a discontinuity between Mr. Frey’s claims and the NY article, which was accompanied by a redacted version of his contract.  I have no way of knowing one way or another who is telling the truth, if anyone.

In the Guardian article, Mr. Frey said that his contracts vary depending on the experience of the writer and whether the story idea came from him or from the writer.   Ah, one could say, he only thoroughly exploits the inexperienced and naive.

But I could be falling for media lies here.

This whole thing has got so murky and discrediting that the only way to abolish any doubts about Mr. Frey and FFF is to let in as much light as possible.  As I told Mr. Frey in my last email, the best thing to do is to create a press conference of some sort with Frey and his writers.  Let them talk about how happy they are with their contracts and how much money they made.  Let Frey wave some canceled checks around, checks with his authors’ names and many zeroes on them.

This doesn’t seem to be happening.  The names of Mr. Frey’s authors seem not to be generally available, allegedly to protect their privacy.  Has Frey found the only thirty writers in the world who don’t want publicity for themselves?

And may I just say that I find the whole Bad Boy business to be a disappointment?   While I gotta like the idea of a writer pranking Oprah, I’m old enough to remember when bad boy authors were authentic bad boys.  They didn’t just play pranks, they committed felonies. William Burroughs was a junkie for decades and shot his wife in the head.  Normal Mailer was arrested for political activity and stabbed his wife nearly to death.  Gore Vidal ran for office, wrote books that shot popular pieties down in flames, and wrote about gay sex when that sort of thing got you sent to prison.  Hemingway lived his life like a movie, self-medicated with narcotic cocktails, set out to sink U-Boats with his fishing boat and a tommy gun, and had his wife bugger him with a strap-on.

Compared to that, pranking Oprah is small potatoes.  And so is setting up a modern version of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  (And incidentally, Stratemeyer paid pretty well, $750 for a book about the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  That may not seem much now, but at the time $750 would buy you three brand-new Ford automobiles.  And four Tom Swift books would buy you a six-room house.)

So I’m still waiting for this game-changing, transgressive work that Mr. Frey has promised us.  I pretty sure that Full Fathom Five isn’t it.

iBlogbot December 4, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Maybe he wrote to you because he is a big fan? In which case perhaos you should ask for his membership card like the Smith’s guitarist did.

Ken Thomas December 4, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Yeah, I don’t think I’d be willing to commit violence on your behalf. Not without some form of compensation. My terms are very reasonable, however.
I’d have your back in a barfight, though.

Calm December 4, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Poor James Frey. He seems so conflicted. He wants to be a “bad boy” and has proven he’s a liar, but when the world agrees with him, he’s not happy. It appears to me that the media has been less harsh than the general public in their comments and tweets. Frey believes Europe is empathetic to him. I have followed this ongoing discussion closely, and monitored the articles, comments and tweets. I’m sure Frey has done the same. Sorry to say it aloud James, but Europe isn’t any happier with you than your American audience. It’s also my understanding that U.S. magazines have fact checkers and newspapers don’t. Therefore, the information in the article in New York Magazine was definitedly fact checked for accuracy.

Chris Moriarty December 5, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Thanks! I did not know that about Ernest Hemingway. You learn something new every day in the blogosphere.

As for James Frey … I’m still waiting for his explanation of why he should get wildly overpaid for doing what amounts to the job of a good literary agent. Or am I missing something here? Is there some golden “James Frey” contribution that makes him more valuable than any of the top twenty literary agents in the business?

So far I’m not seeing it. In fact, I’m not quite seeing how he’s any different from the legions of idiots who are always telling me “I have a great idea for a book” and then proposing that I write it and we split the profits.

Seems to me I’ve heard all this before … and the only thing that sets Frey apart from the usual run of losers is that he got famous by scamming Oprah. I guess the moral of the story is that we truly do live in a reality TV celebrity society. It doesn’t matter what you’re famous for, as long as you’re famous ….

Tori December 6, 2010 at 6:56 am

Interesting. Yes, I would be much more willing to believe him if his ghost writers came out and said how happy they all are and waved about some merry bundles of cash.

Also: My instinct is to be weary when people like him, with pseudo-celebrity status, choose to defend themselves to individuals they do not know personally. I hope he’s a fan of yours, Walter, because otherwise he has a suspicious amount of concern over what other authors think of him.

Or perhaps you have more influence than you let on?

Note to self: Don’t be a jerk in front of Walter.

Ralf the Dog December 6, 2010 at 7:08 am

I would be more than willing to commit verbal violence for you. Just name your target and I will call them a sniveling little cat sniffer that is afraid of their own tail.

Rowan December 7, 2010 at 5:29 am

I too learned something new about Hemingway.

Also, really interesting that Frey chose to respond specifically to you, and to the knee-capping thing. I don’t have any intelligent insights, but… you know, interesting. Shame he doesn’t want to be quoted. I mean, isn’t it odd that he’s basically accusing you of setting people against him, and then asks that you don’t share the things he has to say in his defense?

Weird, man.

ada December 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I applaud your efforts in campaigning against exploitation of writers.

Although, I do think your reference to “Normal Mailer” is a contradiction in terms.

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