I count on Lillet to keep me from complete absorption into a world of abstraction, but this time it was Oprah who woke me from my dogmatic slumber. What got my attention was this photograph.
"Tough guy image." Yeah, sure thing, Jimbo. Nice Dockers.
Consensus is (I gather) that Frey was publicly humiliated by Oprah. And of course he was. But has no one yet noticed how impressive this is on Frey's part? What a victory it is for him?
Look at the body language here. Have you ever seen a man with such a profound desire to get spanked? James Frey thinks big. He doesn't take his debit card and go looking for a dominatrix on nerve.com. No, James Frey gets himself spanked on national TV. By Oprah. Wow.
I suppose the question remains of whether or not authors and publishers ought to peddle fiction as fact. But I think we're better off wondering whether authors and publishers ought to peddle such ill-written drivel as serious writing. In reading some bits of his book I'm not offended by the possibility that none of this may have happened to James Frey; I'm offended because he and Nan Talese think that I or anyone else might have found this bullshit interesting in any way at all.
A few years ago a friend of ours was pondering a film adaptation of a book. She had befriended the author and wanted me to meet him, thinking that we would be fast friends. "You have so much in common," she said, and told me the story of how as a teenager in New York he was reading Tropic of Cancer on the subway and was inspired in that moment to become a writer. I told her that I had had the very same experience, but that it was not so much a desire to emulate Henry Miller as it was a feeling of responsibility to help shovel his steaming feces off the literary landscape.
Novels can be as mendacious as non-fiction. Frey is now trying to deflect blame by telling us that he first presented his book to publishers as a novel. But had it been so published it would not have been any less dishonest. Really, who fucking cares whether or not Frey actually slugged a cop? What is interesting is what Frey means to tell us by telling us that he slugged a cop or that his girlfriend died or that he had an anesthetic-free root canal.
This is where the lie lies, not in the lack of correspondence between words and facts, but in the genre itself. Frey is just the latest in a long line of suburban white boys who have play-acted at rebellion against the supposed sterility of their upbringing by making contact with its shadow in the form of drugs, transgressive sex, and getting fired from their jobs at Kinko's. It is all, in the end, a whole lot closer to John Cheever than it is to Iceberg Slim.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. If Frey told us through fiction or non- what it is like to be the kind of person who ends up wanting to get spanked on national TV by Oprah I don't think anyone would have any problem with him or his books. But what he wrote does nothing like that. It only presents a romanticized character to the public (and to Frey himself, for whatever sad reasons he may have), a character that illuminates nothing.
The truth of Frey's reportage in the mundane sense ought not to be an issue at all. William Burroughs really was a junkie and really did shoot his wife, but there is nothing in his pounds and pounds of crypto-totalitarian typing that tells any truth about himself, about us, or about a world that could create a monstrosity like William Burroughs. David Foster Wallace who I'm sure never put a needle in his arm has more to say about the nature of addiction and its relevance to our culture in just some brief passages of Infinite Jest than is said in all of Junky and Naked Lunch combined.
People aren't angry at Frey for lying to them; people are angry at Frey because his lying seems to rob legitimacy from their unlived lives. Oprah on the other hand is angry at Frey for lying. The fact-or-fiction question is crucial to Oprah because the distinction is at the heart of the culture of recovery that her empire is built upon.