Morality Vs. Profit: James Frey’s Misrepresentation of His Book A Million Little Pieces

Is it ethical to change a manuscript’s genre in order to make a larger monetary profit? Should authors and publishers be held accountable for their texts? These are a few of the questions that I will delve into throughout this paper as I examine the scandal surrounding James Frey’s controversial book A Million Little Pieces. In order to properly assess the contention surrounding James Frey’s book, one must first understand the differences between fiction and non-fiction. The fiction genre is identified as a work invented by the imagination[1], therefore while a work of fiction can be based on true events, it is not considered non-fiction once it is enhanced to such a degree that it is no longer recognizable as factual. Genre becomes more complex when creative non-fiction is considered, this genre refers to factual prose written with the use of literary techniques used in fiction writing. What differentiates creative non-fiction from fiction is the same factual integrity that distinguishes fiction and non-fiction.

In 2005 two years after its publication, James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces rose to literary acclaim for its raw and eye-opening depiction of addiction. Frey spends the entirety of 500 pages “reliving” his time as 23-year-old alcoholic/drug addict, “he wrestles a swarthy rage he names “the Fury”, battens down his cravings, sprays spit and snot and blood and urine, recounts his misdemeanours, finds friendship, and falls in love”[2]. After famously being praised by Oprah Winfrey the book sold 3.5 million copies and held its spot on the New York Times non-fiction best sellers list for over 15 weeks.[3] Due to Frey’s book being chosen for Oprah’s book club, making him the first living author to make it into her book club in over three years, Frey was immediately lifted to success. Not only did A Million Little Pieces have amazing reception, but its sequel My Friend Leonard and Frey as an author also gained many benefits from it.

Three years after the book’s publication a bomb dropped; an article title “A Million Little Lies” was published by the investigative website Smoking Gun.[4] This article was the result of a six-week investigation into any and all claims made by Frey in his book, and it created one of the largest scandals the publishing world had seen in years. The article brought to light not only little irregularities in his story but that overall the entirety of the book was falsified. That none of the events Frey describes in the book had ever occurred and those that had were not at all as dramatic or detrimental as they were written to appear. While some may say that turning a five-hour stint in jail for a misdemeanor and driving without a licence, into a crack and alcohol induced night in which he hits a police officer with his car, reacts violently to arrest, is charged with assault with a deadly weapon and is sentenced to 87-days in jail, is a simple dramatization.[5] It isn’t that simple, Frey did not solely embellish his truth for dramatic effect, he uses others tragedies for his own gain. Frey uses the tragic loss of a teenager that he wasn’t even present for and twists it to make himself the victim. Not only is he exploiting these innocent individuals but he disrespects everyone involved by falsifying the events surrounding the fatal incident.[6] The true atrocity of this book is that Frey was praised and loved by so many for his “fearless candor”[7] and unprecedented honesty”[8], he was viewed as a success story, an inspiration to anyone who was struggling with a criminal past or with addiction. What made the realization of his lies so hard for people to grasp is simply that they trusted him. His readers not only trusted that what they were reading were his own experiences but they trusted that if he could move past his multitude of difficulties so could they.

They put their faith in the author and in the publisher of this “memoir non-fiction” text to tell them the absolute truth. This expectation is not necessarily unfounded, when Frey and his team labelled the book non-fiction they knew in that moment that this book would be read as a factual depiction of his life which it is far from. As I was looking at the controversy surrounding Frey’s book the creative non-fiction genre came to mind as a possible solution to this misrepresentation, however, Frey’s book is so detached from the truth that it is blatantly fiction. While creative non-fiction uses the storytelling techniques of fiction the story itself would need to be factual, which it is not. When Frey was confronted with the dishonesty of his work, he refused to admit to anything that would negatively impact his work. Frey admitted that in 2003 he had attempted to sell the book to Talese imprint as a fictional work and was rejected only to later publish the book with Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group as a non-fiction claiming to have edited out all the made up sections.[9] In fact Frey mentioned in a promotional video that he used his medical, psychological, financial, and criminal records kept by the health center and prison he spent time in during the period the book claims to be depicting[10].

Criticism of Frey’s blatant lies in this, now obviously fake non-fiction work, were quite split. While many, Oprah included, were heartbroken and angry at Frey for lying to them about what they had read and praised to be an amazingly honest and heroic story of growth and self-acceptance. Frey did have certain people unfazed by his deception, a group of readers spoke up about not caring whether it was real or not. These readers believed that the lessons learnt from this book were still valid in spite of Frey’s misrepresentation of his book’s genre. Although it has been argued that the writing process is inherently dishonest because whether intentionally or not no one person’s memory is completely accurate[11], I believe that authors and publishers should be held accountable when it comes to their books. If readers are meant to trust the author, which a memoir or non-fiction text asks of them, then authors and publishers should be asked to stay as close to the truth as memory allows.

Fact checking has been discussed in regards to the publishing industry as something at times necessary but also far too costly and time consuming to be realistically applied. That being said, former fact checker Mac McClelland “enlisted the help of former Mother Jones research editor to pour through more than 700 sources, the process took about eight months.”[12] McClelland indicated that although it had many constraints such as time, patience, and money, she believes that it is worth it and proved so by financing the jobs herself for both of her books.[13] If authors and publishers alike decided that there is an importance or more importantly that they have an accountability to their readers, the industry wouldn’t have to deal with the shame that follows a controversy. The industry standard is to “rely on authors, and that’s not good enough,”[14] publishers cannot keep ignoring the large issue of fact checking and misrepresenting titles. While Frey’s books were very public examples of why the industry needs to take their accountability seriously, he is not the only instance of such a breach in honesty.

It is clear to me that money is the obstacle for the publishing industry in regards to faulty categorizing of books and the lack of fact checking. Although money is of obvious importance for any industry it is shocking that the industry as a whole has not seen the accumulation of backlash received over the last decade as a sign of the changing times. Whether on the part of the author or the publishers there must be a level of accountability in order for the industry to continue to grow. If controversies like Frey’s continue to come to light, the shameful mistakes of the industry will overshadow any and possibly all strides being made. All readers should be given the decency of knowing what they are buying.

[1] “Fiction.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d.

[2] Barton, Laura. “The Man Who Rewrote His Life.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, September 15, 2006.

[3] “A Million Little Lies.” The Smoking Gun, January 8, 2010.

[4] “A Million Little Lies.” The Smoking Gun, January 8, 2010.

[5] Ibid

[6] Essemee. “A Million Little Pieces of Crap.” Swallowing The Camel – Facts Logic = Truth, November 24, 2012.

[7] “A Million Little Lies.” The Smoking Gun, January 8, 2010.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Mays, Chris. “”You Can’t Make This Stuff Up”: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction.” College English, 2018, 319-41.

[12] Newman, Kate. “Book Publishing, Not Fact-Checking.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, September 3, 2014.

[13] Ibid

[14] Alter, Alexandra. “It’s a Fact: Mistakes Are Embarrassing the Publishing Industry.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 22, 2019.

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