I’ve been writing fiction for a really long time, though not without hiatus. I occasionally go through crises of faith with it, because both market-wise and creatively, this is probably one of the worst periods for fiction in America, possibly ever. After The Baby was born, I found my worldview and my time so altered that I felt I couldn’t write it any more. I didn’t see things the way I used to, and I also lacked the acres of time needed to get into a fiction “groove”.
That’s the biggest reason why I channeled my literary ambitions into this blog, because it satisfied my desire to write and didn’t require me to lock myself in a soundproof vault for 12 hours. For a long time, fiction was such a slog for me and with so few avenues for exposure, I simply had no desire to write it any more. It was quicker and much more enjoyable to write funny ha-ha’s here.
Lately, for reasons too varied and arcane to get into here, I’ve decided to dive back into fiction. I’m working on a novel I’d all but abandoned a few years ago when it hit the 100 page mark, because I think the idea behind it is still relevant. I’m trying to power through an admittedly sub-par first draft so I can revise it and hopefully finish it some time early next year. I’ve been feeling really good about it. I’ve received lots of encouragement. I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel.
And then I read this and felt like throwing the whole thing in the garbage. Because when the fiction world can still stomach a vile specimen like James Frey, do I really want to associate myself with it?
For those of you don’t want to read the whole article or don’t enjoy vomiting, I’ll give you the gist of it. It’s a piece in New York magazine by Suzanne Mozes about Frey, who you may remember from such frauds as A Million Little Pieces (the “memoir” that turned out to be largely made up). What’s he been up to, other than not acquiring any sense of shame? He’s established a company called Full Fathom Five.
The firm specializes in YA fiction series, on the principle that if you sit a thousand struggling, desperate writers in front of a thousand typewriters, eventually one of them will write the next Harry Potter. It is the fiction equivalent of a veal pen, and is as much of a shell game as anything Bernie Madoff ever cooked up.
Full Fathom Five is trolling MFA programs, mostly in New York City, to entice young, budding writers with promises of commercial success, Hollywood dough, and freedom from crippling debt. All you have to do is sign a contract that would make a Mephistopholean bargain look fair by comparison.
Authors who sign on with them get paid a grand total of $250, with the promise of earning 30 percent of the profits (40 percent if they conceived the series themselves). How do you know if your series turned a profit? That’s a very good question, so good that Full Fathom Five must be still pondering it, because they haven’t revealed the answer just yet.
Of course, it’s just as well authors don’t know how much money the book makes, because they don’t own the copyright either–Frey does, to anything they produce. So no matter how much of your brain matter went into the shaping of these characters and these worlds, they’re the exclusive property of Frey in perpetuity.
And since all of the Full Fathom Five books are written under pseudonyms, even if these series do succeed, it will be difficult to parlay that success into anything else. “Yeah, I was the guy behind that blockbuster spy-alien-vampire series. I know the books say they were written by Roderick Samson, but trust me, that’s really me.” You probably wouldn’t want to tell an agent or a publisher anyway, because your contract will contain a $50,000 penalty for revealing that you worked for Full Fathom Five.
The company has already sold a novel (Find Number Four) to Dreamworks, and the film based on it is set to come out in February. Rumor was it made quite a bit of cash for its co-author, Jobie Hughes (who wrote it with Frey). Except that Frey didn’t appreciate Hughes’ name coming out and threatened to invoke some of the onerous fines contained in his contract. And he was also displeased with Hughes’ manuscript for the series’ second installment, to the point of threatening to write it himself and cut Hughes out altogether. Not to mention, this “success” has not helped Hughes sell a novel under his own name, which has apparently been bounced around from house to house with no takers.
Against all odds, Frey has actually made himself into something worse than a fraud. He’s a predator. His office might as well have wine coolers and condoms in the reception area, and Chris Hansen right outside the door waiting to burst in.
Notice that he’s not seeking out older, more mature writers, and certainly not established ones. He’s prowling around MFA programs, looking for kids up to their eyeballs in debt, but still with enough hope and self delusion to believe that $250 is a sign of good faith, when in fact it’s a sign of nothing but contempt. And he does this knowing full well how desperately every young writer wants outside validation.
You know what’s worst of all? While engaging in all this sociopathic behavior, he still thinks of himself as a transgressive, uncompromising, he-man writer in the mold of Hemingway, Mailer, and Henry Miller. He’s just too real for the rest of us, man! The New York article starts off with an appearance Frey made at Columbia, where he bragged about how he wants to “change the game” and “move the paradigm,” and how he “won’t write anything that doesn’t change the world.”
What is he working on, writing the next Tropic of Cancer or For Whom the Bell Tolls? No, he’s throwing his weight behind a company whose stated aim is to find the next Twilight. I can’t call him a sell-out, because you have to buy in to sell out. He reminds me of those movie studio execs in the Don Simpson tradition, who fancy themselves true uncompromising artists and yet pour all their energy into the next installment of the Step Up franchise.
I’ll return to a theme I explored last week. Why is James Frey the way he is? Because there are no stakes in his life. He comes from money. He’ll die with money. He spiraled into drug addiction because hey, somebody was gonna bail him out at some point, right? He went to Hazelden to dry out, which is the Harvard of rehab (28 days of treatment will cost you $27K).
He tried to pass off a work of fiction (and a terrible one at that) as a memoir because he knew if he had jump off a building, there’d be a nice comfortable net waiting for him, stitched together from dollars.
He’ll exploit desperate 20-somethings because he can, and because there will be no consequences for failure or exposure. The worst thing that happens due to Full Fathom Five is he gets sued and has to write some jilted writers big checks (which he can easily afford). Then he’ll repair to the south of France again so he can get away from all the “madness”, and come back and start some other scam and hang out with the same hideous literary/art types he pals around with now, who would probably go clubbing with Benito Mussolini if he wrote a novel.
James Frey, you are a creep of the absolute highest order. You are a hyper-entitled piece of human garbage who would not last three minutes in the real world. You are the living definition of soft serve. The fact that this country creates people like you is why America is hated the world over.
In a just universe, you would get that prison cell you seem to want so badly. But I’ll settle for knowing that somewhere, deep in the darkest recesses of your mind, in places you’re afraid to go, you know how much of a soulless monster you really are.