Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Step away from the story

I notice that the publisher of A Million Little Pieces, while ostensibly sticking by the embattled James Frey, is starting to cover its own ass, as in harrumphing that Frey "represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections."

Second, ALA has inserted itself into Audible.com's "Don't Read" ad campaign. For the wrong reasons, I think: "trademark violation," which is a bit obnoxious given that the ad is a parody and the ALA is allegedly in the business of protecting intellectual freedom. (It also reminds me of the time Houghton Mifflin was battling the Margaret Mitchell estate for the right to publish The Wind Done Gone, a satiric alternative to Gone With the Wind, while simultaneously suing the band Furious George for copyright infringement on their little monkey.) But I still smell desperation in Audible's defense. "I think people are taking this way too seriously," says Audible's Dave Joseph, which is something I always say just before folding.

17 comments:

Andy Laties said...

When Harpercollins went after Soft Skull Press 18 months ago, claiming that the book "How To Get Stupid White Men Out Of Office" was violating Michael Moore's control of the phrase "Stupid White Men", the coverage in the NY Times was terrific for the Soft Skull book and Harpercollins figured out that it was just calling attention to the competing book.

I'd say that ALA is performing a huge favor for Audible in attacking their parodic ad campaign. I wish someone would hurry up and attack ME like that!

Andy

Roger Sutton said...

On Datalounge.com's discussion board, we've been arguing over whether the accusations against and noise around the Frey book will help or hurt its sales. Given that it doesn't sound like Frey's book can in itself convince you whether or not the story is true, I'd say the publicity won't attract new readers. Andy, what's your bookseller's opinion?

Andy Laties said...

Two alternate scenarios.

"The City Of Light" by David Selbourne was published a few years ago. It purports to be Selbourne's translation of the newly discovered journal of Jacob d'Ancona, a Jewish merchant who traveled to China a few decades before Marco Polo. However Selbourne provided no proof of the existence of the original from which the "translation" had been made, and the scholarly community, led by Jonathan Spence, claimed the book was actually fiction.

I love the book. I don't know if it's fiction, but Spence is a helluva lot more credible witness than Selbourne himself I think. Selbourne has never conceded this point -- but the fact that essentially the whole world of China scholarship claims that "City Of Light" is a hoax has absolutely prevented the book from being the kind of super-bestseller it would be if it were acknowledged as true.

In other words: the book was presented by its publisher and author as factual, and they still claim it to be non-fiction. No-one believes them, really. The book's sales have suffered.

On the other hand, there's the case of "Fortunate Son" -- Jim Hatfield's mediocre but groundbreaking biography of George W. Bush which at the original publisher's insistence (St. Martin's Press) included a late addition: a spicy afterward telling of Bush's arrest for possession of cocaine in 1972 and this arrest record's subsequent suppression at the behest of the young Bush's powerful father.

It was three years before the source for this tale was revealed by Hatfield to have been Karl Rove! In the meantime, because he wouldn't reveal his source (he was scared of retaliation), he was dragged through the mud. (During this period, the book had been recalled by St. Martin's under pressure from the Bushies, but rereleased by Soft Skull Press). Shortly after Hatfield bowed to the pressure and fingered Rove as the story's source (never denied by Rove!) -- Hatfield killed himself. (The whole story was made into a movie: "Horns & Halos")

"Fortunate Son" sales skyrocketed AFTER the source was named. People needed to know the source of Hatfield's evidence.

So -- in sum -- TRUTH matters in the case of a nonfiction book. Sales are definitely affected when a book presented as nonfiction is successfully attacked as being infused with "fiction".

The publisher in this case should really rerelease the book as a work of fiction in order to rescue the title.

Andy

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

The story can be true without any of the facts of the story being true. I think politics, instant news and celebrity have inured the American people to such piddling issues as whether or not he fudged his facts. I think most people will be more excited by the whiff of scandal than the issue involved and scandal sells.
But then what do I know; I am busy cutting a hole in the ice to catch a fish to keep twelve large huskies alive while their paws rest.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

The thrill of liar liar pants on fire and the fascination with ranking the books in contest order seems to me to come from the same place. Everyone wants to be the ominiscient narrator. Whereas I actually am the omniscient narrator.

Andy Laties said...

Well, I'd argue that as long as we have a legal system where people have to put their hands on a bible and swear to Tell The Whole Truth, "So Help Me God" -- and then, be subject to prosecution for perjury if they do NOT tell the truth -- that all Americans will have an inbred predisposition to disagree with you. American ideals essentially argue that truth is the outcome of facts.

(And the underpinning of course is the notion of a direct relationship with an omniscient narratorial God who has access to objective truth no matter whether an individual denies this "factual truth" to him/herself. Although of course lots of people don't adhere to this idea of God-As-Fact-Checker, the assumption does underpin our everyday ideas and ideals.)

Andy

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Andy, you know you have made God in your image when he dislikes all the same people you do. In this case, I think you have also made the American people over in your own image. And what do the facts have to do with truth? What was the real truth of his book? I think the interesting question is why, when he had such a juicy book going, did he feel he had to make up more stuff? What compelled that? He could have told the truth of his story without it, so what was driving him? Being the omiscient narrator, much fun as it is, keeps you skimming the surface as you see above all and the interesting stuff isn't happening on the surface.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

One of the things I love about this who Frey thing is that people feel cheated that he didn't sink as low as he said he did.

Andy Laties said...

People feel cheated because the guy was working in the genre of "Confessional": and -- he wasn't really confessing! The original question posed by Roger was: Will sales be hurt? I said, "Yes, Sales Will Be Hurt". I'm not making the American People over in my own image. The American People -- those masses who love "Reality TV" for instance -- are extremely interested in getting what they define for themselves as "Actual". This guy's book was popular because he catered to this. Now -- suddenly -- he is no longer doing it. The people will turn on him.

Andy

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Surely no one who watches reality tv thinks they are getting anything actual. And I disagree. I don't think anyone cares at all about how much of it is truth or not. I think what they love is the small temporary thrill of exposing him. Then they will go on to the next small temporary thrill.

Roger Sutton said...

Not to be a weenie about it, but I think I have to agree with both Andy and She. Didn't people buy the book initially for the cheap thrills? Now they're getting different kinds of cheap thrills, including schadenfreude. The gossip about the book has superseded the book itself (as entertainment)and since reading the book won't help anyone decide whether or not Frey made it up, and thus allow them particular entree into the current discussion, I would say its time is up.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Well, cheap thrills are about all I ask from my news stories and I hate to get all Pirandello on you, but I do think everyone is still missing the point about whether or not he made stuff up. And, Andy, darling, the argument that reality tv has made the American public accustomed to and hungry for the truth is one of the more wonderful things I have heard in a while.

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

But I do wish, Roger, you would write a new topic since Andy and I are obviously having a slow week and we've run out of steam on this one.

Andy Laties said...

Are you intentionally misreading me?

I said:
"The American People -- those masses who love "Reality TV" for instance -- are extremely interested in getting what they define for themselves as "Actual". This guy's book was popular because he catered to this."

You responded:
"Andy, darling, the argument that reality tv has made the American public accustomed to and hungry for the truth is one of the more wonderful things I have heard in a while."

You completely inverted my statement. I said the popularity of Reality TV DEMONSTRATES something about the American people. You responded as if I'd said Reality TV CAUSES something in the American people.

I'm a businessperson. I have to pay attention to the market and then provide that. The people who program TV are businesspeople. They test things out and when something's popular they pile on more. Reality TV satisfied an EXISTING but untapped pre-existing market. Frey's book satisfies an EXISTING market for "real life stories". If it no longer IS perceived as a "real life story" then it will no longer satisfy this market.

Andy

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Gobbledygook. There's no sudden new market for real life stories.

Andy Laties said...

And so we agree.

"Demand must needs precede Supply,
Else SHE had none to satisfy."
- Apocryphal

shewhousuallydoesn'tdothistypeofthing said...

Andy, I think you're taking this WAY too seriously.