Thursday, September 07, 2006

Caveat Empty-headed

I can't decide who is more embarrassed by the tentative settlement of the James Frey case: the readers, for thinking they deserved a refund, or Random House, for caving in. Personally, I think $23.95 is dirt cheap for a lesson in skepticism.

And now I want a refund for those Sea Monkeys.

28 comments:

Lynn said...

Just when you wonder if those those tags on hair dryers saying "do not use in bathtub" are really necessary, something like this reminds me why they are there to begin with.

Add to your mix the lawyers thinking "here's a good case" when a reader came in wanting to sue.

Dang! I never had sea monkeys, though I admit they looked intriguing on the back of my Archie comic books.

Chris Abouzeid said...

While I agree with you about the readers, I think the settlement may be a good thing in the long run. A publishing house that knows it could lose money by playing the "Is it fact or fiction?" game might be less likely to see what it can get away with. Whereas if a controversy like Frey's just helps sell more book, then every publisher in the world will be looking for the next "bio-fib."

Jennifer Armstrong said...

What always puzzled me was the willingness of readers to believe a self-destructive lying drug addict. I mean, can it really be that much of a surprise that he invented half of that stuff? The readers who want their money back remind me of the women who are shocked and dismayed to find their husbands have been cheating on them, forgetting that they themslves had carried on an adulterous affair with the man while he was married to a previous wife...

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is why people get their knickers in such a twist about non-fiction that is partially fiction while fiction that is partially non-fiction ala your basic roman a clef is just juicy good fun. People get so morally indignant about the first but consider the second perfectly acceptable.

Anonymous said...

To answer my own question above, I suggest that it has less to do with anyone's moral indignation about telling the truth or the truth in any absolute way (because writing about real people and pretending it is fiction is as much a lie as writing fiction and pretending it really happened) as it has to do with people feeling they've been kept on the outside. If you tell people more stuff, even if you pretend its not real, they are satisfied, you've invited them in so to speak. Whereas if you lie in such a way tht you keep them out, by making stuff up, then they feel slighted and rejected and out of your confidence and respond with fury.

Jane said...

Well, as a friend of the family who were smeared with lies in Augustine Burroughs (even his name is a lie), I wish he'd be the next to go.

Jane

Roger Sutton said...

Then Beatrice Sparks . . .

Anonymous said...

Yeah, well, put up your hands all of you who were outraged with Nora Ephron who published Heartburn as fiction and want your money back. What? No hands? Why not?

Anonymous said...

Tell the truth but tell it slant

shahairyzade said...

When you publish something under "fiction," you are stating right up front that parts or all of the story are made up. When you publish something under "non-fiction" (or "biography" or "memoire"), you are claiming-- explicitly or implicitly--that everything in the work is either factual or, where necessary, clearly labeled as conjecture, opinion, etc.

I think it's pretty clear why non-fiction that turns out to be fiction would generate more outrage than fiction that turns out to be non-fiction.

Anonymous said...

But I don't think that does explain it adequately, only the way we would like to whitewash our reaction. I think that you would have to agree that publishing non fiction under the title of fiction is as much of a lie as publishing fiction under the title of non fiction. And I think I explain above exactly why we react as we do. I also think all this self righteous kerfluffle about James frey slanting his facts is just that. That the greater truth in either Ephron's story or his has nothing to do with the facts so its unimportant how they choose to tell it. It is his or her own story. In Something's Gotta Give jack nicholson says to Keaton, "Honey, I always told you some version of the truth" and she says, "The truth doesn't have VERSIONS." Which is what everyone here seems to be saying and it sounds very good at first but in fact, the truth has nothing BUT versions as anyone who has ever written a history book will attest. This whole slaughter of James Frey reminds me of what happened to Joyce Maynard when she came out with her story about her affair with Salinger and everyone said she had no right to tell his personal story and she said, yes, but it was MY story too.

shahairyzade said...

"I think that you would have to agree that publishing non fiction under the title of fiction is as much of a lie as publishing fiction under the title of non fiction."

Only if you agree that telling you I am going to kill you and then not doing it is the same as telling you I am not going to kill you and killing you anyway.

(By the way--the above is meant to be an analogy, not a threat. But therein lies another difference between fact and fiction.)

Anonymous said...

I don't really think thats a very good analogy, Shairy. But, clearly I am not explaining myself very well so let me try again. What interested me in this whole thing was people's violent reaction. And although everyone kept bringing up the words fiction and non fiction I didnt think that any kind of moral absolute was triggering their reaction. If they werent upset by fiction being really non ficton but were upset by non fiction being really fiction, then it wasn't the moral absolute or mislabeling that was bugging them and I wanted to figure out what was and I think I did. When James Frey wrote his book as non fiction what he was essentially saying is I'm letting you in on something personal, I'm going to let you see what really happened, I'm going to share. Then when it turned out that he had made things up, it slammed a door, it meant he WASN't really letting us in, he wasn't inviting an intimacy and people's feelings were HURT. When Nora Ephron wrote Heartburn as fiction what she was saying up front by doing so was, I'm NOT letting you in, I'm not sharing what really happened, I'm not inviting an intimacy between us. And then when she actually did tell what really happened, people felt let in after all, it made them feel warm and cozy, she told us what really happened, she must be our friend, it made people feel warm and cozy. And I think that this very basic human response, our need to connect, our need for people to keep doors open for us that way is what is really going on here and I think it's very interesting, that's all. How human and basic it all ends up being and how it comes down to people's feelings being hurt, not some high minded moral imperative. Because if it was, we'd be as mad at Ephron as Frey.

Roger Sutton said...

That's interesting Anon, thank you. I also think what made Frey readers mad was that the sensational/salacious quotient of the book goes way down once it's seen as fiction. The biggest part of the kick for a book like Frey's or Burrough's or Anonymous's (Go Ask Alice's that is, not you ;-) is that the tawdry events therein really happened and are thus juicier than they would be if presented as fiction. If Shirley MacLaine wrote a novel about a woman with glamorous past lives it would probably never be published--it's the fact that she presents herself as Nefertiti or whomever that makes us interested.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I take it back, Shairy. It's a very good analogy and it proves my point. Because what you are saying is that you are not concerned about the lie, per se, they are both lies. You are concerned about getting hurt. And what I was seeking to find is why people were hurt, because I think you are right, that's what triggered the anger.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right to an extent, Roger, but I don't think that losing the salacious quotient resulted in anger but rather disappointment. Anger is more often the result of hurt and then people used all that moral gobbledgook to disguise their hurt and create weapons of Frey destruction so you've got to wade through all that to get at what's really going on.

Gregory K. said...

Anon -- I think part of the anger has to do with the fact that we all love to see people rise over adversity and come out on the other side. We all want to be able to do that, or to believe that friends of ours who are suffering have hope... and this book was proof that it could be done. It was life-affirming.

To then be told, "oh, so sorry... this offers nothing, since I made it up" is a far, far different thing than simply being "not let in" (which I think is also a part of the anger). None of this of course, has anything to do with literary quality. The irony is that it's not like folks are saying "oh, now this isn't a good read!" But it's a very different read.

Anonymous said...

I think that people who think that James Frey is responsible for helping their friends rise over adversity have a whole other set of problems that shouldn't be James Frey's. If people have lived that long and not yet seen examples of others rising over adversity then they haven't kept their eyes open. Or maybe they could be the first if they think it hasn't yet been proven possible. And if James Frey says he did and he didn't, let's hope for better things for him in the future. I really get queasy when I get a sense people are getting a happy little thrill beating someone up because it's been morally sanctioned by a crowd. It gets you nothing but an ugly little thrill. I think some people were really angry but not for the, again, high minded reasons you give. It just doesn't ring true. Not for that kind of anger. I stick to my original hypothesis. But agree with you that people are always going to want to point a finger (as indeed I do above at your friends who were disappointed that James Frey wasn't going to be their savior) and that that is a very ugly human quality too and the only way to diffuse the ugliness is to to figure out why we do it.

Anonymous said...

Also, Gregory, if you want to test your statement against my original hypothesis, then look at it this way - if you know Heartburn is mostly true and not fiction then it is equally "a very different kind of read", yes? But it doesn't anger us. Where does the ANGER come from? a little from the embarrassment that we were stupid enough to be duped, maybe. But I think in examining this that anger may be always a secondary emotion used to defend and cover up a more primary emotion. The best defense is a good offense.

Gregory K. said...

Anon -- I think you're reading into what I wrote. I didn't say that anyone thought James Frey was their personal savior. I did not say that I had friends who viewed this book as the sole story of redemption. Those are all your words. But when presented as fact, James Frey's book does, in fact, offer hope that someone can rise up from the depths. Are there other such examples? But of course. But many people bought and read this book to get that renewal. When it's false, that's breaking the "contract" made with the reader.

Do I think that's worthy of refund? Do I think it shows that James Frey hasn't overcome adversity in his own way? Those aren't the questions on the table. The question is why people might react to a book presented as truth being far from it. Not to clutter up Roger's thread, but if you could examine why people read true stories... and more importantly, what their expectations/emotional investments are vs. when they read fiction... that might make having a conversation on the issue of anger easier. Is it quantifiable? Dunno. But I do know, for example, that "Into Thin Air" is a way better non-fiction book for me than it would be if presented as fiction. But if I later found out that the Eiger Sanction was true... I wouldn't likely care one whit other than to say "cool."

The question of a refund is a far, far different thing, however!

Anonymous said...

And to answer my own question about finger pointing, morality may be simply a second line of defense, a bolstering of our own walls against the discomfort of our vulnerable primary emotions by bringing in the whole crowd. I think it's an interesting idea. We may not be finger pointing AT someone so much as away from ourselves. Not that we did what they did but that we feel as we do.
And now I promise to quit.

Anonymous said...

Breaking the contract with non fiction makes us angry but not breaking the contract with fiction. Why? That's what I asked myself when I came up with my hypothesis. You haven't said anything to convince me otherwise, Gregory.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Gregory, but I can't let this one go. What was it he was supposed to give you that he didn't by slanting the facts? You say it isn't a connection to him or being "let in" and that until I understand what you are looking for in non fiction that you don't get in fiction I won't be able to discuss the angry reaction. So I am genuinely curious. If I have not explained why you are angry, can you explain it? and I don't mean with circumstances because it's already a given that you're angry because he lied and you wouldn't be angry if someone writing fiction lied. We already agree upon that. But it would be really interesting to find out what IS making you angry. What is it he should have done for you that he didn't? What is it that you were looking for here?

rindamybyers said...

Where's my Sea Monkeys thingie whingie...I can't decide what to do here about this discussion..let's see...do I need the Magical Robo-Diver Compression Tank Top...or the Everyday Aero-vent tank cover with magnifer instead...oh, I know, I know the Aqua-Leash TM and the Calibrated Feeding Spoon....

Gregory K. said...

Anon -- I'll let this go, too, in part because no matter what I say, you make it "me" specific as opposed to speaking to the broader point I'm attempting (and perhaps failing) to make.

I am not angry. I never said I was angry, much as I never said I knew anyone who used the book as a path to salvation. I've been attempting to show where I think anger comes from by using specifics, yes, but to illustrate a broader point about how non-fiction impacts people and/or why they seek out non-fiction

I'm also not trying to convince you of anything. I was offering up ideas about where the anger comes from. You can happily reject them. They may be incorrect. But continuing to ask why we have a different reaction about fiction being revealed as non-fiction is a second step that can't be answered until the conversation about why there's anger in the first place is finished. Jumping into the second part makes it impossible (particularly in a comments thread!) to make any sort of progress, imo.

Fun, though.

Anonymous said...

Gregory, you still haven't said anything. I would love to hear what you have to say on the matter but you don't say anything.

Anonymous said...

I think I have read every word of every comment above - is it possible that I missed a reference to OPRAH? Surely most of the indignation and desire for a refund came from those who felt that she as well as Frey had conned them?

Craig Elliott Hanna said...

I think it's much about nothing. I read the book and was thinking it was a bit much to be true but I went along for the ride. I admit I had the wool pulled down over my eyes, but it didn't make me enjoy the book any less and I'm not asking for my money back. I read the second book and enjoyed it almost as much.