In February, James Frey was invited to speak to a small seminar in the graduate writing program at Columbia called “Can Truth Be Told?” There were nine of us, and we were reading books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss for our discussion about the ethical questions that emerge when writing nonfiction. We had read A Million Little Pieces, Frey’s 2003 memoir about his harrowing drug addiction and time in rehab, as well as The Smoking Gun’s report detailing Frey’s false claims. We were surprised Frey actually showed up.
The class took place during an intense blizzard. Frey arrived in a white T-shirt and khakis, promptly removed his boots, and walked around on a soggy carpet in his socks. Grinding down on a piece of gum, he asked the name of the class. Leslie Sharpe, the professor who had invited him, explained that we were studying the differences between “factual truth” and “emotional truth” and how memoirists address those disparities in their work. We all laughed awkwardly.
But he was game. “You don’t have to hold back,” he told us. “I’ve been asked everything.” And for the next two hours, as the snow piled up on the arched windows behind him, Frey delivered his opinions on the memoir genre (“bunk,” “bullshit,” a marketing tool that didn’t exist until several decades ago); fact and fiction (there’s no difference); truth (it doesn’t exist, at least not in the journalistic sense); Europe (where he turns for validation); America (which is obsessed with honesty and raises people up only to tear them down); the best writers (Mailer, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Henry Miller, Cormac McCarthy); documentary (“a thesis on truth that hasn’t been proven yet”); Oprah (“I should have never fucking apologized”); the kind of writer he wants to be (the most controversial and widely read of his time); making literary history (he’s in it to “change the game” and “move the paradigm”; he won’t write anything that doesn’t change the world); self-editing (a trap for young writers); mistakes (part of the spontaneity of a work of art); and, most important, how to write (“don’t give a fuck”; sit for ten hours a day, 600 days in a row; “write what you want to write, and make sure there is one hell of a disclaimer at the beginning”).
When he was working on A Million Little Pieces, Frey told us, he wanted to write in the tradition of Tropic of Cancer, “A Season in Hell,” and Paris Spleen—transgressive works by transgressive authors. As he pointed out, heavy hitters never write like the established writers of their own time. Hemingway used short, declarative sentences; Miller wrote about sexuality in the first-person present tense; Mailer blurred the line between fact and fiction. These men created their own styles. Frey said Mailer even told him, right before he died, “You’re the next one of us.”
Frey said he never considered whether A Million Little Pieces was fiction or nonfiction—and anyway, before the memoir craze of the nineties, it would have been published as a novel. “If Picasso painted a Cubist self-portrait,” he suggested, “nobody would say it didn’t look like him.” Much of his performance for us echoed comments he’d made to journalists. “My best friends are almost all artists,” he told a Canadian reporter earlier this year. “I have very few friends who are writers … I’m a big fan of breaking the rules, creating new forms, moving on to new places. Contemporary artists like [Richard] Prince, Hirst, and Koons do that, but there are no literary equivalents. In literature, you don’t see many radical books. That’s what I want to do: write radical books that confuse and confound, polarize opinions. I’ve already been cast out of ‘proper’ American literary circles. I don’t have to be a good boy anymore. I find that the older I get, the more radical my work becomes.”
Frey also talked to the reporter about how contemporary artists make their work. “A lot of artists conceptualize a work and then collaborate with other artists to produce it,” he said then. “Andy Warhol’s Factory is an example of that way of working. That’s what I’m doing with literature.” At the end of the seminar, Frey elaborated on this concept and made an unexpected pitch. He was looking for young writers to join him on a new publishing endeavor—a company that would produce mostly young-adult novels. Frey believed that Harry Potter and the Twilight series had awakened a ravenous market of readers and were leaving a substantial gap in their wake. He wanted to be the one to fill it. There had already been wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Aliens, Frey predicted, would be next.