So, people. Have we all heard of James Frey?
Neither had I, until I checked my Google reader yesterday eve, and saw John Scalzi explaining at length why Frey should be kicked in the balls. Since then, I’ve read the original NY Times Books piece on the unimaginably sleazy contracts being pimped by his company, Full Fathom Five; writer Maureen Johnson’s take on said asshatery (spoiler: it involves criticism!); Lili Wilkinson’s POV and a redux by local blogger, Megan Bourke. All of which makes me want to put Frey in a cage fight with Nicholas Sparks, and then throw in a few rabid wolves, and then set them both on fire. With napalm. (The wolves will be spared.)
So, for those of you too lazy to click the above links, here are Frey’s crimes in a nutshell. Note that I’m stealing this summary verbatim from Maureen Johnson, partly because I, too, am lazy, but mostly because her summary is awesome. Thus:
“A few years ago, James Frey (author of “A Million Little Pieces,” the book that was claimed to be a memoir, was picked by Oprah, then turned out to be fictional, ending with an appalling session on Oprah’s couch) decided to put together a company in order to grind out YA books. The writers who sign up to this company sign mind-boggling contracts that essentially pay them more or less nothing and offer them zero protection …
“The contract says that the company can give you credit or not give you credit, as it desires. They can force you to write another book, or they can drop you like a hot potato, for no reason.
“The contract has no audit provision. What does that mean? It means that they can pay you ANY AMOUNT OF MONEY and you just have to accept that the percentage you’re getting is the percentage you are due, and that you are getting an accurate reporting of the number of books sold. And let me tell you, even on good and honest contracts, human error is common. Companies make mistakes on their reports all the time. It’s not necessarily malicious—things just get messed up. So in James Frey world, his company could provide you with statements saying the book sold one thousand copies and that the advance was fifteen dollars, and you might know that the book has sold many thousands of copies and the advance was a hundred thousand dollars, but there would be nothing you could do about it. You will literally never be able to verify the advance the book sold for, the foreign rights deals, or the sales.”
So, yeah. Urge to stab, anyone?
Now, this whole thing ammounts to an exercise in weapons-grade asshatery. And I am outraged! But what really made me crazy was the following paragraph of the NY Books piece, which itself was written by one of the MFA students approached by Frey:
“It appeared that putting out my first book wouldn’t be as easy as Frey had made it seem. But Full Fathom Five was proceeding apace. In June, Almon put out word that they were looking for new writers for four untitled young-adult projects: a project about a girl raised in a cult who “suddenly begins to remember her previous life”; an “untitled paranormal love story” about teen lovers, one dead, in which “we watch the couple struggle to communicate: he miserable in heaven, and she understandably distraught”; an “untitled apocalypse idea” about a girl who enrolls in a summer camp and “finds herself in for a hell of a lot more than rope climbing”; and a “high-school revenge project” in which “four girls from separate cliques at a high school discover they’ve all been date-raped by the same guy and team up to plot vicious revenge.”
Now, look. In the right hands, all of those ideas could be awesome. In fact, being as I am both a YA fantasy/SF reader and writer, there is every chance that if I picked up a book espousing one of those plots under different circumstances, I might buy it. Neither am I some sort of crazed artistic purist, viewing the relationship between creativity and money the same way a hardcore Calvinist might the relationship between the physical body and sex, viz: as two interrelated entities that can only interact at the junction of shame and pragmatism. I get that writers want to make money – I am among them! – and I also understand that this can involve assessing what sells and what doesn’t, and then acting accordingly.
But when I see someone laying down such a seedy series of contracts as Frey has done, given his history of shameless lying for sensationalism, and in the context of creating so-called marketable concepts with the aim of outsourcing them to as-yet unnamed writers, I throw up a little in my mouth.
I mean, a story about a group of teenage girls who’ve all been date-raped by the same guy and their subsequent revenge? That synopsis ought to have a restraining order issued against the phrase “wacky hijinks ensue”, and yet in the context of Frey’s production, that’s exactly what I hear next. Let’s not even go into the idea of yet another paranormal romance about the problems of one dead teenager struggling to love a live one; or rather, let’s not go there when the concept, instead of being someone’s beloved brainchild, has inevitably been chosen for its perceived marketability by Frey and then foisted off onto a different writer who, given the contract they’ll be offered, will have no artistic control whatever.
Bottom line: at this point in the proceedings, the only thing I’d pay for in relation to James Frey is to watch him be strapped down in an arena while John Scalzi, Lili Wilkinson and Maureen Johnson kicked him in the balls, over and over again.
Goddam asshats. Must they ruin everything?