Tales from the Days of a Dying empire, part 1,426,000: Tom Scocca at Slate explained that “James Frey Is A Jedi Knight of Bullshit”, pointing to an article in New York Magazine. Frey, whose eventual obituary will be headlined with some variant on “Writer Who Was Legally Required to Apologize to Oprah On-Air for Lying”, is said to be
shilling promoting his version of an atelier:
… 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.
Frey said he was interested in conceiving commercial ideas that would sell extremely well. He was in the process of hiring writers—he said he’d already been to Princeton and was planning on recruiting from the other New York M.F.A. programs as well…
Okay, anyone who’s ever enjoyed any variety of what the classifiers call “genre fiction” is already calling bullshit, because (a) this particular hustle goes back to Gutenberg; and (b) whatever one considers the literary talents of J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer, neither one of them can be accused of cranking out boilerplate to fill a marketing niche — even those who dismiss their work as meretricious crap admit that it’s heartfelt meretricious crap produced (sans MFA credentials) for the love of it. But the writer of the article and her classmates… well…
… But many of us felt an adrenaline rush: Against all odds, Frey was still at it. He was thrilling, condescending, rude, empowering, and haughty. “He didn’t show an ounce of self-doubt,” says Philip Eil, then a first-year nonfiction student. “Not a second of wavering. He was 110 percent that there was no truth, that he would live forever through his books.”
Mostly, though, we talked about his invitation. We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs…
Spoiler alert: It turns out to be… not that simple. The rest of the story is part Edith Wharton, part Tom Wolfe, with a considerable admixture of Sammy Glick. There are glamorous photographs of Frey in proximity to upmarket celebrities, and an introduction to “book packagers“, traditional and otherwise. A happy ending, of sorts, is implied — the author, presumably, has been paid by New York Magazine, a far more reliable outcome than signing up for Frey’s movie-concept factory.
But I am left with one overriding conviction: If I were fortunate enough to be in a demographic capable of assuming a six-figure debt to acquire an MFA in creative writing… and someone notorious for being on the wrong end of “a class-action lawsuit that settled for $2.35 million” were to offer me a chance to help him scam a great many unspecified book-readers and potentially Hollywood studios, in return for nothing but six months of my hard work… I would not take him up on the offer.
In fact, I would put one hand on my wallet and resolve to discretely check my valuables and the change jar on the mantelpiece in Mr. Generosity’s wake, but perhaps I have just read too many spam emails from Nigerian princes.