Hypervigilance and James Frey

Hope you saved the receipt. Readers who purchased James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces before its publisher, Random House, admitted that it was fictitious will be eligible for a full refund.

As reported on Radaronline.com:

With such a precedent in place, Random House—and every other publisher—would suddenly have to worry about the accuracy of every non-fiction book it publishes, memoir and otherwise.

The refund is in response to a class-action lawsuit brought by readers in several states who claimed they were victims of fraud.

According to the New York Times, to be eligible for the refund, readers must submit a dated proof of purchase that shows they purchased the book on or before Jan. 26, 2006. Hardcover claimants must submit page 163 of their copy, while paperback buyers must hand over the front cover (there are other specs for audiobooks and other formats).

Here’s the kicker:

People making a claim will also have to submit a sworn statement that they would not have bought the book if they knew that certain facts had been embroidered or changed.

The to-do over Frey’s book has been blown completely out of proportion, and as the first quote says, it is setting up a dangerously constrained and structuralist view of genres of literature.

Part of the problems comes from reader naivete. Your general reader of books is not a trained literary critic and does not understand that the section labels at Barnes & Noble are only suggestions. They do not understand that genres, since the rise of postmodernism, have been in flux. No easy way exists to classify literature into handy categories. For example: do we put Langston Hughes in the Poetry, Multicultural, or Classics section of the bookstore?

Most choices are arbitrary. The bookseller or librarian will help you find the book you’re looking for despite where it is in the store, and so long as you read and enjoy the book, you will not care what its section was labeled.

But then again, we have to remember that Frey purposely altered facts to make the narrative in his book flow better. Is that a crime? Absolutely not. His First Amendment rights guarantee him the freedom to express himself as he sees fit, so long as his speech is not hateful or damaging to other people; and no matter how upset Oprah’s book club members are, they were not hurt by the fact that Frey altered some facts to make a better story.

What really gets at people is that they were inspired by Frey’s book, and for some reason that inspiration is more genuine if it is inspired by true events in the book they read. They cannot be thus inspired or enlightened by fiction, it seems. For that reason, when people learned that certain parts of the book weren’t true, they felt betrayed. They became angry, and that speaks volumes for the power of literature to inspire and motivate people to action.

And finally, we cannot leave this discussion without a brief mention of TheSmokingGun.com, the site that first blew the lid off Frey’s supposed fraud. What does it say about our literature culture that we have people out there dedicated to seeking out every little mistake or fib made by authors and other public figures? There is such a thing as oversight, but to what extent does it need to be carried before we call it excessive?

In the end, James Frey should not admit to any wrongdoing. He did nothing wrong. He might apologize to those readers who felt deceived, but those readers must learn that literature is not something you can nail with a word or category. If we try to do that, we stifle artistic expression among the people are are out there writing books right now, trying to inspire the next generation. All this lawsuit and hubbub has done is make those authors all the more self-conscious about putting word to screen/paper.

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