Aye Write! - James Frey
To celebrate the return of Glasgow literary festival Aye Write! Rodge Glass explores the sometimes tenuous relationship between fact and fiction in writing, as one of literature’s most notorious ‘liars’, James Frey, comes to town
Truth is a slippery business, and those who deal in it should be careful. This was what Haruki Murakami was saying last month when he accepted the Jerusalem Prize, a controversial writers’ award. He opened his speech saying: ‘I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.’ Standing next to the Israeli President he went on to say that politicians tell lies too, and diplomats, and military men, but ‘no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling them. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics.’ The reason people like to read skilful lies, he suggested, is because they reveal truths about our world.
James Frey fell on the muddy side of the line between truth and lies when his memoir of his time in prison and overcoming drugs, A Million Little Pieces, was exposed as containing some embellishments. Perhaps, it turned out, he hadn’t spent quite so long behind bars. Perhaps he’d not been quite so low as he’d claimed. In 2003 Frey had been open about his methods, saying ‘I’ve never denied I’ve altered small details.’ In 2003 that didn’t matter but a couple of years later it very much did because he had been endorsed by the all-powerful Oprah Winfrey, who instantly guarantees massive sales. And when Oprah’s angry fans started accusing her of not caring about the truth, she tricked Frey and his publishers onto her show for a good, harsh telling off, saying she felt ‘duped’, and that Frey had ‘lied to millions of people’.
This was controversial in itself and was the start of a long humiliation for Frey, who went from being one of the most sought-after authors in America to being a pariah abandoned by his agent and many friends too. In a bid to stop the controversy, Frey’s publishers offered to reimburse anyone who’d bought A Million Little Pieces and wanted their money back. Very few did. This public flogging seemed strange to me. In a publishing world where novels ‘written’ by celebrities who proudly claim never to have even read a book (hello, Katie Price) are considered fair play, also ‘memoirs’ and ‘autobiographies’ by sports stars who couldn’t possibly have time to write what they put their name to, this attitude to ‘truth’ is pure hypocrisy. Why is absolute ‘truth’ valued so highly anyway? How do we know when we’ve found it, and what use is it? Surely the wider point with Frey’s book was that he’d recovered from a life of substance abuse and was inspiring others to do the same.
Frey survived despite the controversy, and has now resurfaced as a novelist with a new fiction (that is, book of lies) called Bright Shiny Morning. This has become a huge bestseller, embraced by many of those critics who wanted Frey chucked on the stake for previous crimes. Since then he has embarked on a lengthy world tour which now brings him to Glasgow. Some believe this switch to fiction is strange. Suspicious even, given the circumstances. But it’s not surprising that Frey should be a good novelist, because writing autobiography is similar to writing fiction, whether or not you admit to gilding the truth. (And we all do it.) The moment you take events out of the real world and put them to paper, you’re fictionalising. By selecting some words, rejecting others, abbreviating the truth and trying to make it interesting, you’re lying. As Frey said when defending A Million Little Pieces, ‘I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.’ All useful skills for a professional spinner of lies.
When I began writing my biography of the Glaswegian novelist and artist Alasdair Gray in 2005 this obsession with truth fascinated and worried me. Wasn’t it my duty to keep exactly to ‘the truth’, whatever that was? What was I supposed to do if the truth wasn’t obvious in a particular situation? Biographies I’d read so far seemed to be written in a voice that couldn’t be disputed, and something about that seemed unbelievable. But then I read Jonathan Coe’s masterful biography of the 1960s avant-garde writer BS Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant. At first I wasn’t sure why this book was so gripping. I didn’t warm to Johnson himself — he came across as arrogant, deluded and self-important. I didn’t know any of his work and the excerpts from it didn’t instantly appeal to me. Yet I happily read 450 pages about him. Why? I realised after finishing it for the first time. He clearly had a deep understanding of what drove the man and knew his work intricately, but crucially Coe was telling his story of Johnson, as he saw it.
From then on, writing my Gray book was easier. My challenge, I believed, was to write a convincing, entertaining portrait of the artist as an old man for future generations, and to tell the truth as I saw it, revealing as much about myself, my own vulnerability, my world, as Alasdair’s. Not to pretend that I had all the answers. Only liars did that, I thought. Yes, try to get right exactly where Alasdair was on 1st March 1990 (on a flight to Berlin, incidentally, writing a poem) but never forget that such dry details don’t tell the whole story. The greatest parts of the Johnson biography were the bits where Coe intruded to explain conflicts between his interviewees, or that the truth wasn’t clear but this is what he thought and why. Because one person’s truth is another person’s lie.
Memories are unreliable. Interviewees disagree on even basic facts. It’s the biographer’s job to jump into that mess and make sense of it, also to turn a life into a story worth reading. Since his Johnson book, Jonathan Coe has returned to telling lies as a novelist. Since my Gray book, so have I. James Frey’s next novel is a proposed 3rd Testament in which Jesus performs gay marriages. So, no controversy there then.
James Frey appears at Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Mon 9 Mar; Rodge Glass and Jonathan Coe appear together at Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Sun 8 Mar.