James Frey Cashes In Again

Sweatshop project
Image by marissaorton via Flickr

I won’t bother paraphrasing the entire Guardian article linked below, as I urge you to read the full piece. James Frey has come under fire for starting up his own author-mill publishing company featuring young adult novel series collaborated on by young adult writers. The main argument against Frey’s new company, Full Fathom Five, is that he is basically exploiting young writers, desperate to break into the field and quite possibly too inexperienced to realize how much they are being used by him. Other authors and publishers have pointed to his contracts with the young writers, calling them draconian and (I love this, considering Frey is an author himself) Dickensian, with Frey retaining creative control and full copyright over all work produced by his young, eager staff of writers.

Without knowing the minor details involved, I have to say I am in complete agreement with the critics. It is very telling that Frey defends the severity of his contract by claiming it comparable to those found in the Law or Film worlds, conveniently omitting the publishing world itself. For an industry that is still struggling with the concept of paying authors higher royalties for eBooks that cost less to produce (which they do, despite the feeble arguments that some stubborn hold-outs offer to the contrary), it is refreshing to see an organized outcry against a former Oprah Book Club author (and Oprah outcast for fudging facts in his memoir A Million Little Pieces) setting up a teen author sweatshop that doesn’t even guarantee writing credit if their collaborative work is published.

Beyond the facts in the story as a whole, there is something blatantly shady about Frey that I can’t fully ignore. I don’t hold the controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces against him; I think that more memoir writers play fast and loose with the truth than most industry insiders would like to admit. Frey’s big sin was stretching truths that could be proven false through documentation, and the overall reaction to it was blown far out of proportion, due mostly to the imagined slight to the Cult of Oprah.

But there is still something about the guy that irritates me. In the article, he claims that the creation of Full Fathom Five was inspired by his love of the Harry Potter series. Logically, I would expect an author’s love for a specific book series to inspire him to write his own, not create a slave-wage writing mill of underage authors to crank out a bunch of them for him. Sounds to me as if he was more enchanted by the huge multi-billion dollar entertainment franchise spawned by the books than he was by young Harry’s journey.

Then there’s his whole act of reluctantly embracing his increasingly negative public image. For somebody who doesn’t like the idea of being the “Bad Boy” writer/publisher, he sure manages to use the phrase often enough during his interview. Even his picture for the piece, featuring him kicking his sneaker-clad feet up on the table, screams “That’s right, I’m wearing a sweater, but I’m still outside the box, baby!” I hate to be the one to break it to Frey, but he isn’t James Dean. He’s just an enterprising but ultimately opportunistic writer who caught the backlash of trying to cash in on the Memoir craze, and is now doing his best to cash in on the Young Adult Novel craze while hiding from further recriminations behind a bunch of naive kids. Definitely not what I would refer to as “Bad Boy.” If I had to pick a word to describe it, “Sleazy” would more readily jump to mind.

James Frey forced to defend literary ethics, four years after Oprah attack | Books | The Guardian.

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