Great essay about James Frey and his new “art” book from Art in America.
On another, much sadder note, the (total badass) artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been detained by Chinese authorities for “tax evasion, bigamy and spreading indecent images on the internet.” Since early this year the media in China has portrayed him as a “deviant and a plagiarist” which is maybe the most direct thing that can be said of the role of an artist. While it is possible that Ai knew he was going too far by offering the above photo (and many other nudes with many other people) to Chinese authorities with the caption『草泥马挡中央』 a double-entendre meaning both “the central grass mud horse” (in China that alpaca is an internet meme named Cao Ni Ma, which is a pun) and “Fuck your mother, Communist Party Central Committee” (I’m sure they deserved it), you can sign a petition for the release of Ai Weiwei right here, via the Guggenheim. I don’t know if petitions really matter much in dealing with a government that clearly does not believe in freedom of expression and so on (though I do not know if they do much good in my country either), but anyway there you go.
This is Ai’s map for “a fake editorial”:
I’m a little obsessed with this New York magazine article about James Frey. He has a fiction factory where he enters into partnerships with writers that may or may not pay off for both parties involved.The advance is $250 up front followed by another $250, it’s pretty ludicrous. You may or may not get credit for your work. You can’t audit so you’ll never know how much you really should be making on royalties. Here’s the contract which is both cynical and corrupt but if you’re a sentient adult who signs this contract you get what you get. Writer Maureen Johnson weighs in on the more troubling aspects of that contract. John Scalzi writes an open letter to MFA programs about educating writers on the actual business of writing that is one of the best conversations about this topic I’ve ever seen.** The folks at Pop Matters have an opinion. Then there’s this guy who basically says, “This is the reality of publishing.” I was going to write a big long post about this topic but then I changed my mind. Let’s get real. I think most of us, at some point or another in our careers, would have considered signing this contract and getting into bed with James Frey. Before I knew any better, I would have. As I read the article, a part of me thought, “I’d work for Frey. Where do I sign up?” I have student loans, man. My student loans have loans. I would let Frey be my rainmaker. I have too much of an ego to not get credit for my work so I dismissed those thoughts pretty quickly, but they were there and frankly, I think a lot of writers were/are thinking the very same thing. That is a sad commentary on how indebted and poorly compensated most of us are. I am equally certain that even with all this negative press, Frey will never stop having a supply of writers. His business model will continue to succeed for the same reason people continue to pay $20 per submission to Narrative and enter writing contests and otherwise pay to be published. The desire to be published, for some, is so desperate and so intense they will do whatever it takes. Frey knows this. He knows this and is comfortable with exploiting that desperation by creating a Ponzi scheme or a lottery, where he dangles the hope of commercial success in the faces of the relatively hopeless. One of the reasons we’re all so up in arms about this whole thing is because of what we’re willing to do. We’re not comfortable with that.
**As an aside, it would also be useful to talk about how many small presses/magazines are publishing without contracts, or with crappy contracts, a scenario where, in the long run, everyone is vulnerable.
Damn near a month ago, Blake saw Catfish and posted about it here. Well, Catfish finally came to my quaint Canadian town, and I saw it last night. It was good. It was scary.
But what strikes me about this film is the obsession (re)viewers have with whether or not it is true. And sure, I’m no different. After I saw the documentary, I went home and immediately plugged into Google to find an answer.
What is our obsession with authenticity? Why do we “have to know” if something is real or not? Of course, not so long ago, there was a big “to do” about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, if only because he called some real that was not real. Why does it matter though?
James Frey was forced to sit down and let Oprah tear him to pieces before a studio audience because he committed the greatest crime a writer could commit. He made a bunch of people feel something when they read a novel. They thought they were reading something real. They connected with it and felt something. Turned out it wasn’t precisely real. It was embellished. It was changed to serve the story instead of the reality that the story was based on. All those folks who spend their lives vicariously feeling something through other people’s tragedies were angry that they felt something for a story instead of something that happened in the real world. They pilloried the jerk who went and made them feel something over a work of fiction.
This fetish for “real” is the most embarrassing part of the contemporary reading public. The memoir is, for the most part, just exhibitionists flashing their genitalia at voyeurs. Our Puritan ancestry is likely to blame for all of this.
Let’s hope the memoir dies soon and we can get back to the more important writerly pursuit: making shit up.
“What America needs most is tact.”
(Have I posted this before? Am I a broken record? Sorry.)