The Rehabilitation of James Frey

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James Frey’s new book is terrible.

Or at least, the first chapter excerpt of James Frey’s new book, exclusively previewed on USA Today, is terrible. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, nor am I blinded by my flat out distaste for him as an individual. It’s just shoddy writing. Of course, we can’t lay all the blame at Frey’s feet over the quality of the prose in Endgame: The Calling, if any, since Full Fathom Five alum Nils Johnson-Shelton shares credit for the work, albeit with far less space given to their name on the cover. This may be another James Paterson case where the co-writer did most of the work, we can’t say for sure. Whatever the case, there is one thing we can be sure of: Frey’s ice-cream was probably better than his prose.

James Frey selling Ice CreamImage from @StephSorkin on Twitter. No grad students were exploited in the making of this ice cream. That we know of.

This week at BEA 2014, many bloggers may have been surprised to find themselves picking up a delicious ice cream sandwich served to them by Frey himself. While jokes about Frey’s well documented lies and shoddy business tactics floated around Twitter afterwards, most bloggers just seemed happy to get some ice cream, because everybody loves ice cream. Make no mistake, this was a calculated PR move on Frey and his publisher HarperTeen’s part.

With the Pittacus Lore series, Full Fathom Five’s biggest success so far, Frey didn’t have to put himself out there as a tool of publicity since the pseudonym was part of the marketing. Here, his name is on the cover so there’s nowhere to hide. Frey could have chosen a pseudonym, of course, he could have chosen to stay out of the public eye where questions over his fraudulent memoir still remain unanswered. He’s putting himself out there to take full credit for his work and the inevitable benefits that will come with having a YA series that crosses platforms and offers readers who participate in the in-book puzzles an extremely large and appealing cash prize. However, in order to do that, he’ll need to fix his public image, especially since the Goodreads rating for Endgame: The Calling currently sits at 1.78 stars. Jovial ice cream giving Frey who chats to friendly bloggers is a very marked shift in image from the Frey who poses flipping the bird with Terry Richardson.

James Frey and Terry RichardsonImage from Zimbio.
James Frey & Terry Richardson.
Just saying.

The most interesting question about this rehabilitation attempt isn’t if it will succeed but why publishers are so keen to rally around a man who Oprah practically buried in his own humiliation. People have been run out of the industry for far less than outright lying in a memoir, and the controversy surrounding his exploitation of writers under the banner of Full Fathom Five didn’t help matters. Add to that the well documented fact that the movie adaptation of I Am Number Four, a film deal tied into the entire purpose of the book’s publication, flopped both commercially and critically, and one is left wondering how on earth Frey has any clout left in this industry.

The matter is inevitably, and depressingly, a simple one: Frey makes publishers money, and at the end of the day that is all that matters in business. That’s why publishers will pay 6 figures for badly written One Direction fan-fiction. That’s why the woman who made hundreds of sandwiches for her boyfriend in order to get an engagement ring got a book deal. That’s why Rush Limbaugh gets to be a children’s writer. Money talks and bullshit walks. While many bloggers are fully aware of Frey’s past and present, most of the general public either don’t know or don’t really care.

It’s depressing to see HarperTeen put literally millions of dollars and a PR campaign most authors can only dream of behind Frey’s assembly line project (one that sounds suspiciously like The Hunger Games). It’s also pretty disheartening to accept that the series will inevitably succeed with that kind of power behind it. Check out the recent New York Times best-selling success of Jennifer Donnelly’s Deep Blue, a mermaid children’s series put together by Disney committee. These two examples could end up shaping the industry in a big way, which doesn’t bode well for mid-listers or anything a little more diverse. Of course, a success will also help to rehabilitate Frey’s image in a way a million ice cream sandwiches couldn’t manage. It’ll take a lot of desserts to salve the pain of that knowledge.

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