The Writer as Artist: What are the Rules of the Game, and Should They Be Broken?

"Bad boy" of the literary world James Frey
This past week, New York Magazine ran a most intriguing article that posed a question I have often thought of myself—is it possible to create a conceptual work of literature that can operate something  like a conceptual work of visual art? In other words, how much can the genres of literature (such as fiction, non-fiction, biography, and fantasy) be blurred, and what is the responsibility that falls upon the writer as artist to produce what is expected of a genre? With the recent surge in popularity of the memoir genre (a category that forms accounts of individual author’s personal experience) the possibilities grow even more ambiguous and potent. These sorts of questions were exactly at the core of this rich article which explored the notorious writer James Frey and a graduate seminar at Columbia University that he participated in called “Can Truth Be Told?”

The infamous memoir which sparked
the controversy over the author's obligation
to tell the truth to its audience.
James Frey is that author who will forever be linked to the scandal involving the partial fabrication of his hugely successful 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces. In the book, Frey recounts what is presumably a story of his past—a 23 year old's struggle with drugs and alcohol told in excruciating and vivid detail. Utilizing a form of stream of consciousness writing (not unlike a surrealist rant in parts) and a highly conceptual approach to his depiction of the mind of an addict, Frey won critical acclaim for his unique writing style that was so graphic and realistic that one critic dubbed it “the War and Peace of addiction.” Frey’s appearance on television, most notably on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote the book as part of her book club (something Jonathan Franzen  had at first regretted as I posted about back in September), resulted in the book selling more copies in the U.S. in 2005 than any other title. However, Frey’s popularity and his sensational story of drug abuse and criminality prompted sceptics to investigate some of the more seemingly far-fetched stories in the book, leading to the infamous 2008 Smoking Gun expose which detailed many inaccuracies, embellishments, and outright fictional components of the memoir.  Frey appeared on Oprah once again to try and explain the criticisms of his book, apologizing for the inaccuracies and being largely discredited through the process as a liar and deceiver. Still, Frey attempted to restate his position, arguing in a revised author’s note to the book that: "I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard…A Million Little Pieces is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it's a story, and one I could not have written without having lived the life I've lived."

Andy Warhol's "Factory" in the 1960's, a place
where Warhol and his assistants mass produced
the pop artist's most famous works. 
Two years later, Frey is still defending his position, but has now elaborated and strategically connected his approach to that of the many contemporary artists he has as friends and close acquaintances. Of particular interest to me in the article is how closely Frey has come to conceive of his fictitious memoir as a kind of conceptual or even (dare I say it) avant-garde act. Frey is quoted in the NYM article claiming that he wanted to write in the tradition of Tropic of Cancer, “A Season in Hell,” and Paris Spleen—transgressive works by transgressive authors. The article also goes on to describe and more carefully detail Frey’s close connection to the world of art (he is a former student of the Art Institute of Chicago) and his understanding of the writing process as one of strategic transgression: “I have very few friends who are writers … I’m a big fan of breaking the rules, creating new forms, moving on to new places. Contemporary artists like [Richard] Prince, Hirst, and Koons do that, but there are no literary equivalents. In literature, you don’t see many radical books. That’s what I want to do: write radical books that confuse and confound, polarize opinions. I’ve already been cast out of ‘proper’ American literary circles. I don’t have to be a good boy anymore. I find that the older I get, the more radical my work becomes.” 

Frey as Warhol today creating a "Fiction Factory"
(image from NY Magazine article and Gluekit)
As part of the Columbia seminar, Frey announced that he will be turning to a new writing project (dubbed by the article’s author Suzanne Moses as "James Frey’s Fiction Factory," but officially called Full Fathom Five- a line taken from Shakespeare's The Tempest which suggests transmutation) that will be looking to exploit commercially popular themes in novels through the creation of a book-churning company. He sees “aliens” and young-adult novels as the next big trend. As the article goes on to describe, Frey wants to appeal to recent university graduates of writing programs to join his mission and create a kind of writer as artist collective. As he suggests,  “Andy Warhol’s Factory is an example of that way of working. That’s what I’m doing with literature.” Most literature students of the Columbia seminar interviewed for the article expressed deep scepticism of Frey’s proposal, and struggled with the line between artistic integrity and commercial success. As one seminar participant was heard saying after the seminar: “I feel like I need to go take a shower.” Still, I am left wondering if Frey doesn’t in fact make a valid point. Why shouldn’t authors be afforded an opportunity to participate in art-making strategies that question the many established norms of book writing and the powerful institutions that support the enterprise? Does a writer have an obligation to always give the audience what it expects?

James Frey Interviewed on CBC's The Hour in 2008 discussing the controversy: