Novel Art and Anxious Objects: James Frey and the New Oprah Interview

Public Stoning by Edward Ruscha for James Frey (2007)
Oh James Frey.......why? That is all I could think as I sat down yesterday to watch the first part of a two-part interview he agreed to do with Oprah Winfrey. It was like déjà vu all over again watching him sit and visibly squirm discussing the details of the now infamous controversy surrounding his memoir A Million Little Pieces and his appearance on the Oprah show in 2006 where he faced the accusations. Last year, I had reflected on Frey’s predicament in a blog post exploring the possibility of creating a conceptual piece of literature that could operate something like a conceptual piece of visual art. At that time, Frey had captured media attention once again for launching Full Fathom Five, which amounts to a book-churning company on an Andy Warhol model of art production. His immediate goal was to hire young writers and create an assembly line for the creation of young-adult novels (among the fastest growing genre in the book market today). Needless to say, many observers were less than impressed with his application of an art factory model to the task of writing.

The book that sparked all the controversy
Perhaps that is why it was somewhat surprising to see Frey appear on Oprah again. He had long ago appeared to give up apologizing or even trying to defend his decision to market A Million Little Pieces as a memoir. In fact, Frey had in the past several years crafted a well rehearsed argument about the limitations and inherent problems with the genre—posing the very valid question of just how far the truth and reality of a memoir could be bent or manipulated for the sake of literary art. In many ways, the genre and the discourse surrounding his book had been critical in signaling the crisis within our broader culture about the limits and reliability of representing events that are claimed as “real.” I mean, have you watched a “reality show” lately?

In any case, what was apparent in the interview yesterday was that Frey had come to admit that what he did was somehow wrong. In true Oprah confessional fashion, the show was promoted, presented, and edited to capture Frey as truly repentant (see sensationalized promo clip below). Frey spoke of his regret in continuing to discuss the book as completely non-fictional, and he even apologized to Oprah for not being completely truthful about the details surrounding the book’s publication as a memoir. Even so, Frey was strategic in pointing out how his fate in the public sphere following the book controversy was one of the misunderstood artist. It was at this point in the interview that he spoke of his retreat into the art world with friends that understood him best. He even spoke of leaving the US for several months following the Oprah show controversy and living in France as part of a self-imposed exile.

On the one hand, I suppose there is something very sincere about what Frey is doing in revealing the strategy he took to sell his book. The bottom line is that no publisher was interested in publishing A Million Little Pieces as fiction. This is a crucial point that Oprah did very little to push or explore. On the other hand, Frey is continuing to leave open the question of what the artist owes its public. In one fascinating segment of the interview, Frey discussed how he had collaborated with famed conceptual artist Edward Ruscha on an art work that reflected Frey’s position following his memoir debacle. Titled Public Stoning (see image at top of post) the stark canvas with minimal text acts as another kind of powerful yet failed representation of what actually happened. I must admit that I even smiled a little when Oprah said that she had seen the painting at an exhibition and was left confused. Perhaps there is some method to James Frey’s madness in doing such a public appearance again. Part Two of the interview will air today, and no doubt I will be watching.

James Frey in Part One of his interview with Oprah (an excerpt only):