Why Can’t the Publishing Industry Just Let Go of James Frey?


Here are three theories I can come up with to explain the $2 million book deal James Frey inked with HarperCollins for the book and film rights to Endgame, a YA novel described as “a Hunger Games/Battle Royale-esque story about dueling teenagers”:

1. James Frey is some sort of evil genius, capable of getting people to give him bags of money for whatever he does.

2. James Frey has serious dirt on somebody.

3. James Frey is the literary equivalent of that terrible serial hookup you just can’t stop going home with. He’s horrible, but you keep buying the drinks and paying for the cabs, and you just can’t figure out why. He is basically the guy from Liz Phair’s song “Fuck and Run,” except he writes books. The book industry just wants a nice boyfriend, but they keep ending up with this jerk because they fear ending up alone, which translates in this case to “they’re worried about not making any money.”

The sad thing is that Frey, the author who was made to fess up to Oprah about lying in his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces, has somehow avoided being condemned to literary purgatory. In fact, he has been rewarded over and over again — for being not only a liar, but also a mediocre author. Since A Million Little Pieces rocked the literary world, Frey’s career has actually accelerated, with projects like the Mark Walhberg-produced HBO show Frey is reportedly writing; his media company, Full Fathom Five; and the young adult series he co-wrote under a pseudonym, Lorien Legacies. Most other writers would be finished the moment the stood up from Oprah’s couch in disgrace, yet Frey has proven that there can not only be second acts in American lives, but they can yield even greater profits.

Frey’s continued success could be seen as a freakish curiosity, but the more obvious explanation is that the book industry is a business, and he has some ability to make that business money even though readers don’t necessarily trust him. If that’s the case, it’s the reading public’s choice whether Frey continues to have a career or not. I don’t suppose Frey is really good at wining and dining big publishing executives, and convincing them to write him big checks when they’re drunk. The publisher is just following the old Harry Cohn rule that if you give the public what they want, they’ll come out for it.

Yet Frey’s continued success isn’t even the only depressing thing about the seven-figure deal he’s inked. As one Goodreads user pointed out, it’s difficult to tell what will actually make his book different from The Hunger Games. It’s not inconceivable that someone with a reputation for fabrication would also have no moral compunction about slapping his own label on an idea that someone else has already sold to the same audience. And if that turns out to be the case, and he succeeds, it will mean that Frey’s money-making schemes are growing even more brazen, and that he’s now more confident than ever about getting away with them. And that doesn’t bode well for anybody.