Saturday, May 24, 2008

A brief follow-up on Frey

The New Yorker is not so fond of Frey's new novel. From "Briefly Noted":

Two years after Frey's memoir "A Million Little Pieces" was outed as part fiction, the publicly chastened writer resurfaces with a novel much of which purports to be fact.

. . .

The characters are relentlessly stock: two lovesick kids from the heartland ("nowhere anywhere everywhere"); a bulimic, closeted movie star with a "MEGAWATT!!!!!" smile; a Mexican-American maid with an abusive employer. Frey strives for incantatory but winds up with banal; when it comes to emotion, the best he can muster is "It's deep, it's true, and it's real real real."

Maybe this reveals more about me than Frey, but I'll always take the writer with the semicolons over the writer who omits commas and overuses exclamation points (FIVE!!!!!). Unless it's Gertrude Stein. Then all bets are off. And Gertrude Stein never uses exclamation points.

Copyright and the modern writer

David Pogue in the NYT talks about why none of his computer guides are available as e-books.

As one might expect, I have a rather complicated take on the issue, and one that is dominated by the considerations of the fiction and poetry markets, and not the reference or specialist nonfiction markets. I've seen a good case made that making novels available for free online can actually increase sales of the printed version, although I don't know if that would hold true for a computer guide. Why pay $30 for a "900-page behemoth" when you can find the one piece of information you're looking for in a searchable PDF online for free? Beyond the $30 that I'd rather keep, why should I devote shelf space to 295 pages that I'm not going to use, especially when they're in an archaic format with a semi-helpful "index" instead of a much more useful electronic text query?

The usefulness of a free e-version to fiction is publicity. A 300-page printed novel is actually a far more efficient delivery system than a 300-page reference book. If I enjoy a novel, I'm far more likely to read all 300 pages than I am to read even half the pages of the best reference book.

Pogue's more interesting point is that the value-added argument for books is more difficult than for music—there's really no equivalent of live performance in the literature world, especially not for the small author. You don't have to be Radiohead to make money off of live shows, but if you're not John Updike, you'll never make it on the lecture circuit.

At the same time, however, Pogue's own line of work belies his own argument. Even if he were to give his books away for free, he'd still be making money from his column in the NYT.

While copyright law is clearly broken (see previous posts on the topic), and, as an e-publisher, I clearly believe in the potential of electronic delivery to complement the printed book, copyright needs to exist in some form in order for literature to thrive. (Although I think that there are good indications that even if Pogue were to leave the market, that online free reference works would continue to exist.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

A second act (from a third book)

Janet Maslin in the NYT likes James Frey's new novel, and for reasons, at least in the context of the review, that I would agree with.

In a weird sort of way, Frey can be read as the victim of his first book, and as much as I think that he deserved the backlash, I think his publisher deserved, and didn't get, every bit as much criticism as Frey did. Frey tried to sell his book to publishers as a novel, and it was a bad novel, a novel that wouldn't have been published without the nonfiction hook that Nan A. Talese gave it. Damn Frey for inhabiting that hook. Damn him for selling his book as a recovery program, which has the potential to genuinely hurt people. Damn him for the fact that he gets to keep all the money that his lousy, fraudulently marketed book made.

But there's nothing wrong with writing a bad novel. Most people do, and write several of them before finally writing a good one. Most of these bad novels languish rightfully in the drawers of their authors' desks and are burned after the good novel is finally written.

Frey made a mistake, and he has suffered for it. Furthermore, since A Million Little Pieces is still in circulation, he will continue to suffer. Frey has deserved to suffer, but I am willing to consider the possibility that he has suffered enough.

There were easy ways a cynical, sentimental crybaby like the million little pieces guy could have told Esperanza’s part of the story. Crisis, violence, redemption, whatever: that’s what he knew about. That’s what he wrote about. That’s what he passed off as nonfiction. That’s why he sounded as if he’d seen too many lousy movies.

So the Bright Shiny Morning guy did it differently. He let the little vignette play out against a big, gaudy, dangerous Southern California backdrop, full of drug-dealing gang-bangers, full of schemers, phonies, rich with a history of robber barons, all of it listed here, all of it stacking the deck against any generosity of spirit. The son steals the maid’s virtue? Been there, read that. They plot against the old lady? Been there too. This novelist wanted something else for Esperanza: he wanted to honor her, fall in love with her, do it with startling sincerity. He wanted to save her.

And it worked.

That’s how James Frey saved himself.

In the end, a bad novel shouldn't preclude the possibility of a good one.