Memoir, “reality,” and condescending pep-talks

The man who once called James Frey’s first memoir “A Million Pieces of Shit” suggested last December that Frey may have borrowed subject matter from junkie Eddie Little, who died of an overdose a few years ago.

(Little wrote a novel called Another Day in Paradise. It inspired a film of the same name.)

I found Frey’s first book — the opening aside — forgettable. But a friend of mine who finished reading it on Christmas Day was traumatized (as were many commenters on Oprah’s message boards) by The Smoking Gun’s revelations. She spent her lunch hour comparing the start of Little’s book with A Million Little Pieces. “After reading an excerpt of Another Day in Paradise,” she says, “it’s not hard to see the similarities.” Namely:

The excerpt includes at least one instance of repetitive style, a prostitute girlfriend who was routinely sexually abused by her father, and a protagonist afflicted with “the rage” (I belive Frey called his “the fury”)… not to mention the protagonist kid being a heavy duty drug user and criminal, who has enough drugs to kill himself with, etc., etc. (all in the first five pages)….

[And] Little’s character’s prostitute girlfriend is also named after a flower ‘Rosie’ (as opposed to ‘Lily’?). Come ON.

Here’s another excerpt from Another Day in Paradise.

Honestly, I don’t remember Frey’s memoir well enough to form an opinion. It made as much of an impression on me, in the end, as a Jerry Springer episode.

Which brings me yet again to Dubravka Ugresic’s insightful remarks on our culture’s obsession with “sincerity,” and with “reality” that “is in fact soapified reality, a kind of ‘life for beginners.'”

If you still haven’t read Thank You For Not Reading, do. There Ugresic charges that the rules of market-oriented literary culture — the crowd-pleasing parade of memoirs depicting an unfortunate and ultimately triumphant protagonist– are reminiscent of Soviet Realism, of art that takes history as a starting-point but twists it into sanguine propaganda designed to pacify the masses.

I don’t subscribe completely to Ugresic’s arguments. Particularly not to the implication that all prostitutes, fishermen and housewives should put down their pens and return to paying work and leave writing for those with a mastery of “clear aesthetic coordinates.”

But so what? Grown-ups disagree.

Thank You For Not Reading is like a hand grenade, while so much criticism in our Snarkwatch world is like a condescending pep-talk from a grade-school teacher who hates you. I seem to be in the minority, but I always prefer smart, impassioned polemic to polite humbug — and a strong imaginative story to one that’s only affecting if you think every word of it is true.


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