Is it canniness or coincidence that HarperCollins released news of its purchase of disgraced memoirist James Frey's new novel on the eve of Beaufort Books' publication of If I Did It, the souped-up confession from the murderous
disgrace O.J. Simpson? (The latter, of course, is almost the selfsame book that Harper Collins canceled nine months ago.) Methinks, at the very least, that the timing is fortuitous—at least for Frey. Eighteen months ago, he was the scandal/story of the season, the subject of countless news programs and editorials (including but not limited to several in this very publication). Today, his reappearance—and the press release that heralded senior v-p and publisher Jonathan Burnham's purchase of the book, called Bright Shiny Morning—has gone nearly unremarked.
When the original Frey scandal broke, I got into some trouble by daring to suggest that what he and his publisher had done was not all that terrible (a stance I modified somewhat as more facts emerged); that memoir could never be 100% verifiable fact; and that Oprah Winfrey's pillorying of the author and his editors was a bit over the top. Some publishing watchers agreed, at least sotto voce, but by the time his original publisher, Random House, agreed to pay back some disgruntled readers, the fix was in. James Frey would never eat lunch in this town again.
What a difference a couple of years make. After being dumped by his agent and escaping to France, Frey came back to New York and started writing. He found new representation in the very respectable Eric Simonoff, of Janklow & Nesbit, who sold the book with neither auction nor fanfare, directly to Burnham, who has declared it a “very, very good work of fiction.” (The book is a many-charactered tale of contemporary Los Angeles, Burnham says; the one thing it is not is a roman à clef about a guy who lies, gets caught and finds redemption.) To judge from the original press release and the relative lack of public discussion, HarperCollins is, this time, in the kindergarten of publishing scandals. Who, after all, can get exercised about a novel by a guy who used to make stuff up when this very week a guy who likely murdered two people is having his say?
But will Bright Shiny Morning sell to consumers when it is published next year? That, of course, depends on whether Frey can lose some of the frat-boy braggadocio that alienated some journalists and readers long before thesmokingun.com outed him, on whether the public has somebody else in its sights by then, and maybe, too, on whether the book is any good. And this being America, you also have to consider that by 2008, approaching three years after Frey's disgrace, the lingering whiff of scandal may serve the author and publisher well; I bet there are plenty of readers who will recognize Frey's name on the jacket, even as they forget why they know it.
Besides, this book is being clearly billed as fiction, and the one thing that many Frey watchers, pro and con, agree upon is that the guy can spin a yarn.
Just ask Oprah.
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