Full Fathom Frey

Ian Stansel

Oct 28, 2010

A recent article in New York Magazine describes Full Fathom Five, a project created and headed by James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces and a couple novels. The article is written by a young writer who almost became one of more than a dozen in Frey's harem of scribes. The concept is this: a writer (most of them young, MFA grads or soon-to-grads) proposes a book to Frey, who will either approve or not approve it, and then maybe gets it published under a pseudonym. In the words of a publishing attorney, "It's an agreement that says, 'You're going to write for me. I'm going to own it. I may or may not give you credit. If there is more than one book in the series, you are on the hook to write those too, for the exact same terms, but I don't have to use you. In exchange for this, I'm going to pay you 40 percent of some amount you can't verify--there's no audit provision--and after the deduction of a whole bunch of expenses." Frey seems to like to point out that most of his friends are artists, not writers. The article is accompanied by photos of Frey with art-scene luminaries such as Richard Prince and Bill Powers (remember him from "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist"?). He name-drops Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. He talks of artists who employ others to do the actual art-making, then sign their names to the pieces. He says: "Andy Warhol's Factory is an example of that way of working. That's what I'm doing with literature." What comes through in the article most clearly is how highly James Frey thinks of himself. What comes next is how little he seems to understand about what he is attempting to do. For as much as Warhol spoke of his love for products, he was still producing art. He was taking design elements and recontextualizing them: bringing them out of the world of the product (be that product Campbell's soup or Marilyn Monroe) and putting them into a context where they could be seen differently. Warhol helped us to understand our world by taking commonplace things and making them into art. The fact that this art then becomes a product itself is beside the point. The fact that he and his "factory workers" mass-produced these pieces of art only added to the concept, the turning of both commercial products and art on their heads. Also, Andy Warhol came up with the concepts for his pieces. Frey only approves or dismisses concepts devised by others; he is not conceiving of anything. (Nor is he doing something like what Frank Lloyd Wright did: working with younger architects, who spent the time developing their own artistic and drafting skills while under the tutelage of a master. Frey's outfit is no Taliesin.) The problem, aside from the obvious way Frey's whole system takes advantage of young, desperate writers, is that what Frey is aiming for is product. It has nothing to do with art. He says, "We're looking for high-concept ideas that we can pitch in one sentence." The author of the article says he was instructed to "start imagining product placement--'think Happy Meals'--because merchandise is where you make money in these deals." It is as if he's making a clothing line for Target and acting like it's some sort of underground haute couture. For all Frey's pompous blustering about "changing the game" and his self-made comparisons to Hemingway and Henry Miller, what he's doing is probably something either of those men would have pummeled him over. If Frey really wanted to do something Warhol-esque, he would take a literary product and make it less commercially viable. So my idea is this: someone take a best seller, maybe something to do with sparkly vampires or child-wizards or symbologists, and turn it into a poem, a big, beautiful, abstract-as-hell poem. We'll print a limited number in chapbook form. We'll sell them in places that don't sell the sparkly vampire/child-wizard/symbologist product-book--say, an art gallery or my garage. We'll make literally dozens of dollars. You can even put your name on it.