Tuesday, November 30, 2010

James Frey, Eager MFA Students, and Fiction Mills

by Joe Chappell

Perhaps you've already read some of the new controversy surrounding author James Frey (yes, Oprah scandal-Million-Little-Pieces-James Frey) that has been unfolding over the past couple of weeks in the blogosphere.

First, the Wall Street Journal published this article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703805004575606393086301082.html

Then, in light of the Wall Street Journal piece, New York Magazine, after planning their feature on Frey for weeks, rushed their article (originally scheduled for their print magazine the following week): http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/69474/

Then the blogs weighed in: HuffingtonPost, BoingBoing, Gawker, etc.

Both magazine pieces highlight Frey's new company, Full Fathom Five, a sort of ghostwriting agency spearheaded by Frey, where fictional ideas are developed for young adult interest and then marketed to publishers and film studios.

Basically, it's an operation, that from a distance, seems not unlike those of some genre writers--James Patterson (his own process covered by NPR last year), Clive Cussler, and Tom Clancy come to mind, or even the young adult Nancy Drew series of the 1930s. So the idea of a "fiction mill" (which Frey likens to large-operation artist studios of those like Andy Warhol's or Damien Hirst's) is nothing new, but the controversy mostly seems to hover around the contract the ghostwriters must sign, both the pay and credit they receive for their work, and what some have described as "predatory" reliance on eager MFA students, perhaps sometimes desperate to get their work published wherever they can, and the additional dream of being paid for their writing--if not up front, then maybe, just maybe, eventually.

Shortly after the article was published, New York Magazine posted the full contract on their website: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2010/11/read_the_brutal_contract_from.html

In a nutshell, the ghostwriters receive $250 (in two payouts). They may or may not receive credit and they may or may not receive a percentage if the work is successful as a book or as a film. So, it's a seemingly "vague" contract, which based on the heated comments threads (even author Mary Karr (she wrote a New York Times op-ed on Frey in 2006) once again offers her perspective there) on the New York Magazine website, most would consider harsh, even "brutal."

We have hosted James Frey at Book Passage for an author event, and we certainly stock his books, but I don't know James Frey, so I won't attempt to speak about his character or the nature of his company.

Instead, what I am interested in is the world of ghostwriting itself.

If James Frey's writers were initially paid more, or if they received some credit, would we be discussing this at all? Would anyone still have a problem with it? I am assuming those writers who work for James Patterson are probably reasonably compensated for their work, and he appears to credit his ghostwriters in his books. Having an arts background, I am familiar with the art studio system and know that artists and craftsmen who work for other artists are generally paid a reasonable rate, and while Andy Warhol's Factory is perhaps a bad example, I would feel safe guessing that contemporary workers in Damien Hirst's studio are also being reasonably compensated.

So, does it come down to the value of writing itself? Do so many people take issue with Frey's system because they feel it devalues writing, "literature" itself? Does the fact that it is oriented to young adults change the matter at all? The young adult writing sphere is a passionate one, for writers and illustrators, and readers.

And, how about MFA programs, and how they play into this story? Are MFA programs responsible for educating their students in business matters and navigating the world of contracts?

What are your thoughts?

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