I subscribe to many Young Adult book blogs, and have heard absolutely no mention of the recent hullabaloo over James Frey’s “fiction factory”. This is surprising to me, since it affects everyone connected to YA literature—readers, writers, and publishers. So let’s get informed!
The long and short of it is that James Frey, who was a memoirist who got in trouble for fabricating parts of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, finished the last Harry Potter book and thought "Someone is going to replace Harry Potter. Maybe it'll be me." (DIRECT QUOTE). Now, before we even get into the meat of why James Frey is a worthy of derision, let’s look at this quote. I find this incredibly distressing because I feel very passionately about Harry Potter and, like many readers, it is because of JK Rowling that I have a relationship with reading and writing today. This quote not only exhibits Frey’s arrogance and desire for money, but also paints a portrait of a seriously jaded, bitter reader who doesn’t connect deeply with books.
Since Frey himself didn’t have time to create the next Harry Potter, he created Full Fathom Five, a "content production company" to produce these books for him. That's right, "content production". That's all writing is. Content.
So, who writes these books? Badly paid unknown writers. Most of the writers are people with brand new MFAs in Creative Writing. I’m a graduate of an MFA program, and can attest to the fact that most MFA students don’t understand much about the realities of publishing. As a result, Frey has found it exceedingly easy to manipulate his hired writers. The books get published under pseudonyms so the books' popularity isn't affected by Frey's reputation, and also so the writers don’t get to take credit. These writers are forced into signing borderline illegal contracts that prohibit them from taking credit for any of their own writing while they receive a percentage of the profits.
"In business about 18 months, he has 28 writers working on 27 book series." 27 book series! We're talking the mass-production of literature. And you can bet it's not high quality. The first book produced by Full Fathom Five, I Am Number Four, has been described as little more than stage direction and dialogue, which is funny because—who'd've thunk it?—the movie is already in production. In fact, the movie rights for I Am Number Four were purchased by Michael Bay and Stephen Spielberg before the publishing rights were purchased. The real goal for Full Fathom Five is movie production and merchandising, because that’s where the money is. The filmmakers even requested changes to the draft of I Am Number Four in order to produce more merchandise for the film.
What's most sickening about this is that Frey chose Young Adult as the genre in which he’d enact his dastardly business plan. James Frey obviously saw the most potential for passing off horribly written, mass-produced crap to young people. He clearly has no respect for his audience, but the audience is not given the opportunity to protest because he cleverly passed off I Am Number Four under a pseudonym—Pittacus Lore.
So, what are the long-term effects of Frey’s actions? I Am Number Four has already made the New York Times bestseller list and, with the movie being released in February, the hype behind this work won’t die down soon (though it has failed to make a Harry Potter-like impression). Frey’s company is a juggernaut that is producing works at an astonishing rate. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider the possible effects.
27 heavily marketed series will change the face of Young Adult literature. When a few books get mass-produced, the scope of all publishing narrows. The more blockbusters, the fewer and fewer titles actually get published. The fear is that, the more the industry bolsters a few broad blockbusters, the less room there is for books with a narrower focus, books that challenge the reader or make them uncomfortable. YA author John Green has spoken about this—the more Twilights there are and the more books purchased at Wal Mart, the fewer unique titles actually get produced.
There are many YA writers who are actively beating back the scourge of poorly-written crap geared toward teenagers—John Green is one of them. I am an aspiring YA author who has spent a great deal of time agonizing over my book, trying desperately to avoid cliché, trying to make the language dynamic, trying to deliver a quality product to the reader. Reading about Full Fathom Five’s approach—and success—is extremely disheartening to me, both as a reader and a writer.
I’m not sure what can be done, except to spread the word. The really insidious aspect of this is that these works will be published separately by different publishing houses under pseudonyms, so the average reader won't know whether they're reading a work produced by Full Fathom Five or not. I've spoken with readers who understand the reality of Frey's approach, but still intend to read the series because they sound good. But, I know there is a population of YA readers who demand excellence in their reading choices, who don't want to be manipulated so subversively by an author who exhibits such little respect to the reader.
Choose your books wisely, and think deeply about what you read. Young readers deserve just as rich a reading experience as adult consumers of literary fiction. If readers start demanding a higher-quality product, the publishing industry will respond, and the efforts of people like James Frey will be thwarted.
Read the original articles from New York Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Also, check out the Central Connecticut Writers Group's thoughts on this subject.