Karen Rivers

you've got to know when to hold 'em.

Karen Rivers

I wrote a blog post earlier today about James Frey and card counting and the word rubric and then I deleted it and now I'm rewriting it because I am nothing but a slave to peer pressure and everyone I know* begged me to find it, drag it out of the trash, and post it, which -- I must tell you -- adds enormously to the pressure of making this a genius blog post with an excellent conclusion that will make you nod sagely and say, "Yes, yes, YESSSS" while tapping your fingers on the table due to either repressed glee or just general agreement with everything I've said.

The original post -- which was probably awesome, but we'll never know about that now, will we?  -- started with something that I suddenly got all re-annoyed about while I was toasting a bagel for lunch.

It happened in 1991.

What happened was that I was doing a poli sci presentation in college and I used the word rubric in a sentence.   Right at the point I said, "rubric", my professor leapt out of his chair and said, "WHAT?"  

I stopped because it was alarming and also, what WHAT?   

He smirked at me.   "There is no such word as rubric," he said.

"Yes, there is," I said.   I was totally in shock.  Of COURSE there was a word, rubric.   I blinked.   I lost my place.  I forgot what I was saying.   I watched my grade for that class spiral into the trash.

"No, there isn't," he said.  "What is it supposed to mean?"

I was already nervous -- I used to get nervous when I had to do any kind of public speaking, the kind of nervous where your knees shake and your voice seems to be coming not from your mouth but from some blank space somewhere above your head and is somewhat outside of your control -- but by that point I was humiliated AND nervous, a deadly combination.   I said something like, "You know, it's like, well, ummm... an umbrella?"

I kept talking.   "You know, um, like, 'under the rubric of...'  Like that."

And he smirked at me, again, and said, "You completely undermine yourself by making up words."   

I have been mad about this for, apparently, twenty years.   YES, TWENTY YEARS.   I don't let things go, people.   I just don't.   


But my inability to let things go, EVER, was really my point.

Lately a lot of things that have filled me with rage, things that I CANNOT LET GO OF AND MAY STILL BE RANTING ABOUT IN TWO DECADES, have come from Twitter.   Almost daily someone tweets something that links to some issue that gets my blood BOILING.   

Yesterday, this infuriating THING was James Frey.

Remember him?   The geeky guy who wrote a novel and called it a memoir and ended up weeping and apologizing on Oprah's yellow couch, not because he was upset that he'd done it but rather because he was upset that he got caught?   

Did he even weep?  I actually don't remember.   I don't think I saw it.   But from what I know of James Frey, I'd like to hazard a guess that if he WAS weeping, it was an act.   

James Frey doesn't care enough about you and your opinion or me and my opinion or Oprah and her opinion to actually cry about anything.   He's smirking all the way to the bank.

And NOTHING gets my blood boiling faster than a smirk.

So I read this article a couple of times and tried to figure out why, exactly *I* was so infuriated about it and the answers to the question "WHY?" just multiplied and multiplied until I had, in my head, about ten thousand reasons why.   Maureen Johnson, who is smart and talented and writes good books, blogged about it here and I ... well.... DITTO WHAT SHE SAID.

Am thinking of having t-shirts made up.   They'll say, "Just say NO to James Frey."   

For some reason, while contemplating the James Frey situation, I started thinking about cheating in general, because there is something about James Frey that smacks of cheating, and not the kind of "cheating" where you are sneaking around on your spouse, but the kind of "cheating" that is more a grey area, like card counting or figuring out the lottery** .  

The kind of "cheating" that says, "I've cracked the system and now I'm going to take your money."  

The kind of cheating that says, "I'm winning, so it shouldn't matter that I'm not playing honestly."

Smirk, smirk.

I actually have nothing against card counting.   I thought, for some reason, that it was illegal but a cursory stab at research (i.e. a quick glance at Wikipedia) has taught me that while it's not illegal, if a casino catches you doing it, they will likely uninvite you from their private premises.   Because, you know, they prefer to keep their money.    

The feeling that I got from reading about Frey's Fiction Factory is that Frey fancies himself a bit of a card counter.***   He knows some things, and he believes that knowing these things gives him some kind of power to win and he plans to blatantly exploit that until he can't any more and then he will find some other way to make money, you know, like Andy Warhol.  (OH, RIGHT.  SAME THING!  EXACTLY!  NOT.) 

These things are not secrets, and maybe we should lay them all out in the open.   YA is currently the darling of the publishing business because YA, for the most part, IS where the money is.   This is pretty indisputable.   Another fairly obvious fact is that a lot of the money that is to be made in YA is not just to be made by selling multiple copies of the books themselves, but rather in selling RIGHTS to these books overseas and to the holy grail of rights' sales, HOLLYWOOD.  And James Frey knows that movie-makers are ALSO in the business of making money and THEY make the bulk of their money not just from ticket sales, but from merchandising deals.   So it all spirals downards faster and faster to the using of books -- your lovely lovely books -- as ways of getting people to buy a plastic snake.

But even THAT is not really SO evil, it's probably some level of reality that I prefer not to dwell on too much because I am a BOOK PERSON and I loves me some BOOKS.

The thing that James Frey has really keyed in on, the REAL secret to James Frey's Shortcut To Financial Gain At Other's Expense, is that people who write and who WANT to write will do ANYTHING to get published.****  

Even if that means signing The Worst Contract in History.   And giving all their money and all their power to James Frey.   And he will happily take it, thank you very much, except will he say "thank you"?  Probably not.  From the sound of it, he'll shout at you on the phone as you slowly and surely realize that actually, he's right.   HE OWNS YOU.   

Or, at least, your book.   AND YOUR NAME.


So here's the thing YOU need to know more than any other thing in this whole preposterous situation:

If your book is good enough for James Frey's Fiction Factory, it's likely good enough for you to find your own agent (who will take 15%, not 60).   It's probably good enough for you to then get a publishing deal.    It may be good enough to get a movie rights' sale.  There may even be plastic snakes.

And if it's good enough for all those things, it's good enough to sport your OWN name.

I want to hold up a placard outside MFA programs everywhere, where James Frey is systematically preying on your need for money and your craving for publication and your talent and your skill.   It will say:


He has NOTHING that you don't have.   YOU have the talent.   It's YOUR book.  


Don't give your money away to someone who is too lazy to count his OWN cards.   Play your own hand, kids.   

Which I guess places this post squarely under the rubric of ADVICE YOU SHOULD TAKE.*****  



* OK, fine, three people on Twitter.

** There's a name for this and I can't remember what it is.

*** WARNING:  This is possibly the worst metaphor ever blogged.

**** I also have an uneasy feeling that perhaps these MFA students are agreeing to do this, in part, because -- AND PLEASE TELL ME I'M WRONG HERE -- they may, on some level, feel that they are too GOOD for YA and hey, they don't want to put their own name on it anyway.   Is this possible or am I just feeling disillusioned in general right now?   ANSWER ME.   You know, if you want to.

***** OK, yes, fine, I was trying to force rubric into the last line of this post to be clever, and no, it doesn't really work in this context.  BUT THEY CAN'T ALL BE WINNERS.