The public rehabilitation of disgraced author James Frey is slated to begin May 13. That's the day Bright Shiny Morning, a novel, hits bookstores nationwide in what he and his publisher undoubtedly hope will be a well-received comeback.
That Tuesday in May also will mark the first time most reviewers and booksellers will crack open the book, if the strategy HarperCollins is employing is successful. Relatively few review copies or galleys are being released to the press or to booksellers before its official publication date. Prospective buyers of the new book by the author of A Million Little Pieces (Nan A. Talese, 2003) and My Friend Leonard (Riverhead Books, 2005) have been able to judge the novel only by its cover—a photograph of an empty park bench at sunset in what looks to be Los Angeles by renowned artist (and Frey friend) Richard Prince.
"The book has been kept under lock and key for the simple reason that James, in addition to having millions of devoted fans, has a dedicated group of Frey-haters," says Eric Simonoff, the author's agent. Simonoff, whose roster of clients at Janklow & Nesbit include Jhumpa Lahiri, ZZ Packer, and Bill O'Reilly, singled out Gawker .com as a nest of vitriolic Frey-hating: "Neither we nor the publisher wanted the book reviewed online months before publication."
"There will be a limited amount of review copies at a time to be determined," HarperCollins director of publicity Tina Andreadis said on the phone from her office. She was quick to point out that the "controlled release" strategy is not an embargo, and that some "select booksellers" have already received galleys of the book.
Despite its relatively low profile, the book has nonetheless been enjoying brisk business already, with early orders moving it up to number 277 on Amazon's sales rankings as of early March. "Again (and again and again), thank you," Frey wrote on his Web site, BigJimIndustries.com.
Although HarperCollins does list Bright Shiny Morning as a forthcoming title, there is no additional information on the publisher's Web site regarding the book or its author. As for a publicity tour, it isn't mentioned on the site, but Andreadis has confirmed that there will be an eight-city tour that includes Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Philadelphia, with launch parties in Los Angeles and in New York City. The publisher has announced an initial print run of 350,000 copies.
Whether the new book and tour will change Frey's public image remains to be seen. "People will buy the book because they want to continue the freak show," says Jessa Crispin, editor of the online literary magazine Bookslut. "They're curious. If you strip him of his bad-boy, hard-core persona, what's left over? My guess is not much."
The new spate of well-publicized authorial fabrications seems to have sparked more interest in Frey. In late February, Belgian author Misha Defonseca admitted to fabricating the story of survival she tells in Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years (Mount Ivy Press, 1997); in March it was revealed that Margaret B. Jones—whose memoir Love and Consequences (Riverhead Books, 2008) describes her experiences as a half-white, half-Native American foster child running drugs for the Bloods in South Central Los Angeles—was in fact Margaret Seltzer, an all-white native of the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.
But the exposure of a growing number of memoirists as liars has done little to assuage some readers' hurt feelings at having been deceived by Frey's fabrications in particular. "Yes, other people have lied in their memoirs," Bookslut's Crispin says. "That doesn't make what he did less of a lie."
Daniel Nester is the author of God Save My Queen and God Save My Queen II, both published by Soft Skull Press. He is currently at work on “Cousin Mike: A Memoir.”