The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Friday, January 20, 2006

James Frey and Michel Foucault

I had my senior class read several articles (mostly from the New York TIMES but also the Smoking Gun's original exposé) about the James Frey controversy. The class largely felt that Frey was full of it--that he lied and that that makes his memoir invalid. Oprah's, and Frey's, defense that it told "emotional truths" and that only "5%" of the material was inaccurate/falsified didn't fly for them. I tend to fall into that camp, but maybe it's because I find Frey (and Elizabeth Wurtzel, for that matter) to be obnoxious publicity-seekers. (Plagiarism, as Wurtzel demonstrates, isn't an unforgivable sin--after she was caught plagiarizing in an article for the DALLAS MORNING NEWS, she landed jobs as NEW YORK magazine and even became a critic for the NEW YORKER.) But then I was rereading Foucault's "What Is An Author?" and Barthes' "From Work To Text" and "The Death of the Author", both of which I've always liked and kind of agreed with, and realized that it's impossible to both condemn Frey/Wurtzel for making things up and hold to Foucault's and Barthes' ideas. So I had the class read the essays to see what they thought.

After the preliminary explanation of the essays (which took a while--they're tough), I asked the students what they thought. Can we reconcile these apparently contradictory positions? Their responses were inconclusive--the French theorists made sense to them, but so did the commonsensical attitude they had toward Frey. For me, this really epitomizes one's initial response to "Theory" in general.


  • At 11:13 PM, Blogger zp said…

    I haven't read the Frey thing, but I've heard a little of the buzz . . . I might consider it from the other direction, what does the reaction to Frey's work epitomize? . . . Frey's work seems to deal with some themes (never mind it's genre or aesthetic, which I think are also "promising") that would lead his readership (in this particular place, in this particular historical moment) to value the truth or authenticity of his story, or the correspondence of his story to its author, or his story as truth. so for me, it's reconciling the death of the author (which is, for me, a commensense of audience reaction as well) to the commonsense of a particular audience reaction, "but this, this he shouldn't lie about" . . . . both seem to me theories of literature


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