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Endgame: How to win £300,000 by reading a book by James Frey

What happened to books that offered the traditional pleasures of entertainment, wit and empathy?
  • @johnhenrywalsh

Stand by, everyone: it’s “a publishing venture for the multi-media age”. The American writer James Frey is about to launch a trilogy of adventure stories called Endgame, which may or may not be readable fictions but which will allow readers to compete for prizes totalling £300,000. They’ll have to follow clues, solve puzzles and work out riddles from “words, maths, images and connections” within the story, in order to win huge amounts in gold coins.

It’s obviously going to be a massive “New Thing” from the Rupert Murdoch stable: HarperCollins have sold the publishing rights in 27 countries and Fox studios are planning three movies, scripted by Frey and produced by the people behind the Twilight novels. But it’s hard to ignore the whiff of ordure about the whole enterprise, the feeling of déjà vu and copycatting, of second-hand ideas and “can-I-join-in” opportunism. Despite its spin-off ebook novellas and Google-generated “interactive mobile game” recreating “Endgame’s fictional universe,” this isn’t really a publishing venture for the multi-media age – it’s a publishing venture for the greedy, philistine, post-literate world.

At its heart is James Frey, a writer of considerable talents but relaxed notions about truth and fiction, fairness and exploitation. His first book, A Million Little Pieces, was a memoir of his out-of-control drug abuse and gradual rehabilitation. I met him on the day of publication, in 2003, on a radio show. I remember listening to him read the opening of A Million, about his boarding a flight to Chicago, aged 23, “covered with a colourful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood”, and I wondered aloud how any airline, no matter how avid for passengers, would allow anyone on a commercial flight in such a condition. Was it really true? Later it turned out that many facts in the book were embroidered, including his contention that he was held in police custody for 87 days – according to police reports, it was a few hours. 

Oprah Winfrey recommended the memoir on her Book Club – and, after the revelations that he’d “altered facts” and “embellished incidents”, Oprah brought him back on the show to chastise him and his publisher for telling lies. Some readers demanded their money back, saying Frey had played fast and loose with their feelings. Speaking last week about the affair, he said he’d always intended the book as fiction, and that “only 1,200” people had asked for a refund. (Is that all? So that’s okay then.)

His books became a franchise. In 2009, he set up a publishing company, which hired people to churn out Young Adult fictions in the hope of striking lucky with another Twilight. It hadn’t been going long before one of the young authors revealed the contract they wanted her to sign: she’d receive a paltry fee of $250 (£150), she could be removed from the project at any time, and couldn’t expect an author credit.

When Endgame: The Calling and its circumambient techno-spin-offs come out in October, they will remind us of many things: the title will call to mind Magic: The Gathering, the fantasy card game invented by Wizards of the Coast in 1993; the search for real-life treasure is an acknowledged nod to Kit Williams’s 1979 Masquerade and the huge hunt for a gold-and-jewelled hare it provoked (it ended up mired in controversy when the finder turned out to be a friend-of-a-friend of Williams); the interactive online game that recreates the fictional world is a straight homage to JK Rowling’s Potterworld, as is the narrative theme of bloodlines; the use of real sites around the world (such as Stonehenge) to carry a plot is a tired reminder of The Da Vinci Code.

But maybe none of this mix’n’match DIY fiction matters, if the book is good enough and not just a cynical trot through some well-tested, entirely familiar tropes of Young Adult passion-in-a-hostile-universe. Maybe. And I can imagine some parents saying, “Leave Mr Frey alone – he’s encouraging young people to read books.” Yes, but not to read books that offer the traditional pleasures of entertainment, wit, empathy and absorption in other human lives – only the solving of puzzles, like some literary Sudoku.

Perhaps Martin Amis should publish an interactive online version of The Zone of Interest, offering clues to the discovery of Nazi memorabilia in his native Brooklyn. Perhaps David Mitchell is working on a treasure hunt, in which readers peruse The Bone Clocks simply to find a jewel-encrusted grandfather clock buried in the Home Counties. That would guarantee more readers, wouldn’t it? But it’s unlikely. Because Amis and Mitchell are real writers, able to understand what real readers want, to distinguish truth from fiction and to see the publishing of books as more than an exploitation of other people’s imaginations.

Exposing more than a fine figure or two...

You thought Miss World was bad?  You thought Eric Morley’s brainchild beauty contest, born in 1951 and inexplicably still peddling its objectification of women had plumbed the sexist depths over the years? Well check out Miss Asia Pacific World, South Korea’s stunningly dysfunctional answer to the sash-and-swimwear show.

Miss APW has been going only four years, but tales of corruption abound. The first winner, Jung Eun-a, was kicked off her podium after just one day amid allegations that she’d had sex with a judge. The French runner-up was given the crown, but had to relinquish it to Miss Ukraine (nobody knows why) seven months later. Several women complained to the authorities after it was found that Miss Venezuela was named runner-up apparently before she’d appeared on stage.

Miss Asia Pacific World is back in the news because this year’s winner, May Myat Noe, aka Miss Burma, fled the competition with her £120,000 crown after the organisers said she’d had breast implants to improve her chances of winning. According to Miss Burma – who is, we should mention, just 15 years old – she had been offered surgery by the company that runs the pageant, but had turned it down, and was furious they’d lied about it. She’s now been stripped of the title and accused of being “dishonest” and “unappreciative”. Don’t you love that “unappreciative” – why couldn’t the silly girl appreciate the kind offer of a boob job by the organisers of a show celebrating natural beauty?

I can’t see Burma fielding another contestant next year in this sexist snake-pit. But I can’t wait to see what happens when Miss North Korea enters the fray...