YA Guy’s thirteen-year-old son is really into the YA science fiction series, the Lorien Legacies, that begins with the book I Am Number Four. He’s read all of the books to date, and is eagerly awaiting future installments.
So we rented the movie version of I Am Number Four. And (in his estimation as well as mine) it stank. At his urging, I decided to read the book. When I did, I had no idea this was a Full Fathom Five project, the HarperCollins imprint headed by James Frey.
For those of you who don’t know, Frey’s the guy who duped Oprah and half the reading public with his largely fabricated drug-addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Moving on from that debacle, he founded Full Fathom Five to cash in on the increasingly lucrative YA market. (By his own account, he was looking for the next Harry Potter or Twilight.) His model is unorthodox and aggressive: he solicits highly commercial YA projects, contracts writers (many of them recent MFA graduates) to write them up according to a tried-and-true formula, and makes a gazillion dollars from them. But here’s the catch: according to some sources, Frey’s author contracts are highly irregular, paying out a mere pittance while prohibiting said authors from performing most of the activities (promotion, etc.) that are typically seen as the author’s right.
I’m not sure how true these reports are. I haven’t researched Full Fathom Five or James Frey exhaustively, though I have read (and enjoyed) another of the imprint’s projects, Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. I know some people have decided to boycott Full Fathom Five books because of the controversy surrounding the imprint.
Which is unfortunate, because I Am Number Four isn’t a half-bad book.
It’s got some stylistic problems (over-reliance on the helping verb “start,” excessive use of “is,” and so on). It’s also got some major plot lapses (why, if the alien teen living on our planet wants to stay hidden, does he attend a public high school?). And while the main character’s friendship with an alien-abduction obsessed fellow teen feels sweet and genuine, his romance with a one-dimensional former cheerleader-turned-do-gooder feels flat and formulaic.
But for all that, I Am Number Four also tells a compelling story of a teenage boy who just wants to be normal, who’s sick of moving from place to place every time his guardian says so, and who feels trapped by the weight of responsibility that’s been thrust on him, as he’s groomed to save his home planet from an invading alien race. In the tradition of the Harry Potter series or Twilight, the book’s fantasy concept does an excellent job of tapping into the anxieties and frustrations real-life young people face. In short, the book deserves a better publisher than, apparently, it got.
It’s easy to hate James Frey. He’s an unrepentant literary charlatan. In interviews, he comes across as boorish and egotistical. His interest in YA has nothing to do with art and everything to do with payola, primarily for himself.
But let’s put this in a larger perspective. If Frey is all of these things, why is he heading up a YA imprint at a supposedly reputable publishing house? If he’s all of these things, why is there a place in publishing for him at all?
There's a place for him, folks, because we made a place for him.
All of us in the publishing industry, and perhaps particularly in YA—publishers, editors, agents, and, yes, authors—have helped create the conditions under which a person like Frey can not only exist but flourish. We’ve all been looking for that blockbuster to rival Harry Potter or Twilight. We’ve all allowed formula to trump artistry. We’ve all, to one extent or another, put the dollar first and let everything else go to the devil.
So let’s not blame a disreputable character like James Frey for cashing in on a field that was ripe for his particular variety of greed, and let’s certainly not blame I Am Number Four. Like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, Frey is our own creation. And though we certainly don't have to approve of his activities, I don’t think we have the right to be shocked when he goes out and makes a killing.