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A Fray Over Frey’s Play to Prey on M.F.A.’s


"We are currently accepting manuscripts for review."

By Elise Blackwell

The Internet is popping with outrage over James Frey’s new publishing entity Full Fathom Five, a stable of writers assembled to produce mostly young-adult novels with film potential. The fact that his recruiting has targeted students in top New York M.F.A. programs has caused some observers to question why young talents would sign the ridiculously exploitative, nonnegotiable contracts that Frey demands. Many writers are dismayed but unsurprised. Some observers blame the M.F.A. programs involved, offering good practical advice but perhaps missing the point.

Shortly before I entered the M.F.A. program at the University of California at Irvine, 23-year-old student Michael Chabon sold his first novel for a six-figure advance. One of our professors there had sent the manuscript to his agent, launching an enviable career that would have happened anyway. The event turned heads, spiked applications, and raised expectations. Then came the swooping: agents contacting students, editors asking to sit in on workshops, and the guy from Lucasfilm. This last creature materialized at a party populated by inebriated Earnest Young Writers to express his outfit’s interest in our concepts for straight-to-film treatments. Mentions were made of the amenities at Lucas ranch. The professor who’d sent Mysteries of Pittsburgh to his agent warned us to be careful. In fact, he looked disgusted.

I remember feeling tempted, but I can’t remember whether anyone pitched to Lucasfilm or sent a manuscript to the brassy West Coast agent also hinting at fame and fortune. At any rate, nothing came of it. It’s worth noting that the poets sat this business out. Then we all toasted Michael and got back to work. Many of us went on to publish—a few famously—the old fashioned way.

Later the program would go so far as to refuse workshop access to respected editors. The idea was not to grow hothouse flowers but to protect writers for two or three short years so that they could write a book without distraction. At the end of that time, the writer was sent, manuscript in hand, to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers to schmooze with agents, editors, and published writers. (Snobby if you say so, but Irvine’s publishing record is hard to fault.)