Friday, February 03, 2006

In Response to "Embellishment and Lies"

Before reading this post, please read the post that spawned it, "Embellishment and Lies in the writing of James Frey," on Blue Skies Falling. I have yet to read A Million Little Pieces, which is ironically true of all my publishing-house colleagues who have followed the scandal, but Connor's got some interesting theories on truth and its requirements.

Essentially, Connor says that the boundary between fact and fiction is so blurred, human memory so flawed, that the distinctions "memoir" and "novel" are nigh upon irrelevant, and that a society that hears contradictory ostensible "truths" spewing from every possible media source would benefit from having this acknowledged, publicized, discussed. I'd agree that the scandal of A Million Little Pieces might in fact turn out tremendously beneficial to American society, forcing the kneejerk readers of bestsellers to become critical thinkers in a fashion that might not come naturally. However, I would challenge not only Connor's answer, "Absolutely," but his question, "Do I as a writer have the right to compose a book composed largely, or Hell, completely of misleading information, and publish it as 'nonfiction'?"

I believe that this is a point at which context (the cornerstone of postmodern philosophy and scholarship) comes into play, even if it is the context within the author's mind. There are two questions here, whether I as a writer have the right to create a book composed largely or completely of misleading information and publish it as nonfiction, and whether I as a writer have the right to create a book *deliberately* composed largely or completely of misleading information and publish it as nonfiction. In other words, I'd make here a distinction between truth and honesty. While Frey is not obligated to remember everything perfectly, I would call it his obligation, in a piece he claims is a "memoir," to be truthful to the best of his abilities. There is a line to be drawn between faulty memory and outright fabrication, the latter of which was clearly the case in A Million Little Pieces.

Yes, that's a delicate balance. I've always had a personal difficulty with libel suits, for example, which Connor claims in his qualification that many individuals caricatured in Frey's book (huzzah! A fact! It is, unquestionably, a book!) would be entitled to bring. But most of the libel suits I've heard about as possibilities are related to fiction, under which distinction libel remains virtually unprovable, even in the case of scathing social satire. I object to the notion of Anna Wintour suing Lauren Weisberger over The Devil Wears Prada, or Upper East Side families going after Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus for The Nanny Diaries. (Neither of those things has happened, to my knowledge; those are just examples of light and transparent contemporary fictionalized social satire that I've read recently.) But I object to libel suits at some level *because* I believe them unprovable, because I believe that the authors of satirical fiction have adhered to social mores. Fictionalization at some level strikes me as a matter of courtesy. Even if you hate an individual or a social class and believe their treachery should be revealed, fictionalizing offers the objects the option of seeing the errors of their ways without being directly accused or having the accusations of others heaped upon them. Fictionalization offers a way out. Certainly there are those who don't deserve such an out, and for them investigative journalism is always there. Fictionalization also protects the author (from libel suits, among other things), but it strikes me in almost all cases as more courteous than a "tell-all autobiograhy."

My great-aunt taught me that before talking about a person behind his/her back, one must ask oneself three questions about what one is about to say: "Is it kind?" "Is it true?" and "Is it necessary?" and answer yes to at least two in order to proceed. To that list, Sarah's family adds "Is it funny?" an addition of which I approve. In the cases of the above-mentioned satires, they are unquestionably funny, unkind, and in the case of The Nanny Diaries one could make an argument for necessary. But if truth doesn't exist, Frey doesn't stand a chance under such criteria. Not having read the book, I can't say whether he does anyway, and I recognize that this system of judgment is not reliable outside of individual assessments. But in the question of truth and social ethics, it's worth thinking about.

So do courtesy and ethics overlap? Courtesy is the compromises we make to live as social beings on a day-to-day basis; ethics (practically, not philosophically) is the system by which we assess behavior (including but not limited to our own) both in relation to our judgments and in relation to its personal and social results. I'd say that is a decent chunk of Venn diagram. Fictionalization violates neither, though in some cases it walks a fine line, and Frey has violated both.

The distinction between "autobiography" and "memoir" was was, as I understand it, created to draw the distinction between personal narrative based on known fact and personal narrative based on the impressionism that is memory. An autobiography is to contain dates and references by which we can track and trace at least some degree of truth; a memoir is a narrative that works like memory, emphasizing certain moments and neglecting others in their entirety. However, Monet's "Water Lilies" is still a painting of water lilies, if not as we're accustomed to looking at them. One of my favorite books is Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes. I've read it at least a dozen times since its publication in 1996, each time moved to tears by the simple beauty of McCourt's prose and dialogue, and by imagining that he had lived this life and survived to write such a book. I don't know McCourt to be telling the truth about his life story; I sincerely doubt that all his dialogues are verbatim recreations of conversations that occurred in the 1930s and '40s, and not knowing anyone who can substantiate his claims, it could be utter fabrication. But certainly I feel that McCourt has made a compact with me as a reader to tell the truth as he sees it. Had I lived his life I would have had a different truth; on this front Connor is unquestionably accurate. There is no one, absolute way that the events limned in McCourt's memoir (well, technically memoirs, but Angela's Ashes is far and away the best of the three) can be proven, at this point, to have taken place. There are, however, things that one can prove did not happen, things one can prove are outright fabrications as opposed to impressions. In fabricating McCourt will have broken his compact with the reader.

Now if I were to paint a canvas red with black stripes and call it "Water Lilies," would that be acceptable? Yes, because the object in question is so clearly not a representation of water lilies; it's the inverse of "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." I'm not claiming for a second to have painted water lilies, and am using our prior knowledge of water lilies to create a dissociative experience, the compact for which is made in the clear contrast between the ostensible subject and the representation. In this manner, Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America is not a violation of his agreement with his readers, although the protagonist in question is named Philip Roth and, like author, is growing up in a Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1940s. The situation is fictional, an imagining, a moderate dystopia. Roth is writing a time that never existed and calling it his upbringing. Frey, as I understand it without having read the book, is writing a time and a place that existed and making people and situations out to be worse than they are, without ever having agreed that it wasn't that way.

Not all art needs to strive for truth, but all art, as I see it, needs to strive for honesty. It is a betrayal of your readers/viewers to do otherwise. And from what I've heard from those who've read Frey, there exists emotional honesty in the book; people from Oprah to my friend Kristie have found it incredibly moving. But he still does, as I see it, have an obligation to the objects of his book, to be honest about his life, in a social context, as he knows it.

Do we need to be more critical of our "politicians, scientists, theologians, entertainers, and yes, writers," and to train our children to see the line between fiction and non-fiction as ultimately blurred? Unquestionably. As an agnostic, I'm entirely comfortable telling children that there's no one, absolute truth, and I'm pleased to know believers like Connor who are comfortable believing and teaching the same. But does this extend to the premise that there is no honesty or dishonesty, that nothing is right and nothing is wrong? Ultimately, I feel Connor's argument would serve to justify a piece of writing in which a woman claimed, knowing it to be an untruth, that a genuine man in her life, a man whose name she used, raped her.

There are a million permuations of memory, certainly, and there are a number of ways, particularly stemming out of the rash of false child-abuse accusations in the late 1970s, that a woman might genuinely believe she had been raped by someone who had not, in fact, raped her. And this is where the distinction between truth and honesty comes into play. I could not fault a truly delusional woman for believing a rape that had not actually occurred did occur, and because that's her truth to the best of her knowledge, her accusation would not stand as an ethical violation. But would I fault a non-delusional woman who did not believe said rape had occurred for accusing a man in her life as a rapist by name in her memoirs? Does that stand as an ethical violation? Unquestionably. The first woman is being honest and not telling the truth; the second woman is doing neither.

Can I prove that? Perhaps not, but nor am I prepared to live in a society where it isn't a given.

My belief, in the long run, is that children (and by extension society) should be taught to believe both in the existence of strict systems--in some cases dichotomies--and in their ability to challenge such systems. To base everything on the premise that there is no truth is to forbid the development of honesty, in the long run a much more valuable commodity than truth.


At 1:52 PM, Blogger Connor said...

It's difficult to respond, because at face value, or assuming we move off the same assumption, we're in complete agreement.

Your central point seems to assume a compact between reader and writer that implies "honesty" as a mutual *striving* for the truth. I think that makes sense on a gut level, and I generally think that we all have an obligation on a human level to try not to be assholes.

My response may have been partially unclear, and I should have specified that what I found objectionable in Oprah's response wasn't so much her conversation with Frey, but with his publisher in which she argued that they had an obligation not to categorize what might best be called a "memoir" as a memoir. And looking at the fallacies of the book (Frey's involvement in the train accident), its truths (he was an addict of all sorts), and half-truths (his girlfriend didn't commit suicide by hanging herself; she slit her wrists), I still feel on some level that it's closer to a memoir than it is to a novel, or what I'd call "fiction."

My response, then, is to the official obligations of the artists and publishers to their readers. I don't *like* that Frey is an asshole. But I don't have the *right* to tell him not to deliberately miscategorize his book, just like I don't have the right to tell credit card companies not to lure me in with a bogus deal, or tell some skinhead he's not allowed his Nazi hate site.

And while I do think that this argument can be applied rigorously in theory, I also think the obvious justification is practical. Again, if credit cards are legally allowed to mail me an offer with a 2mm high warning informing me that my APR will quadruple after six months, or if our country can go to war over deliberately contrived intelligence, then itsn't it a flagrant waste of time and energy to censure a publishing house for labelling a half-fictionalized work "nonfiction"?

As far as what we should teach our children, or what the idea that we should strive to accurately understand and communicate facts with each other I'm in complete agreement. But I'm especially wary of the word "Regulation" as affects the arts, partly because I think that, allowed to roll along and respond to the social moment uninhibited, the arts can bring a lot to our consciousness that might otherwise go unnoticed.

One of the reporters on Oprah mentioned the "truthiness" of life today, in politics, in reality TV, and so on. So often peoples' casual acceptance of a "truthful" account has a direct and damaging consequence, that I frankly welcome the more harmless opportunities for people to wake up.

Cynical me, I guess.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

For clarification, I was talking purely about ethics and courtesy. I assume Frey has a legal right to do what he has done, or a lot more action would've been taken by now. But I think by not taking an ethical stance, we'll end up with the kind of human permissiveness and confusion that leads to the rape example.

So overall yes, we do agree. But I like going through technicalities with you, so let's do it some more.

I'm certainly not inclined to give much intellectual credit to Oprah either, especially given her rapid turnaround on this particular piece. I like the term "truthiness" as a source of irony there, and I think I'm going to adopt it. In fact, Ms. Winfrey herself may be the very embodiment of "truthiness."

I'd say I have a perfect right to tell Frey not to deliberately miscategorize his book, and to tell the credit card companies not to try to lure me inand to tell the skinhead not to be a neo-Nazi, and they have equal right not to listen to me.

As to the waste of time and energy: I want to think so too, and personally, I do. But rather than categorize it as a waste and ridicule people for wasting their time on it, we should find a way to publically connect it with, oh, say, misrepresentation by the administration. I'm believing more and more the credo of various geographically based activist groups, that the only way to mobilize people is to start from the issues they're mobilizing around themselves, the issues they feel passionate about already. If that's the mislabeling of a popular book, or noisy children in restaurants, so be it. That's already happened; the question has to be, where do we go from there?

Again, I don't believe Frey or Talese should be prosecuted or anything of the kind for this. That is the level of regulation I abhor. But for informal obligations, for violations that cause no direct and lasting damage to anyone, I look to ethics, the ethics of day-to-day life and artistic ethics. And an artist (or publisher) who isn't showing respect for his/her readers I need to call wrong.

At 4:29 AM, Anonymous chelsea vanderkeller said...

The story I am working on is so absurd (yet true) I need to rely on documentation (email and court records) to keep the facts straight. Trying to sell my book as fiction I have already been met with the response that the story was "ridiculously improbable" and "never happened". It did. I have records. Having said that I bought Frey's book after the scandal broke. It was a great book.


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