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Monday, January 30, 2006

Sincerity and authenticity

The James Frey and JT Leroy spectacles are old news by now (that's what I get for starting these posts and then refusing to finish them), but I wanted to put in a few words:

First of all, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan totatlly forecast this event in their song, "Kid Charlemagne"!!! The similarities are eerie:

While the music played you worked by candlelight
Those San Francisco nights
You were the best in town
Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl
You turned it on the world
That’s when you turned the world around
Did you feel like Jesus
Did you realize
That you were a champion in their eyes
On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene
But yours was kitchen clean
Everyone stopped to stare at your technicolor motor home
Every A-frame had your number on the wall
You must have had it all
You’d go to LA on a dare
And you’d go it alone
Could you live forever
Could you see the day
Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away

(and that's just the first verse!)

OK, who's stopped reading?

Memoir isn't a genre with fixed conventions. Writing a memoir doesn't have to have a moral purpose, though the success of Frey's book is grounded in its triumphant arc of recovery and self-discovery. The fraud exposed the arc as Frey's construction, as his attempt to conform to a convention of a recovery memoir. Frey's fabrications aren't defensible, but they reveal his readers' desire to find a moral purpose in writing. Memoirist Mary Karr argues this point uncritically in her op-ed article from The New York Times (January 15, 2005 and TimesSelected). In writing her memoir The Liars' Club, she writes, she had to examine her memories and determine their truthfulness (as opposed to their Steven Colbertian 'truthiness'):

"Mr. Frey seems to have started with his perceived truth, and then manufactured events to support his vision of himself as a criminal. But how could a memoirist even begin to unearth his life's truths with fake events? At one point, I wrote a goodbye scene to show how my hard-drinking, cowboy daddy had bailed out on me when I hit puberty.

"When I actually searched for the teenage reminiscences to prove this, the facts told a different story: my daddy had continued to pick me up on time and make me breakfast, to invite me on hunting and fishing trips. I was the one who said no. I left him for Mexico and California with a posse of drug dealers, and then for college.

"This was far sadder than the cartoonish self-portrait I'd started out with. If I'd hung on to my assumptions, believing my drama came from obstacles I'd never had to overcome -- a portrait of myself as scrappy survivor of unearned cruelties -- I wouldn't have learned what really happened. Which is what I mean when I say God is in the truth."

This writing process is admirable, perhaps, but it's not the only possibility for memoirists. The success of Karr's The Liars' Club might have made it more popular to write and read memoirs about an author's search among her memories for what's psychologically constructed and what really happened, but that's a convention that can be charted historically. Mary McCarthy makes some of those gestures in her excellent Memories of Catholic Girlhood, but she doesn't have the same vocabulary of recovery and psychology that Karr learned in the 1980s recovery movement. McCarthy and Karr may be farther apart in purpose than Karr argues. Presidential memoirs don't usually contain deep the psychological insight that Karr demands.

Michiko Kakutani's commentary on the affair in The New York Times (January 18, 2005 and appears to be TimesSelected) hits all the predictable targets in a reactionary defense of Absolutely Truthful Memoirs, and in so doing hits wide of the mark.

"If the memoir form once prized authenticity above all else--regarding testimony as an act of paying witness to history--it has been evolving, in the hands of some writers, into something very different. In fact, Mr. Frey's embellishments and fabrications in many ways represent the logical if absurd culmination of several trends that have been percolating away for years. His distortions serve as an illustration of a depressing remark once made by the literary theorist Stanley Fish--that the death of objectivity 'relieves me of the obligation to be right'; it 'demands only that I be interesting.'

"And they remind us that self-dramatization (in Mr. Frey's case, making himself out to be a more notorious fellow than he actually was, in order to make his subsequent 'redemption' all the more impressive) is just one step removed from the willful self-absorption and shameless self-promotion embraced by the 'Me Generation' and its culture of narcissism."

The thing I find weird about all this handwringing about the demise of Truth is that we've seen several examples of it treated historically in films this year: Johnny Cash gets confused for the subjects of his songs and embraces the persona in Walk the Line; Truman Capote gets involved in the story he's writing for the New Yorker and manipulates the events; and I'm all set to see the meta-film of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, itself a play on the malleable conventions of a memoir and the novel (and film, in this adaptation that I'm dying to see). People have responded to these tricky formulations of authorial personae and truth in complex ways; I haven't read many reviews of these films that take up Oprah's crusade for clear genre conventions.

Sterne's fictional memoir, Cash's prisoner persona, Capote's novelistic journalism, and McCarthy's author's note about the imprecision of memory all occurred before the "Me Generation." Steve Winn's column from the San Francisco Chronicle comes close to pinpointing some of these issues of how generic conventions might necessarily be reexamined or played with in a moment of technological change:

But then again, maybe people are a whole lot more sly and better at this game than that. Among the great pleasures and promises of 21st century life is our own self-awareness, our media-tutored sensibility about a mediated age. Technology has taught us to be wary of technology. TV warns us against itself. Writers, filmmakers and visual artists revel in the ambiguities and imprecision of their own work. We can happily submit to a con now -- whether it's reality TV, fiction packaged as nonfiction or a fraud dressed up as truthiness -- and know we're doing it. That's not to say we can't be had. But now, if it happens, we can't say we didn't see it coming.

Something similar happened in the eighteenth century with the rise of print: with so many forms of news, ballads, romances, and other genres of print competing for space in a writing market, authors were bound to play around with notions of authenticity determining use value. Lennard Davis argues that these mutable conventions are the basis for the early novel in Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel. In their own weird little way, the Statistically Improbable Phrases for the book, which include authorial disavowal, simulacrum theory, moral verisimilitude, and attitude toward fact, demonstrate that playing with authorial truthfulness and personae is a historical phenomenon that can't be ascribed to a "Me generation" of first-person shooters. Steve Shapin's A Social History of the Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England is another great book to consider when working against these "Death of Absolute Truth" arguments.

Ben's post about F. Scott's Fitzgerald's use of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin makes for another example of how the memoir genre has historically not demanded absolute truthfulness. Here's an excerpt from Adam Gopnik's review of recent biographies of Franklin (published in the New Yorker, June 30, 2003), including Tom Tucker's Bolt of Fate, which argues that Franklin embellished many of his achievements, including the story about the lightning bolt and the key. Far from taking an expose-type tone, Tucker wants to know what Franklin's embellishments say about how the ideas of authenticity circulate and are valorized. Gopnik writes,

"Who is to decide when doctors disagree? It is, finally, as conservatives like to say, all about character. And here one approaches an area of subtle gradations, easy to misinterpret. Tucker points to evidence of Franklin's series of hoaxes as conclusive, or anyway highly suggestive. He offers a long list and shows how they often advanced Franklin's career; for instance, when he was just starting out as a printer he wrote a pseudonymous essay in favor of paper currency and then, after the legislature had been persuaded, got the government contract to print money. As Tucker recognizes, the majority of these impostures are closer to deadpan satiric jokes than they are to self-seeking lies. Franklin liked to write letters claiming to be from other people--a 'famous Jesuit,' or a Scottish Presbyterian--in order to dramatize some political point through obvious overload. The last thing he wrote was a letter purportedly from a Muslim slaver, 'Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim,' whose lust for slavery was intended to hold a mirror up to the American slaveholder's own, and shame him.

"This is the reason for Franklin's opacity and, perhaps, for the doubts about the kite, which do not begin with Tucker. Franklin was an instinctive ironist. That is not to make him contemporary; it was Enlightenment irony, not Duchampian irony-begun as a way of getting past censorship. But it was his natural mode, as in the joke about the electrocuted turkeys: which was a joke, and had a serious point, and was something he actually did, and the whole thing depended on being reported with an absolutely straight face. It was not that he did not value honesty. He did. It is that he did not value sincerity, a different thing. He would have been reluctant to say something that he believed to be a lie. But, as a businessman and a writer and a diplomat, he might very well have been willing to dramatize, or even overdramatize, something he believed to be essentially the truth."

Fitzgerald didn't look to Franklin as a known embellisher but as a man obsessed with self-improvement, including self-improvement through "publishing [his] errata." So that's another loop in the Franklin-Gatsby story: is self-aggrandizement a form of self-improvement, or should self-aggrandizers be publicly shamed--and even sued--a la Frey and Leroy? Also, to compare Gatsby's story to Leroy's, why isn't starfucking an acceptable form of self-improvement?

The other wrinkle in the story that concerns me is how quickly commentators jumped on Leroy's play with gender and how Oprah's intervention into the story was used to reify a woman as the arbiter of moral truth (Daniel Defoe's Roxana is a fantastic rebuttal to this convention). Here's Virginia Heffernan's gleeful Times coverage of Oprah's interview last week:

Just like back in the days when her guests were abusers and sexual deviants, Ms. Winfrey came for vengeance — and vengeance on behalf of the poor, the voiceless and the women above all, who get conned and defrauded and violated by men who think they're so bad. But because Ms. Winfrey never sounds just one note, she turned in an uncanny performance, modulating her aggression with such finesse that she seemed to be the penitent one, and not the one with the whip hand.

So along with Oprah's insistent delineation of genre conventions, add gender conventions to that list of worries, as well.


Blogger Ben on Tue Jan 31, 06:28:00 AM:
Can there be any remaining doubt that Oprah should run for president?
Blogger Alice on Tue Jan 31, 05:22:00 PM:
I'm skeptical of her attempts to control genre and gender conventions, but I'm cool with Oprah for president if she can follow the Geneva Conventions.