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sábado, enero 28, 2006

Fiction, Non Fiction, Stories and Lies



Welcome to the genre wars. Today's New York Times makes a big deal deal of Oprah Winfrey's confrontation with James Frey about his book A Million Little Pieces. It seems that Mr. Frey made up parts of the story and, horror of horrors, told his publisher and Ms. Winfrey that it was all true. Ms. Winfrey, assuming that she read the book, believed the story, accepted it as a true, first person account, promoted it, and pushed the book onto the New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller list. All of this promotion has gotten Mr. Frey some great advances and a deal for some additional books. And it's gotten him kicked out of Ms. Winfrey's book club.

I guess the drinking beer, telling lies, exaggerating, making up improbable stories and denying that they're made up genre has fallen into grave disrepute. Will there be no more fish stories? No more tall stories? No more yarns? No more Paul Bunyan? No more bullshit? Well, probably in your local saloon or locker room or at the water cooler, where I hope these all continue to be practiced, if not revered. But maybe not any longer at the bookstore.

It's not that Frey's is a bad story. It's really a believable, moving one. But instead, the issue has something to do with the writer's obligation not to straddle genres, not to mislead. The obligation not to assume a personna as narrator. There will be no more faction (fact plus fiction). There will be no more apocrypha. And why? Because the fuss isn't as much about the story as about who the author really is.

That matters, I suppose, because we're not just reading stories, now we're marketing celebrity. We should know better. We should stick to the writing.

Two quick examples. First, we have Jack Henry Abbott, who thoroughly conned Norman Mailer into making him a literary celebrity for writing In the Belly of the Beast, only to commit another homicide. The book, it appears, was made up of well honed lies for the unimprisoned gullible. And then we have Marlo Morgan, whose book Mutant Message Down Under was initially released as nonfiction, only to be later released as fiction when it was discovered that, oops, she didn't have a walkabout in Australia, she just made it all up. Are either of these books any better or any worse because they were works of fiction masquerading as fact? I don't think so. In fact, I like them both.

Apparently, real mystery, whether the story is true or made up, whether the author is really who he or she says she is, is no longer acceptable. And that's a shame. Oprah wants publishers to make sure that nonfiction books aren't just great stories. I suspect that it matters to her only because she's about the big business of marketing celebrity, and not really about whether the story, be it true or false, works.

Personally, I'm not altogether completely confident about my ability to differentiate between what's "real" and what's made up, and I'm not sure that it even matters. I like it that way. There's mystery. There's a choice about what I believe is the nature of "reality." I don't completely believe my own stories or anyone else's. I like that the improbable, events at the edge of common acceptance might be true (or not). The Lankavatara Sutra is entirely correct when it says, "Things are not as they appear, nor are they otherwise."

At any rate, I don't think we need the nonfiction police to make sure that books are appropriately shelved.

4 Comments:

Blogger Patti or Bill said...

Hi David, so glad you happened upon our blog. I guess I'm a literary purist fuddy duddy. If a book is labeled non-fiction, I like it to be as true as the author can possibly make it.
Otherwise call it fiction, or "based on actual events", or something like that.
I have a different standard for "art" (fiction)than for "not art" history books, school textbooks, news reporting. If it's art (fiction) anything goes.
If it's not art, fact checking is esstential. Now don't get all metaphsical on me and say our lives are just one big earthplane illusion anyhow. I believe that, but in my earthbound existence I really do like to know when I'm being hustled
and played for the fool. If James Frey made most of it up, I am obviously not going to be inspired by his climb up out of the snake pit. But I can judge his work on its literary merits and whether or not it's a good read. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Patti

2:43 p.m.  
Blogger Shelly said...

Good post. You make some excellent points.

9:01 p.m.  
Blogger Travolta said...

Well well well. The sly old dog...

In my most humble of humble opinions this all goes back to the separation between the narrator and the author. Is the narrator the author? Is the author the narrator? What is their relationship? Is it purely casual or is their some real feeling there? No but really,

It could also be:

Oprah can confer legitimacy on a work through comercial success. Her endorsement has nothing to do with truth or truth telling. Since when does Oprah only endorse books that are true? Since when is truth even the slightest bit desirable or relevent in a memoir? Are their any memoirs in the history of memoirs that are not "works of fiction?"

Basically the supposed "outing" of this guy as supposedly "fake" actually has the effect of increasing his sales and proving him to be a much or adept writer than we had given him credit for.

9:50 p.m.  
Blogger Holli said...

Hi David, I have to agree with "patti or bill". If there are no standards in literature, what do we pass on to the next generations? Is it all our current history? How do we view our predecessors? There must be accountability otherwise it's all just words in a big bottomless pit. Entertaining, yes, but there is a difference between fact and fiction.

11:18 p.m.  

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