Sunday, September 16, 2007


Though I’d set the alarm clock for 4AM, I was rolling and muttering in my sleep so much that the cats decided we should get up at 3AM. I went over the mountains via Highway 200 and stopped in Lincoln where I fortified with coffee and toast while shamelessly eavedropping on a table of big-bellied, broad-shouldered, short-haired, weather-bitten men a little younger than me who had clearly trapped all their lives on the side of timber jobs. They were stirred up because of a griz attack near Yellowstone on Friday morning. The victim was not hurt very much -- he climbed a too-short tree and his foot was gnawed -- but as a result several trails were closed, which these guys didn’t like since so much is already closed by fire. Last week a 450 pound grizz was killed on 89 just north of Choteau. Hit and run. They’re looking for a big truck with a lot of bear fur and blood on the front. And damage.

I got to the Parkside Holiday Inn with a half-hour to spare and was engulfed in friends. Wheeler gave me a fine reproduction of a Winold Reiss Blackfeet portrait. Dale Burk gave me a big hug. Bill Elliott’s daughter Chris was next in line. It went on like that. Some of these people I’ve known for fifty years, a few only via email and reading their books. Some from the Unitarian context, some from teaching, etc. No one else from either Valier or the rez was there.

The panel was a big success and we could have gone on for another hour with happy consent from the audience. Sue Hart kept firm control over the four big virile men and me, and had real questions for us to answer, though she clung tenaciously to her position that the dictionary definitions of memoir and autobiography were good enough and Richard (to whom she is married) backed her up. Merle said he liked to tell real stuff because most fiction is about sadness, crime and other depressing aberrations. Lynn said he was testifying and wanted to get at the truth. Richard said his memoir was a taking-stock, an attempt to come to grips with his own career in order to understand what it meant. Dan spoke of the great pleasure of revisiting scary, happy and rewarding times.

And then I launched into my excited account of the news and arguments over the last few weeks about the truth and nontruth of memoirs. The English guy who wrote a thinly veiled account of his own family, accusing them of atrocious behavior (Running with Scissors) has settled with his family’s lawsuit. Instead of suing for libel, demanding a retraction and the removal of the book from the market, the family settled for a share of the profits. In the struggle over whether it was memoir, fiction, nonfiction, etc. they agreed formally to call it “a book.”

Because Sue had said she was sick of the case, I didn’t mention that James Frey, who wrote a scandalous account of his own life, including parts that were later determined to be untrue, and who was shredded by Oprah, mom-like, for telling LIES, is now publishing a book that is described as a novel -- but we are assured that parts of it are true. I think they should call it “a book.”

This obsession with factual accuracy was explained to me by Book Daddy, a book blogger on a newspaper payroll. Autobiography that purports to be true sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars -- people crave these books. The same manuscript as fiction sells in the mere thousands. (The men agreed “why would anyone want to read something that’s not true?” Lynn was in favor of forbidding cartoon movies as nothing but fantasy.) And memoir, as Merle remarked, is something reserved for famous people. What it comes down to is not definition but rather marketing. Wheeler confided, though he didn’t say it on the panel, that he HAD to take a new name to publish his next book (a mystery) because no one would buy a mystery written by a well-known Western writer. Many genre writers use a dozen names as they go from writing cozies to thrillers to romances to sci-fi.

Probably the most troubling question after the panel was from a woman who had been asked to edit a sixty-page impassioned account of childhood abuse by a grandmother in her community. She did this (It had no paragraphs and strange punctuation.) but the grandmother’s family told her she could not publish it and that it was not true. The question-asker was wondering about the moral obligation SHE had -- what advice could she give this grandmother? Should she help her or just stay out of it? She believed the account. Luckily, one of the people there was an author from last year’s festival, one of the few of that panel to return (Judy Blunt, Mary Clearman Blew and Lee Rostad were missing), made contact with her. No one is more qualified since this author rallied her entire family to resist a psychotically abusing father. I wonder if the others were missing because of criticism, or whether it was just too intense, or whether these women -- who are among the really remarkable Montana authors -- are simply too busy elsewhere. The whole circle of distinguished Missoula-trained female writers who teach in Idaho was missing.

Beyond this first bouyant launch, I heard no praise of anything but the “Definathon,” which the English teachers won. I was told that even Brian Schweitzer and his dog, who had a brilliant act (one-liners) that had the professional publicity people rolling with laughter, was greeted with stony faces. Attendance was down, book vendors were glum and their big guns left early. Though the weather was wonderful, it was easy to find an empty bench along the river where I could eat my muffin. (Homemade plum/almond bran muffin for medicinal purposes.)

The event seems to have run its course, just as the circle of writers in Missoula who defined themselves as “Montana” and have dominated the scene for a couple of decades are now aged, absent and moved away. The golden circle, the round table, the sacred grove, has gone someplace else. The conscientious ladies who keep things sorted out were wringing their hands. What to do?

The thing to do is to take a step into the future. Most of the attenders were older women who constantly expressed their technophobia. The upshot of this is that all their concerns are local, spiraling in on their own umbilicus (prosperity and gentility) instead of connecting to the great World Umbilicus of the Internet. The best comments are on the book blogs in England, like Grouchy Old Bookman. Here’s what the technophobes are missing:

1. The strange problem of identity and authenticity of writers, which has been so extraordinarily charged with money while being represented as a moral issue. Part of it may come from the nature of content which is increasingly transgressive and sometimes criminal. There seems to be a feeling that if we just knew WHO WROTE THIS we could make it stop. In other words, kill the messenger. On the other hand we have an almost unseemly hunger for the unmasking of political transgressions, mining ever deeper into the acts and suppressions of the Bush administration, though some are still busy digging into Clinton malfeasance. A few still obsess about Nixon.

2. Bloggers as critics which some blame for the decline and elimination of book reviews (or even arts reviews) from newspapers. Some find this appalling, a decline in civilization if amateurs begin to remark on their “betters”, while others feel it is an escape from shackles, especially the weird Algerian-French Post-Everything lit crit theory that is now dying of its own inscrutability. I think it has not sunk in yet that the existence of many blogs could maybe bridge the gap between the young who launch YouTube and FaceBook videos and the small town folks who check out large-print books from their library, if indeed that IS a bridgeable gap. That is, bloggers are often explainers.

3. I tried to point out that I can spend an evening compiling essays or chapters that I’ve posted as blogs into one manuscript, design a cover by downloading art, email it to in about a half-hour, and have it appear as a book for sale on my “storefront” the next morning. If I fork over $100 for this “blook” to have an ISBN, it will in a day or two appear on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingrams index, and Google, complete with translations into foreign languages. (Not the book -- just the access info.) If I put “Blackfeet” in the title, it will come up every time you hit “Blackfeet” on Google. When ordered, the book will come to one’s doorstep in about a week to ten days. No one pays anyone until the book is ordered. (I sold two copies of "Twelve Blackfeet Stories" at the Festival.)

Yet when I tried to explain this to one woman, she said she simply couldn’t master Google. What’s to master? You type in in that little box at the top. When the jokey-looking Google box shows up, type in the subject you want, and VOILA! You get a long list of what’s out there. But I have to admit that when I go beyond looking things up on Wikipedia, which is similar, and try to actually edit or post, I become hopelessly entangled in jargon and protocol.

So why can’t a “Humanities” festival (the festival has formally changed its name from “book” to humanities) line up a bunch of ten-year-olds with laptops and wifi to sit at tables with grannies and grampses to walk them through some of this? Surely MISSOULA has a plethora of faculty children who would jump at the chance!

4. This tech revolution has made self-publishing (which is not quite the same as Print-on-Demand though the latter enables the former) another challenge to accepted “civilized” benchmarks. One of the major gates to status and dignity (aside from a university degree) has always been getting a book published, because it implies that somewhere a literary establishment has decided to risk capital on one’s behalf, feeling you are “worth it.” But if anyone can throw a book on Lulu without even paying pennies for it up front, then a published book is ... what is it? A tattoo? Just a declaration? Who can tell what its value is? Or what it means? Or whether it goes too far?

5. Rather similarly, it’s now possible to get a book published in another country, as I am, thus escaping the clutches of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, which hasn’t got a branch in Canada yet.

6. Some people saw all this coming when the quality of publishers began to, well, go to hell quite some time ago. When the big international corporations began to buy publishers -- much helped by the ever-rising raw cost of paper and ink and the constant erosion of literacy standards even among English majors -- they demanded 10% returns in interest. The staffs who once dug and delved in cobwebby offices in order to proof, edit, promote, and dig through the slush pile were fired as excess baggage, esp. after spell-checkers were invented, and found new lives as “agents” though they rarely placed manuscripts and were forced to edit them before they were saleable anyway. Meanwhile, relentless promotion convinced the general public that getting a book published was like hitting the Publishers Clearing House jackpot, guaranteed wealth. But real authors proved so hard to manage that publishers have become “packagers” who do market-research, locate or generate a bunch of print on the desired subject, and hire someone to impersonate the author. No one is invested in the content -- only the sales figures.

7. Meanwhile, it was not the ebook readers that threatened “real” books (“Kindle” looks good to some previewers, but still may not be the magic instrument.) so much as it was the ability to easily convert eprint to paper copy: print-outs. When copy machines were first generally available, I remember the many “backpack books” that traveled as loose pages, often literally stored in a backpack to show people and hand around, maybe photocopy for friends. “I’m Okay; You’re Okay” was one of those books and the reason for it being cherished like that was at least partly the big hunger for how to get one’s own self organized and functioning. To bring this argument full-circle, I think that’s the root of the wrestling over identity. What evidence can we trust? What can we take to use for our own lives? How can we get this damn treacherous world organized and functioning? Where’s the copy of “I’m Confused; the World Is Treacherous.”

I took the wrong turn on the way home and ended up coming back on highway 12 through Helena, where I lived between 1982 and 1985 while circuit-riding as a minister. It was the long way around, but for quite a while I hadn’t seen that road which I traveled twice a month in those years, so it was pleasant to visit the “beaverslide” country where they still hay with horses. Then I came up 89 but saw no bears. It was smoky all the way over and back with the setting sun looking more like a harvest moon. The sky was wreathed and scrimmy, like a blotchy pastel chalk drawing that had been partly rubbed off with a dry paper towel.

On the way I was thinking over an excellent accidental conversation with a Methodist bishop, a friend of Sue Hart’s, who does grief counseling workshops. We knew a lot of the same people, especially in the CPE world since he lives part of the year in Rockford, IL, where I did my basic hospital chaplaincy training. We agreed that it’s a lot harder to develop an understanding of what a human being IS now that we know a lot about the genome, realize how much damage we’ve done to the planet, and are baffled by a cosmos that becomes -- as we presumably learn more and more about it -- ever more baffling.

Feel free to put this in your backpack. I want to learn how to convert it to an mp3 so you can put it on your iPod.


JDM said...

I find the current concern with "true" autobiography so odd, particularly as it's hooked up to accounts of life miserable, difficult and marginal. I wonder how much of "Lazarillo de Tormes or "Tirant Lo Blanc" or "The Book of Genji" are fiction or "truth" or both. The compromise of calling "books" books seems practical. Never thought the "Memoirs of Casanova" were all "true", anymore than I thought "Fanny Hill" was actually a memoir.

Cheryl Hagedorn said...

Hi. I thought that I'd let you know that I've posted about your blooking experience at Blooking Central.

Patia said...

It was great to meet you at the bookfest, Mary. I enjoyed the memoir panel.

I'm surprised, though, to hear that you think the event has run its course. I did not get that impression at all. The five sessions I went to all seemed very well-attended. I didn't hear any complaining or see any glum faces -- in fact, I thought the new, central location for the vendors in the Holiday Inn atrium was fantastic.

I don't know about Mary Clearman Blew or Lee Rostad, but I can tell you that Judy Blunt is teaching for the semester in Arizona.

Patia said...

Oh, forgot to mention, Augusten Burroughs isn't British -- he's American, grew up near Boston, and lives in New York now, I think.