Thursday, March 06, 2008


Humans have always wanted to know about ways of life very different from their own: perhaps that is one of the secrets of the genre of “novel” but certainly it goes far back into the ancient world of history -- I’m thinking of Herodotus, though I’ve never sat down to read him. Today, with reality TV probing every corner, it becomes harder and harder to even think of a “world” that’s not homogenized by TV, music, and simple commerce. Maybe this is why we are so interested in sequestered worlds like the Mafia, the underculture of discarded kids, the drug culture, brothels, harems, slavery, witness protection program, spies, combat troops, and so on. I suppose these are mostly transgressive worlds because what causes them to be sequestered is the need to avoid law enforcement or at least social censure. But we also seem to have a craving for religious cults, mythical contexts like vampires and werewolves, and accounts of drug adventures. Some of them seem to concentrate on “super-virtue” like nuns or “super-justice” like, well, Superman but also various scientific and otherwise “super” entities.

Lately everyone seems to take an equal and opposite pleasure in the unmasking of a memoir as pure invention. It’s as though some people are trying to prove there is no alternative world, no privilege. Today on a NPR show a woman in the publishing world suggested that memoirs tap into a “self-help” vein which people hope will show them how to succeed, or at least prevail. But others want to say, “You’re just making it up. I know the world.”

Equally contradictorily, it is often the memoirist’s own family who object that the memoir is not true -- even calling the publisher to rat out the writer -- but they are equally opposed to anyone writing the truth about that person or that family. They don’t want to be seen as wicked, but neither do they accept the idea of being banal. They seem to need cover of some kind -- a “cloak of virtue.” “We’re just like everyone else, but in a superior way.”

Book Daddy (website) says that the moral sticking point about memoir is that people will pay MUCH more for a memoir than for a novel or even for a “factual” documented autobiography. His implication is that all this fakery comes simply from the desire to make more money. It is a venal marketing ploy. This certainly applies to the books that are “packaged” by publishers' teams pretending to be, say, an ethnic teenaged girl and paying someone to pretend she wrote a book largely assembled by plagiarizing parts of earlier books. Not much seems to happen to those culprits.

The NPR program suggested that there are legal issues in pretending to be someone that one is not. Certainly we seem to be obsessed with the idea of “real ID” and NAIS, which means numbering all the domestic animals so they can be traced. We seem to think that tells us something, makes us safer. as though the tricky world were out to get us through deception which we could eliminate if we just had everything in a database. The media uncovers one example after another of deceptive advertising. We worry about identity theft. Is that what a false memoir is? Identity theft? Even if the purported author doesn’t exist and never did?

But the people involved seem to think of their stories as more like Sim City, an avatar that might be more like their true selves than what one sees in this concrete world. So why can’t we accept that? Why can’t we accept something like a dream life, an inner truth of the soul? Especially if it sells well!

There is something parallel in the Christian world which is based on four gospels that don’t agree with each other, so that Gary Wills has to explain how it is that they are NOT false memoirs, since so much is built on the assumption that they are literally true, at least in the more naive Christian circles. If they aren’t big T, True, is anything True? Only Unitarians like the idea of a lot of little t truths running around loose! (That’s a joke. Actually, they are prone to Big T Truth, they just choose different ones.) And then science keeps telling us all this weird stuff about how solid objects are really assemblages of whirling atoms and our bodies, our very identities, are produced by four molecules wrapped in a double-helix. All this confusion has got to be STOPPED! And the feeling seems to be that the place to stop it is the false memoir. Forget global warming!

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on Native Lit “first person” stories. Take these two examples: Richard Lancaster wrote “Piegan,” an account of his relationship with Old Jim Whitecalf (now “gone on ahead”) that is presented as an accurate journal/memoir but doesn’t ring true to me. (Lancaster is dead, I’m told.) Adolf Hungry Wolf (living) also wrote about his relationship with Old Jim Whitecalf. Adolf is a far more exotic character (a white man who married an Indian and lives in the old Indian way) but in my opinion he’s telling the truth. Yet “Piegan” is the book that won the prizes and Adolf is the one constantly accused of being a pretender.

To complexify the issue even more, Jim Welch’s early books about a young man on the Fort Belknap reservation, “Winter in the Blood” and “The Death of Jim Loney,” are true-to-life stories with touches of magic realism that are consistently taken to be autobiographical, which they are not. So far as I know, Jim never wrote an autobiography, though his cousin Sidner Larson did. (“Catch Colt,” published by the U of Nebraska Press.) Jim is “gone-on-ahead;” Sid is still a living college professor in Iowa. How is anyone who doesn’t live here supposed to figure all this out?

It appears to me that as readers we have two courses of action, neither of which we will probably take: a gnostic tolerance for good stories, regardless of whether they can be factually verified; or a Dragnet insistence on “just the facts” verified by documents, interviews, and certifying bodies. I suspect that what we really prefer is to muddle along, guessing, playing hide-and-go-seek. As Richard Little Dog used to say when we asked him if something were true, “Could be.”

People were once very curious about what was on the back of the moon and proposed cities, strange beings, evidence of mystic doings. When the satellites finally managed to get back there and take a look, the mysterious back looked pretty much like the well-known front. A disappointment. Or was it a relief?


Art Durkee said...

Some very wise thoughts, thank you.

It strikes in all this controversy around these memoirs that turn out to be fiction that the publishers also deserve some of the blame, for their unmonitored credulity. I mean, come on, raised by wolves in modern Europe? That should have been a clue right there that the book was, at least, "magic realism."

I am a big supporter of mythopoesis in writing, and the stuff I make myself has been called archetypal, mythopoetic, even shamanic. I like those transformations in art, when you get to the threshold of another world, and there's that breathless leap into the unknown. So I have no difficulty with stepping into "fantasy" or "fiction" from otherwise plain factual writing—or writing that appears to start out that way.

This is the pleasure one finds in reading Barry Lopez' short stories (as in "Winter Count") or in reading most of Jorge Luis Borges, where you never know what's "real" and what isn't anyway—and that's the whole point of his so-called metafiction.

The problem is perhaps in the labeling rather than the contents. Why is that people, including writers and publishers, never seem to understand that NO witness is ever totally reliable? (Ask any cop about the unreliability of most eyewitness accounts.) That even memoir, because it's a literary genre, is always at least partly made up? The academic world of anthropology went through a self-realization back in the mid-1980s, when they realized that writing ethnographies was a literary form, not a purely factual reportorial account, because the writer still had to choose what to include. The fabric of life is always too complex and detailed to include everything, every time. Memoir is nothing but personal ethnography, personal anthropology, deep-self archaeology. It is always made up, it is always fabricated, and it is always semi-fictional.

I think some of the backlash is also because it's become clear during the current presidential administration that the supposedly trustworthy factual news-reporting media have also been falling down on the job, and either giving inaccurate reporting, or in some recent cases, made-up facts. So, who can we trust? We want to trust someone, but there's no one to trust.

prairie mary said...

Book Daddy is wrong.

Everything under the sun does not necessarily have an inherent economic motivation. The notion is simplistic, patently abasurd, and there are writers still ensconced as traditional cogs in the great marketing machine that is the Publishing Business who are writing fiction who are receiving the high-end of six figures advances versus low-end advances that typically go to the writers of memoir.

To subscribe to Book Daddy's theory is to buy into the fantasy that the writers who break these rules are the "bad people" and the "good people" have "pure" motivations which are tasteful and literary and conscientious and they follow the marketing paradigms as set down by the Parental Units at the New York Critic's Circle.

The theory is slightly self-serving itself.

There is NO business that has a fetish quite as visceral as the fetish publishing has for the marketing categories it contrives. It's okay for corporations to make money -- by the boatload -- but it's bad, bad, bad for any writer to leave the box he has been assigned. Book critics are compelled to not put a question mark into the dynamics of the paradigm because their status in the corporate model (where they are regarded as quasi-writers) is derived from corporate structure. Many of them need all the status they can get.

This is a typically "American corporate" fetish that has the "Good People" accepting marketing ploys with no questions asked over here, and the "Bad People" who dare to question the cultural boxes reality is assigned. Over here. The corners of obscurity. People who don't follow the rules get punished.

Culture defines reality and publishing is corporate culture.

Putting self-serving theory aside for a moment...

Every single mainstream Manhattan publishing house is owned by a larger corporation. Typically, the publishing end of these corporations are afterthoughts. They are never, ever the focus of the corporation. They are properties to buy and sell. That is all they are. They have their own in-house corporate cultures with their own rituals and rules.

If you were to visit any of these mid-town companies, you would be hard-pressed to distinguish any of them -- the office cubicle is ubiquitous -- from Met Life.

These are the suits.

When these memoirs that are not entirely "true," regardless of the nature of symbolism, appear as products in the great machine, and they receive the kind of Gotcha treatment Americans love, we turn to our cultural icons to tell us "truth." Oprah is an economic icon. If she says a book is good, we buy it. If she whips a writer in public, we still buy it. Buying things is what we do. Corporations would be in a lot of trouble if 1.) we questioned too many fundamental tribal or corporate paradigms, and 2.) we stopped buying things.

Publishers lament: we didn't know who the writer really was.

Americans love this stuff. The corporation as victim. Anyone who thinks that corporate America is a victim should have their head examined.

Fact: when a writer is put on a book tour, the corporation pays for the book tour because the corporation is doing what corporations do. It is gambling. It stands to make the lion's share of the cash, and the author's dog and pony show has now been "incorporated" into the marketing paradigm.

Fact: when a writer is put on a book tour, there is sometimes a mechanism employed called -- an airline ticket.

The publisher pays for the airline ticket.

Anyone who travels today knows this: to get on that plane you need more than the ticket.

You need a picture ID.

You cannot board a plane if the name on your ID is different from the name on the ticket. It doesn't work like that. Tom Clancy flies as Tom Clancy and not in tourist.

Thusly, the publisher needs to have the real name of the writer for this marketing paradigm to work.

For the publishers to maintain that -- we don't know who these people really are -- is laughable.

They know. Because the writers tell them.

It's simple. Or you don't get on the plane.

The airlines do not have rules for Normal People over here and the rules for the Writers over here.

Fact: let us pretend that the writer has given the publisher their real name because the marketing department has planned the dog and pony show called the author's tour.

There is such a thing called Google.

Many people use it every day. The notion that publishers and editors do not use Google because they need a fact checker to do so is patently absurd. Google knows every time you've gone to the bathroom.

The publishers know who you are. Even if they pretend otherwise. Reality is what the corporation or the tribe or the sect or the neighborhood or the military unit or the school or the church or the institution or the business association or the government or the New York Critic's Circle or Book Daddy says it is.

You step outside of this box and Gotcha will be played.

Lisa Taddeo has published a piece in ESQUIRE supposedly similar in voice and scope to a diary regarding the last days of Heath Ledger.

Lisa Taddeo did not die and she is not Heath Ledger even if she does
know he loved banana muffins.

Randy Shilts once wrote a book called AND THE BAND PLAYED ON where he outlined for us (stupid readers) exactly how AIDS was initially spread by the promiscuity of airline personnel who had sex at 30,000 feet after taking off from various airports in Haiti. Torrid sex scene set in airplane bathrooms ensued.

This book made Shilts a boatload of money and everyone nodded and we all said: has to be true.

A few of us pointed out that 1.) Randy Shilts was not there. He was not on the plane and he had never set foot in Haiti. 2.) That the AIDS virus originated at airports in the Caribbean was pure speculation and about as likely as the disease being spread by mosquitos.

But no. Publishing has it right and they have long memories as to who is asking these pesky questions.

REALITY: If you are a writer who is in any way, shape, or form PESKY, I would suggest you change your name. There are airplanes just for you. The problem is, they never leave the ground.

Book critics take the bus and while the moving bus bathroom is good for many things, sex with book critics is not one them.

Tim Barrus

dumneazu said...

Been away from your blog for a bit since I changed computers and have been enjoying your writings ever since I found this site again. Interesting about Lancaster's book "Piegan." I read it as a young teen and it instigated an interest in the Blackfoot that eventually led me into Algonquian languages and university linguisics training (alas... in african languages... where the BIG MONEY is at... ahem!)

I've always wondered what happened to Lancaster, whether his depiction was accurate, and web searches have revealed nothing until you mentioned it on you blog. Was he fictiopnalizing his experiences? Fabricating? And, out of curiosity, what ever happened to the son of James Whitecalf, who was depicted mainly as a side character in the book?

I looked ast Adoph Hungry WOlf'sd site - danG! Wish I had $300 to get those books!

As for publishing houses - you are absolutely spot on. I have on freelance writing for twenty years, and as paper based magazines and newspapers - "dead tree publishing" - are replaced by the web, book publishers have become ever more difficult to work with.

Greetings again from Budapest!