In a country where the government has lied to us about issues so major as to draw us into war and recession, where the pharmaceutical industry is almost proud of its ability to deceive and bribe us into taking drugs that may kill us, and where investment firms invent imaginary ways of making obscene profits, it seems strange or ironic -- how else to look at it? -- that the media gets so excited about books that claim to be “true” but evidently are not. The previous recent “deceptions” that have provoked indignation were baffling because the writers had claimed to be much more wicked, poor and suffering than they really were. But this most recent kafuffle is over “Angel at the Fence” by Herman Rosenblat, an innocent-seeming love story about hope and romance that begins in a WWII concentration camp. The publisher, Berkley, is so indignant that they were “deceived” about the reality of this story that they have demanded their advance back: $50,000, which is not much by way of advances but five times my annual income.
Once again, it was thought that Oprah had some magical ability to tell which writers were “authentic” and the thought was proven wrong. What Oprah has is the power to make a writer rich overnight by endorsing him/her on her program. Why would anyone think that a nice lady -- who barely has enough spare time to read because she is so subsumed by the one-woman industry she has become -- has an inside track on who is telling the truth? Do we think that her crew looks everything up in a directory somewhere? Or that she has some sense like the notorious “gaydar” that gives her signals the rest of us fail to pick up?
What’s so evil about telling a mythical love story anyway? In this case the main revealers explain that if all the false holocaust stories are not tracked down and stamped out, the truth of the event will be diminished. They are not the only ones to have this opinion. My uncle, Seth Strachan, was the pilot who flew a planeload of correspondents and editors into Germany right after WWII at the command of General Eisenhower, who said that the world would NOT believe that something so ghastly and inhuman had happened without eye witness acccounts. (Did anyone order the same for the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima?) I read that small groups sprout up to deny the holocaust all the time. But still, doesn’t “unmasking” Mr. Rosenblatt’s love story sort of seem like killing a fly with a sledgehammer? The relentlessness of Dr. Kenneth Waltzer, who is writing his own holocaust book, and the obvious terror of the publisher don’t quite seem justified.
What else is at stake besides “truth,” whatever that is? I mean, having been interviewed by many people for many decades, I have a high degree of skepticism about ANYTHING that gets into print. Everyone sees through a filter, and the filter that seems most unreliable is the “rose-colored glasses” of the spiritually uplifting genre. Haven’t we noticed how many exemplars of the morally upstanding have turned out to be sitting in toilet stalls at airports?
I’ll tell you something unlikely: the friendship that has developed between Tim Barrus and I. For once the NYTimes didn’t drag him out by the scruff of the neck to be Exhibit A, maybe in part because he barks and bites with such energy that it’s just not worth it. As Nasdijj he was excoriated by two watchdog groups almost as powerful as holocaust definers. One is the Native American literature crowd, who were shocked SHOCKED that Tim was NOT Navajo. They evidently thought it was perfectly likely that a man who says he grew up doing migrant labor rather than going to school could write energetic, vivid prose. The other is a part of the Gay community that doesn’t like defectors and is equally horrified that Tim was not “pure” homosexual, having failed to notice his two marriages, daughter and granddaughter.
In short, the real critics are enforcers of a point of view, powerful people who can affect profits. In fact, the chief judge of the NA Lit qualifications of Tim Barrus is James Mackay who is not American and has spent little or no time on the Navajo reservation. He uses political theory to attack certain NA writing, a practice that has its own unreal dimension. And the attacker from the “Gay” side is a porn writer famous for an essay about dumpster-diving.
What could be more American than small identity enclaves resisting the great media wave of uniformity, which produces movies and books so repetitious that unique little groups become bait for screen writers or novelists looking for something new and (hopefully) shocking. No wonder such groups resist being strip-mined. But why are the unmaskers so often self-interested?
Which is worse, going to the polls to elect our leaders without ever really knowing what the truth is? Or reading books about things that never happened? If you look at it in terms of the stakes, there’s just no question. So why are both phenomena treated with such high seriousness by journalists who are equally as vulnerable to deception, wishful thinking, and the blinding power of money, though their vocation is specifically charged with fact finding?
Back in the Sixties my mother-in-law used to scold me for reading novels because they were about things that never happened. “You should read TRUE things,” she said, though she was never known to be a newspaper reader. So I asked her for examples. “Movie magazines,” she said with perfect confidence. I was drilled in high school how to perceive propaganda, lies and exaggerations particularly used by the Red Russians to baffle and deceive us all. I think Korea was in there, too, but now we exempt South Korea. Still, it was useful training.
But one can step away from the whole problem -- at least with books -- by looking for the integrity of the human message that’s in the story. You’ll have to judge for yourself. Does this piece of writing ring true in terms of life as you’ve known it? Or is this an unreliable narrator whose point of view is controlling what we see and know? Like, for instance, say, Ed Abbey. Or Thoreau. Or Annie Dillard and her notorious night-hunting cat. Or Judy Blunt and her sledgehammer-wielding father-in-law. Are we getting to the point where every book must be accompanied by a dissenting point of view that points out omissions and misunderstandings? Why do we expect more regulation of our writers than we do of our political leaders, doctors, and corporations?