The memoir brouhaha continues to niggle at me — my hunch is that it’s gained such cultural traction because it’s a symptom of a larger problem that America is having with telling and recognizing the truth. In a year in which the American Dialect Society votes that “Truthiness” is the “word of the year” should it come as any surprise to us that we’re also beset by an avalanche of literary hoaxes?
“Truthiness” the ADS website declares, “refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. As Stephen Colbert put it, ‘I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.’”
James Frey isn’t the only practitioner of truthiness — where he preferred to think of himself not as a spoiled rich addict from the suburbs of Minneapolis but as a hard ass, a macho guy prepared to “throw down” at a moment’s notice, the sort of guy who could stand not one, but two root canals without anesthesia — he didn’t come to his truthiness in a vacuum. He lives in a nation that preferred to think that the Iraqi people would welcome invasion of their sovereign nation by a foreign superpower not with insurgency but with flowers and parades. He lives in a nation that prefers to believe that oil will last forever and that we are entitled to all the world’s goodies. He lives in a nation that prefers to believe that just because the President says he’s only doing illegal wiretaps on “evildoers” that he’s neither breaking the law nor violating the Constitutional right to privacy of us all.
So who is surprised when James Frey prefers to spin a fairy tale version of recovery from addiction rather than doing the hard work of facing the truth?
One could even read Oprah’s long struggle with her book club as a cultural marker of the depth to which America is beset by that form of truthiness that Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House : Essays on Fiction describes as “narrative dysfunction.” Baxter’s fear is that the culture of deniability that began with the Nixon administration and Vietnam has corrupted not only our national history (“Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances becomes and unreadable mess.” p. 6) but our personal histories as well. It is the poet C.K. Williams, who coined this term “to describe the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.”
The cultural significance of Oprah’s book club has been debated much more cogently elsewhere (go read this terrific debate for starters), but what I’m finding fascinating about the Wrath of Oprah, is that it seems part of a larger frustration on her part about control of the narrative. Oprah quit showcasing books by living writers after Jonathan Franzen raised objections to her appropriating his autobiography as the “true story” behind his novel, The Corrections. He actually thought the novel was the “true story” of the novel, not whatever correlations it might have to his personal life.
Because of the enormous sales guaranteed by Oprah’s imprimatur, no one had ever directly questioned her particular method of reading and interpreting fiction before. Oprah seems to believe that the primary function of literature is therapeutic – that we should imagine our way into the lives of others, vicariously experience their struggles, and share in their subsequent triumph over adversity. Which is not an invalid way to read by any means, but by the time Oprah sent Jonthan Franzen to St. Louis to shoot b-roll footage of his former home, this particular methodology was beginning to seem like a straightjacket. And so, Oprah said to all of us living fiction writers “Fine, you won’t play by my rules, I won’t reward you with the only financial success you’re ever likely to see.” And she turned instead to dead writers, who she didn’t have to worry might have get uppity and challenge her narrative control over the interpretation of their fictions.
But the publishing industry begged her to come back, and so, I’m sure she thought that by turning to nonfiction she’d be safe from writers resenting her autobiographical interpretations of their work. After all, it had to be about them, right? It said so, on the cover. A Memoir. Nonfiction. True. And then, her first time out of the gate, she ran into another messy and uncontrollable author. James Frey’s memoir turned out to be about as fictional as Franzen’s novel was autobiographical. Oprah’s televised snap-out at James Frey seemed as much a result of his messing with her narrative about what his book was about, and what books should be about in general, as it was about his lying.
Which brings us back to our starting place – the ascendancy of truthiness over truthfulness, the corruption of not only our personal but our national narrative by wishful thinking. We wish that our narratives always show us as brave in the face of adversity, as the “beacon of democracy” around the world, as the best and the brightest. And because it is so much easier to believe our own flattering fictions about ourselves, we allow truthiness to leak in, we allow ourselves to settle for what we want to believe rather than what we know to be true – we wallow in false stories like the one James Frey spun because it’s so comforting when our narrative expectations are neatly met that we never question the contours of that neatness.