Memoir & “Truth”

Memoir & “Truth”

I’ve written about memoir before, and the recent James Frey brouhaha has gotten me thinking about it all again. I actually haven’t done much work on my book these past couple of months because the avalanche of freelance work I picked up when I thought I might want to quit my job at the Big Corporation, along with a slough of deadlines at said day job have all had me up to my eyeballs in Other People’s Work. But watching the Wrath of Oprah sort of freaked me out. I thought I’d enjoy it more than I did — frankly that book was crap — riddled with cliche and worn-out macho posturing — to say nothing of how damaging his assertion is that addiction can be kicked without anyone else’s help — having grown up in a family riddled with alcoholics, most of them asserting to their grave that they don’t have a problem, it’s nothing they can’t handle — well, let’s just say that Frey’s whole macho-boy routine didn’t really resonate with me.

So I thought it would be sort of fun, the Oprah takedown — but instead it was just scary. Her wrath was so out of proportion. “But you lied!” she kept yelling. Well, duh, writers lie. Addicts lie. Put them together and yeah — you’re going to get lies. We make shit up — that’s what we do us writers — we go into rooms and we sit in front of the blinking cursor and we say whatever it takes to move that blinking cursor down the page. Not that I think Frey isn’t reprehensible for making gazillions of dollars off of his “memoir” — but really people, what happened to critical reading? What happened to bullshit detectors. What happened to our ability to say that even if Oprah found the book “moving,” even if the other people in your book group found the book “riveting” even if every other person on the airplane is reading it — it still sucks?

Many years ago I was at an academic conference for lit profs who were interested in nature and the environment — and there was a panel on literary nonfiction. This was just after Annie Dillard admitted at the Key West Writers Conference that she had never actually had a cat who left bloody pawprints on her — that cat and the story belonged to a friend — and she’d never actually seen the waterbug suck the innards out of the frog — both revelations had rocked the literary world (a world that was clearly too easily rocked). On this panel was one poor academic who was deeply upset to have discovered that Farley Mowat had made up any number of incidents in Never Cry Wolf. Now, I took a summer of field biology as an undergrad, and the first thing our resident wolf biologist told us was that “Farley Mowat lied.” That the book had done a lot for the cause of wolf restoration, but that it was, in general, pretty bad wolf biology. Okay, we thought. Whatever. So here I was fifteen years later listening to these academics I kept thinking — “they’re interested in nature — they never bothered to do the research?” It seems to me that as readers, we have a certain responsibility to … well .. think.

There’s a related post I’m still thinking about the hegemonic death-grip of the therapeutic narrative (one reason I’m currently only reading those stringent writers of the 30s and 40s — Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, etc…). It seems to me that the energy in the Wrath of Oprah is directly related to her sense of betrayal about the nature of books to begin with — like many readers, Oprah seems to feel that books should be Good For You, that they should Teach You Something, that there should, above all, be a Narrative of Redemption.

But that’s the next post …

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