Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Different Hoaxes for Different Folkses

I’m still sorting out my thoughts on the literary trickery perpetrated by James Frey and JT LeRoy, brought to light in the media these last two days. My initial reaction is: Fantastic! It’s about time the lit community did something interesting and scandalous, for chrissake. Jonathan Franzen may bemoan the lack of celebrity in American letters, but more juicy frauds like these could finally land contemporary writers the ignoble acclaim their Hollywood counterparts have been enjoying for years.

I think Laura Albert (the likely author of the work of JT LeRoy) is a great writer, and James Frey an okay one. I think the publishing industry is largely a gimmick-driven sham, and that the market for literary writers is shrinking in favor of novels written at a fourth grade reading level (i.e. chick-lit and Harry Potter). At some point Frey and Albert, unsuccessful as fictionists, decided to stop struggling and give the people what they want. At some point, Frey and Albert realized that what people want is stories about kids doing drugs and being raped and beaten; stories of human misery and violence and suffering. Of course, it would be too French to admit we like the rapes and the beatings enough to stand alone, so give it all a very American ending paved with the riches of a full recovery, major royalties and a movie deal. They fed us our fairytale and we ate it right up.

Some people say (and I agree) that art is a mirror held up to society; a sincere reflection of all that is beautiful and hideous about us. JT LeRoy is a celebrity artist who never existed. That is brilliant beyond my ability to express it. James Frey took a work of fiction no one would publish, changed its genre to memoir, and landed a book deal with the most prestigious literary publisher in the country. Art meet society. Now touch gloves. That is called playing the game, my friends.

If it can be said that art expresses (or tries to express) some kind of truth about human experience and existence, then it seems, on the face of it, that James and JT have betrayed us all. But if you want to make the point that a truth of existence is that everyone’s a big fat fucking liar, maybe, just maybe, they’re onto something.


Blogger Ron Franscell said...

From author/blogger Ron Franscell at http://underthenews.blogspot.com ...

American literature -- considered an oxymoron in the rest of the world -- has gone downhill fast since New York surrendered America's storytelling standards to Hollywood, where illusion -- EVEN IN TRUE STORIES -- is exactly the point. Today, the "perfect" story is determined by its film-worthiness more than its literary quality. In the name of creating Californicated literature, New York editors have blurred the line until even they don't know what's true. "It's a good story," they'll say, "so who cares if it's an utter and ballsy lie?"

I care. Capote admitted on the bookjacket that "In Cold Blood" was fictionalized in some part. Coleridge's definition of fiction was "the willing suspension of disbelief." What if it's not willing? That's the difference between making love and rape, albeit without either the exhilaration or violence. If you thought you were reading a true story, you were conned. What if we found out next week that the famous Zapruder film was, in fact, a Hollywood dramatization passed off as a hyper-realistic eyewitness home-movie and you shoulda seen the look on your face and, oh, isn't it funny how we fooled you??

This is the literary equivalent of Reality TV. They tell you what you're seeing is real, but it's not real at all. It's simulated reality, edited into convenient 30-minute bytes ... and we eat it up.

In America today, we live with too much fiction posing as fact. Blogs, books, TV, politics, videogaming -- and some would say, the news -- thrive on it. But it's not art to swear you're telling the truth and then fib. That's just common lying. The artful trick is to tell me you're lying and make me believe every word is true.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Susan, you're saying that it's worth giving up the integrity of a "nonfiction" book if you gain celebrity/fame for the literary world at large? Why, as someone who presumably has a great deal of affection for the this culture, would you want it to be known for intentionally misleading its readers/customers?

It's not that he made up the stories, or embellished the ones that are partially true. It's like Larry King said: when you call it a memoir, people accept it as the facts about what happened to you, in your life.

The very reason that millions of people have been moved by this story is because they get an inside look at how drugs can ravage a person's life and that person can recover from it and go on to be happy; the moral of the story is, no problem can be so bad as to foreclose the possibility of moving on to a happier time. But when it turns out that the depths to which the author plunged are in fact not as deep, and the obstacles which he overcame are not as difficult, that premise is seriously called into question.

It's why nobody is moved by the characters from Requiem for a Dream or Traffic: they aren't real, and those things never happened. It's not a story of courage if it's a work of fiction. People aren't moved by untrue events, and the fact that this book was supposedly true is what makes it powerful. Just being a good story isn't enough in this case.

And don't get me started on how disingenuous it is either. It's like he saw an opportunity to gain fame and fortune for what is essentially a sickness (or weakness, depending on what you think of addiction), but couldn't take advantage of it without calling his book something that it simply isn't. ridiculous.

and now he's trying to maintain the book's integrity when the evidence clearly shows that he embellished, and in some cases completely made up, parts of it. Which makes me question his intelligence on top of his honesty.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

and one more thing:

art can express truths about human experience, and I believe it often does.

but the truth that humans are big fat liars is not what Frey was going for in his book; that reflection was an unintended consequence of him being exposed as a fraud. that's like saying if an art counterfeiter gets caught passing off his work as rembrandt's, his art was expressing the truth that we all feel inadequate when compared to the masters of our craft and that we imitate those that we try to emulate.

Frey OBVIOUSLY wasn't trying to express a truth about human experience and lying, because he didn't want to get caught! if his book was a self-referential memoir about a pathological liar who gained fame and fortune on false pretenses, then maybe, MAYBE, you could make that argument. but just because human society in general has a lot of liars, and con artists are also liars, doesn't mean that con artists reflect society in an artistic fashion.

sometimes they just get caught.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Screwsan said...

Interesting points all, but I take much umbrage at this one, Tim: "People aren't moved by untrue events."

I'm a fiction writer, and I've spent a considerable amount of time and money learning how to do it (and still not there yet, fuckall). That is to say, I'm very much moved by the untrue events that qualify as plot in fiction, to the point of making it my life's work.

I had a similar discussion with a friend of a friend when I was home in Iowa. He said something to the effect that books don't mean anything unless they are relating a true story, basically negating the import of 500 years worth of novels, not to mention creative spirit.

In the same way that all fiction contains truth, all nonfiction contains fabrications. I don't have a moral problem with the fact that James Frey lied. Maybe I'd feel differently if I were a memoirist, or a recovering drug addict who was inspired by Frey's book. I'm neither of those things, so I'll never know.

It also needs to be taken into account that, just like people write differently, people read differently. And I wonder if how I read has something to do with my reaction here.

When I read prose books, I read for language, style and plot. The external story behind the book isn’t important to me. I don’t care if David Sedaris and Augusten Bourroughs and James Frey and JT LeRoy are telling the truth because I like how they write. But that’s me. For other people, the truthiness of what they read is probably the most important thing. Maybe that’s why this business hasn’t gotten me riled up like it has others. That the novel was supposedly a true story was incidental to my enjoyment of it.

Nonfiction and Fiction are used as marketing terms. There is no inherent integrity in them. The distinction between them (and their lovechild Creative Nonfiction) is used to sell a product. James Frey did not lie under oath. He lied to his marketers, who then (unwittingly or not) lied to the consumers. As consumers we’re lied to every day. It’s one of the things that make this country great. That part isn’t so unique or unusual. And the fact remains that James Frey wrote a book. He made art. What’s left, after all this blows over, is a book that will be in the Library of Congress for as long as the Library exists.

I don’t think that con artists necessarily reflect society in an artistic fashion, but maybe con artists, who are also just artists, do.

And finally Ron, I disagree, I don’t think there’s a literary equivalent of reality TV. Just your use of the weighted word “literary” makes that analogy impossible. Books aren’t television shows. Even the crappiest, fluffiest book out there does not take one week to write, sell and publish and 30 minutes to read. And A Million Little Pieces is a long long long way from being the crappiest, fluffiest book on the shelves (believe me, I know. I’ve probably edited it).

I don't know what it means to live with too much fiction, or why common lying is worse than uncommon lying (or what that even means). Could we consider lying an art in itself? Or, maybe all art’s a lie because it’s not reality but a representation of reality? Or maybe art is the truth and reality’s a lie. Etc. etc. etc.

My point is, I think these hoaxes are interesting and raise interesting questions. I don’t think they’re something to be enraged by. I don’t think they’re signaling the end of literary culture and legitimacy as we know it (as Ron points out, the world believes our country’s been devoid of that for awhile). Plus, debating about this is much more interesting than doing work.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Screwsan said...

er, just to clarify my television comment: I know many TV shows take longer than a week to make, but many don't (think dailies and live comedy shows like SNL). I don't know that to be true of any books, even if you leave out the entire writing process.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I should claify what I said earlier (not being a writer, I am clumsy):

People are moved by fictional events. People cry at musicals and shakespeare plays, and feel sympathy for characters in movies, etc, etc. I don't deny that.

What I meant was that the whole reason (or at least, the reason publicized in the wake of the scandal and in the critical reviews of the book I read) people were moved by this book is because this author was sharing his TRUE, shameful experiences as an addict. The fact that it ACTUALLY HAPPENED to the guy who wrote the words was what makes this book particularly powerful. You feel for the author (and protagonist) in a way that you wouldn't for a character in Trainspotting, for example, because you know that the suffering was real. And so was the redemption.

So when it turns out that the basis for your emotional reaction, the "this-guy-has-courage-because-he's-baring-his-soul-and-his-experience-to-enlighten-me-as-the-reader" feeling you get from the book is, in fact, baseless to some degree, you feel that you've been taken for a ride. You feel that your empathy for his real-life suffering is misguided. Which is why, as I commented on my blog, he should have just touted it for what it was.

So if I was inarticulate about that, fine. I don't mean to offend those that write fiction to inspire people. I've seen the Rocky movies, and I don't mean to imply (or say outright) that fiction is powerless to move people. It's just that in this case, I strongly feel that the nonfiction nature of the book is what inspired people.

and as to the assertion that people read things differently, i certainly agree. but i believe that a big part of this book's popularity was because people read it as a memoir, not a novel, and they identified with the personal plight of the author. and this scandal undercuts the way in which all of these people took the book (at its face value as a memoir).

And even if I lose on both of those points, what about all the other ones? Why cheapen the literary culture for some front-page print? Why call something nonfiction, and sell it as such, when it's not? because as susan says, it's a MARKETING TERM. He called it nonfiction, which he knew it wasn't, probably with the idea that people would read it as such and therefore he would sell more books. it's weak, and as an industry colleague of this person susan, you know that he should know better. you certainly do.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Screwsan said...

Sure, but it's hard for me to make a moral argument against James Frey when I find the entire publishing industry corrupt and shifty and desperate. Pot, kettle, black, all around.

Thanks for clarifying your points. I do agree with you that this book was a bestseller because of the ostensibly true story behind it, (Frey originally tried to sell it as fiction and failed) and that people feel betrayed because of this. I'm just saying, I don't. And I don't think it's possible for one author to cheapen an entire industry that has been whoring itself out for years. I prefer James Frey's fake memoir over Paris Hilton's or Nicole Richie's "real" ones in a heartbeat. Why? Because he can write. He is arguably talented. And if talented people are still getting book contracts once in awhile, I'm relieved.

I think James Frey is a far lesser evil for publishing and the reading public and the state of literature in America than the Harry Potter series and celebrity tell-alls and anything Anne Coulter publishes and the entire genre of chick-lit (mentioned in my original post), etc.


p.s.--I wasn't intentionally ignoring your points, I just felt like kind of a boner writing a superlong post on my own blog, so I cut it short.


1:48 PM  
Blogger GRide said...

I find two things very funny about this debate between Tim and Screwsan:

1) How much your opinions/positions are a product of your professions, and

2) Screwsan said boner.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

even through my feelings of profound disillusionment . . . i almost can't resist the temptation to pat them all on the back and say . . . "right. well done, then! wish i'd thought of that myself."
-katrina july

5:26 AM  

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