Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What's The Point, Again?

So another mighty memoirist has fallen. I'm probably not the only one to feel completely unsurprised by this development--and also not terribly surprised that it was Riverhead who was re-suckered. (Full disclosure: they used to be my publisher, but rejected my third novel because it was "odd.") When you live by the lurid confessional, you die by the lurid confessional--or in this case, continue dragging your moribund ass into the future by the lurid confessional.

Perhaps the publishing industry should be asking itself whether inadequate fact-checking is not, in fact, the real problem. Its dismay is akin to that of the sad couple who, after inviting their alcoholic uncle to their wedding and providing him with an open bar, cannot understand how he could be so rude as to drink himself sick and vomit all over the bridesmaids. Publishers are in the habit of paying enormous advances to people who can provide them with extraordinary life experiences, and so what do you think is going to happen? People are going to generate some, that's what.

I was talking to the writer Paul Lisicky today (interview here) about this very thing. He's a guy with a fairly regular life, who managed to write a wonderful memoir about it. What's extraordinary about Paul is not his experience (gay coming-of-age, abortive church-music recording career) but about the way he has chosen to see that experience. His book is good for the reason that all good books are good--the world is interesting to him, and it is interesting to hear him talk about it. It's people like Paul whom publishers should be rewarding--people who, with their work, can show readers that their own lives are valuable, that their own experience is worth treasuring, and analyzing, and talking about--instead of people who pretend to be what they're not. Good writers enrich readers. The value of their work extends outside itself. It offers a new paradigm for understanding the world.

The ironic thing is that every memoir is fictional, in a way--memory is an elusive thing, and all experience is subjective. But the good memoirist enters into a contract with his reader, a contract that goes something like this: "Though we both understand that this account is not objectively true, I, the writer, will do my best to present you with the world as I know it, in the most interesting possible way; and in exchange, you, the reader, will give me the benefit of the doubt." The more prominent writers break the contract, the fewer readers are likely to buy into it in the future. The entire genre is brought low by these lies, and while I certainly don't applaud the writers who are doing the lying, I have far less respect for the publishers who keep them in business.

Personally, I am too uncomfortable with the vagaries of memory, at least for now, to write anything but fiction. But I applaud people like Paul for managing to make art out of life, even if they didn't escape from Attica or balloon across Siberia. Bring your copy of "Love And Consequences" back to the store and pick up his book instead.

10 comments:

ed said...

Perhaps you haven't read my latest memoir, Balooning Across Siberia.

AliciaABeale said...

It's annoying to hear people excuse James Frey and Margaret Jones for writing fake memoirs. Fiction is made up, but fiction writers use the artifice as a journey to truth. A fake memoir is a journey to money. Memoirs sell more than novels.

What's the most bothersome about the Jones memoir is that she lied about everything and knowingly lied then when it came to light she said she had wanted to give a voice to people who didn't have a voice as though there haven't been a plenitude of memoirs written by ex-gang members. PEN American Center has a great prison writing program. I don't think the people of South Central LA need Margaret Jones to be their voice.

jrlennon said...

I think she was mostly giving a voice to her wallet.

Ed, I don't have time for your memoir due to sipping cognac while snowmobiling, sorry!

AC said...

Don't whitewash your life, jrl. Sipping cognac while snowmobiling landed you a three month prison sentence didn't it? I'll be looking forward to the book.

jrlennon said...

Actually, the process of enhancing your street cred via invented gritty/criminal experiences should be known as "blackwashing." As in, the whole Jones book was a big blackwash.

K. said...

And both Frey's book and Jones' book got rave reviews when people thought they were real, which is shocking in hindsight because now we can see just how poorly written these books are... I honesty think reviewers, even the mighty Michiko Kakutani, are too scared to give memoirs with tragic subject matter bad reviews because it would be "insensitive." Because with memoirs, more often than not, they're praising the subject, not the writing. Which is ridiculous. Reviewers should be smarter than this and stop letting bourgeois guilt guide their reviews.

5 Red Pandas said...

What I want to know is if Selzer/Jones really has a crying pitbull tattooed on her back. She said in the Times article that it was the most "ghetto" thing on her body. Someone needs to fact check that one for me ASAP!

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I may be an extremist about this, but I think faking memoirs is basically plagiarizing the lives of people who really suffered, belittling their experiences, and I am incensed by Jones but even more incensed by the also recent fake Holocaust memoir by Misha Defonseca that simply offers more fuel to Holocaust denial with its pack of lies (and wolves). I posted about this here:
http://ritereading.blogspot.com/2008/03/trauma-envy-presenting-holocaust.html
Writer Reading: Trauma Envy: The Crime of Fraudulent Memoir

myles said...

somewhere else on the internet, someone said their favourite memoir was Bill Bryson's Thunderbolt Kid, only because it was one of the few of the genre not to depend on some tragedy or misery. I'm no big fan of Bill, but I think I agree with this position. Personally, I blame Frank McCourt and his dust-eating, carboard-box-in-middle-of-road miserabilism. Now this stuff is therapy and, as always, someone tries to game the whole thing.
Viva la novela!

myles said...

Of course, I expect you all to buy my new book, detailing the remarkable tale of how I was raised by a crazed gang of estuarine crocodiles in northern Australia. It's James Frey meets Crocodile Dundee. Should be a big winner.