Vote for Janet!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! in the best of the blogs awards. We like Janet a lot, and think a victory for Janet is a victory for us. Not that we believe in competition or anything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Also read Esoteric Wombat’s account of how he saved me from Karl Rove.
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: January 17, 2006
James Frey’s admission last week that he made up details of his life in his best-selling book “A Million Little Pieces” – after the Smoking Gun Web site stated that he “wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms and status as an outlaw ‘wanted in three states’ ” – created a furor about the decision by the book’s publishers, Doubleday to sell the volume as a memoir and not as fiction.
It is not, however, just a case about truth-in-labeling or the misrepresentations of one author: after all, there have been plenty of charges about phony or inflated memoirs in the past, most notably about Lillian Hellman’s 1973 book “Pentimento.” It is a case about how much value contemporary culture places on the very idea of truth. Indeed, Mr. Frey’s contention that having 5 percent or so of his book in dispute was “comfortably within the realm of what’s appropriate for a memoir” and the troubling insistence of his publishers and his cheerleader Oprah Winfrey that it really didn’t matter if he’d taken liberties with the facts of his story underscore the waning importance people these days attach to objectivity and veracity.
We live in a relativistic culture where television “reality shows” are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics, where academics argue that history depends on who is writing the history, where an aide to President Bush, dismissing reporters who live in the “reality-based community,” can assert that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Phrases like “virtual reality” and “creative nonfiction” have become part of our language. Hype and hyperbole are an accepted part of marketing and public relations. And reinvention and repositioning are regarded as useful career moves in the worlds of entertainment and politics. The conspiracy-minded, fact-warping movies of Oliver Stone are regarded by those who don’t know better as genuine history, as are the most sensationalistic of television docudramas.
Mr. Frey’s embellishments of the truth, his cavalier assertion that the “writer of a memoir is retailing a subjective story,” his casual attitude about how people remember the past – all stand in shocking contrast to the apprehension of memory as a sacred act that is embodied in Oprah Winfrey’s new selection for her book club, announced yesterday: “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s devastating 1960 account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
If the memoir form once prized authenticity above all else – regarding testimony as an act of paying witness to history – it has been evolving, in the hands of some writers, into something very different. In fact, Mr. Frey’s embellishments and fabrications in many ways represent the logical if absurd culmination of several trends that have been percolating away for years. His distortions serve as an illustration of a depressing remark once made by the literary theorist Stanley Fish – that the death of objectivity “relieves me of the obligation to be right”; it “demands only that I be interesting.”
And they remind us that self-dramatization (in Mr. Frey’s case, making himself out to be a more notorious fellow than he actually was, in order to make his subsequent “redemption” all the more impressive) is just one step removed from the willful self-absorption and shameless self-promotion embraced by the “Me Generation” and its culture of narcissism.
“A Million Little Pieces,” which became the second-highest-selling book of 2005 (behind only “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), clearly did not sell because of its literary merits. Its narrative feels willfully melodramatic and contrived, and is rendered in prose so self-important and mannered as to make the likes of Robert James Waller (“The Bridges of Madison County”) and John Gray (“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”) seem like masters of subtlety and literate insight.
The book sold more than two million copies because it was endorsed by Ms. Winfrey, and because it rode the crest of two waves that gained steam in the 1990’s: the memoir craze, which reflects our obsession with navel gazing and the first person singular; and the popularity of recovery-movement reminiscences, which grew out of television-talk-show confessions (presided over by Ms. Winfrey, among others) and Alcoholics Anonymous testimonials.
These two phenomena yielded the so-called “memoir of crisis” – a genre that has produced a handful of genuinely moving accounts of people struggling with illness and personal disaster but many more ridiculously exhibitionistic monologues that like to use the word “survivor” (a word once reserved for individuals who had lived through wars or famines or the Holocaust) to describe people coping with weight problems or bad credit.
They also coincided with our culture’s enshrinement of subjectivity – “moi” as a modus operandi for processing the world. Cable news is now peopled with commentators who serve up opinion and interpretation instead of news, just as the Internet is awash in bloggers who trade in gossip and speculation instead of fact. For many of these people, it’s not about being accurate or fair. It’s about being entertaining, snarky or provocative – something that’s decidedly easier and less time-consuming to do than old fashioned investigative reporting or hard-nosed research.
Around the same time, biographies became increasingly infected with personal agendas. There was biography as pretentious exercise in deconstruction (Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Jackie Under My Skin”), biography as spin job (Andrew Morton’s “Diana: Her True Story”), biography as philosophical manifesto (Norman Mailer’s “Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man”) and biography as feminist polemic (Francine du Plessix Gray’s “Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet”). While some of these authors were candid about what they were up to, Edmund Morris’s ludicrous 1999 book “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” – which recounted Ronald Reagan’s life through the prism of a fictional narrator, who liked to talk about himself – was sold as “the only biography ever authorized by a sitting president.”
Equally egregious was “The Last Brother,” Joe McGinniss’s speculative portrait of Senator Edward M. Kennedy – a book in which the author acknowledged that he’d “written certain scenes and described certain events from what I have inferred to be his point of view,” despite the fact that he did not even interview the senator for the book. “This is my view, and perhaps mine alone,” Mr. McGinniss wrote, “of what life might have been like for Teddy.”
While books like these were further blurring the lines between fact and fiction- a development that had begun years before with the rise of the new journalism, which appropriated the techniques of fiction without assuming its prerogative of invention – academics were questioning the very idea of reality.
By focusing on the “indeterminacy” of texts and the crucial role of the critic in imputing meaning, deconstructionists were purveying a fashionably nihilistic view of the world, suggesting that all meaning is relative, all truth elusive. And by focusing on the point of view of the historian (gender, class, race, ideology, etc.), radical feminists and multiculturalists were arguing that history is an adjunct of identity politics, that all statements about the past are expressions of power and that all truths are therefore political and contigent.
Variations on these arguments were used by Janet Malcolm, who disingenuously suggested in “The Silent Woman,” her highly partisan 1994 portrait of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, that all biographers share her disdain for fairness and objectivity.
The dangers of such relativistic theories are profound. As Deborah Lipstadt, the author of “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” has argued, the suggestion that no event or fact has a fixed meaning leads to the premise that “any truth can be retold.” And when people assert that there is no ultimate historical reality, an environment is created in which the testimony of a witness to the Holocaust – like Mr. Wiesel, the author of “Night” – can actually be questioned.
In her 1994 book “On Looking Into the Abyss,” the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that historians have always known “what postmodernism professes to have just discovered” – that any historical work “is necessarily imperfect, tentative and partial.” Yet postmodernists do not merely acknowledge the obstacles that stand in the way of objectivity but also celebrate those obstacles, elevating relativism into a kind of end in itself. They strive to be imaginative, inventive or creative, instead of accurate and knowledgeable.
This, in a sense, is what Mr. Frey has done on a petty scale in “A Million Little Pieces.” But he’s not the only one to indulge in this sort of relativism or these sorts of situational ethics. President Clinton famously answered a question, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, with the words “it depends on what the meaning of the word is is.” And members of the current Bush administration, as Franklin Foer has written in The New Republic, have promoted “the radically postmodern view that ‘science,’ ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’ are guises for an ulterior, leftist agenda,” arguing that experts (be they experts on the environment, Medicare or postwar Iraq) “are so incapable of dispassionate and disinterested analysis that their work doesn’t even merit a hearing.”
The Bush White House has used similar arguments to try to discredit the mainstream press and its watch-dog role, suggesting that there is no such thing as truly independent reporting or even a set of mutually agreed upon facts, that there are no distinctions between willfully partisan hacks and reporters who genuinely strive to deliver the best obtainable truth.
This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like “credibility” and “perception” replace the old ideas of objective truth – a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability, a climate in which Ms. Winfrey can declare that the revelation that Mr. Frey made up parts of his memoir is “much ado about nothing.”
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Oprah’s Book Club Turns to Elie Wiesel (January 16, 2006)
My True Story, More or Less, and Maybe Not at All (January 15, 2006)
Writer Says He Made Up Some Details (January 12, 2006)
Fact or Fiction, It’s His Story (January 11, 2006)