A Million Little Pieces of $#@%
by Miles Mathis
It seems to me that the last word, or the correct word, has not yet been spoken on the James Frey matter. As most know, Oprah at first supported, then scolded Frey for falsifying parts of his memoir. Some commentators like Dowd came down on the side of truth scrupulously defined (ironic that) and others came down on the side of laissez faire standards in non-fiction. Both sides seem naïve to me. Neither really touches solid ground in this whole fracas. To reach that solid foundation, one must consider the history of memoirs and of publishing them. One must look at books like Caesar’s De Bello Gallico and Cellini’s Life and Rousseau’s Confessions and Whistler’s Gentle Art and other similar examples to know what to expect from the genre. A memoir is not a documentary, it is not journalism or a book report or a magazine article. A reader should expect that there may be some amount of bragging, inflation, and misremembrance. But this does not make it fiction or fictionalized. It just means that the man or woman who lived the life has earned the right to selectively edit to a certain degree, as he or she sees fit. A memoir that is nothing but tall tales is usually (but not always) useless, but so is a memoir that that reads like a grocery list or an accountant’s ledger, footnoted and line-checked.
For this reason, among others, I hope that the courts will throw out all these lawsuits claiming outright fraud. The readers were duped, no doubt, but so is any reader who reads any such book, even the books that are true. Any self-help book or inspirational book is a dupe from the first page, and is supposed to be. Anyone who fails to understand that is a fool, one who would be wasting money on lottery tickets if he weren’t wasting it on so-called books.
This is all to say that a memoir or autobiography has always held a third position outside of the simple fact/fiction dichotomy. These people who are just discovering this seem to me like people who have never held a library card, who have never read a book that did not have a glossy dust jacket and a picture of the author on the back (or the front). Only among a clientele of literary children could such an issue become an issue. These are the same sort of people who expect advertising to be true, who think that “reality” shows contain any reality, who think that all actors are type-cast. No doubt they are dead sure that the actors who play Joey and Phoebe are dumb in person, and that Matthew Perry (Chandler) is just as charming in real life, without all his lines scripted.
And that is where we return to Oprah and Frey. The modern market for books is a market for literary children of all ages. One only need look at Harry Potter for the ultimate proof of this. The problem with Frey’s book is not that it is false in some details; the problem is that it is a poorly-written series of pages written by a nobody to appeal to squishy TV watchers. Historically, memoirs were written by famous and interesting people, and Frey is neither. He is a literary opportunist, a litterateur, a hack. He and his publisher clearly tailored this book to attract a certain sentimental and ignorant “demographic”, which demographic is defined by the Oprah book club member. These people want heart-warming and inspiring stories above all else, stories that can confirm their delusions that losers are not losers—that liars and thieves and drug pushers and wife batterers and spineless employees of big evil companies are not really “bad people”. That they are good people who have just been victimized or repressed or who lacked opportunity. The people who read these books are padding their own guilt, buying insurance against their own failures and shortcomings. They don’t want to read the memoirs of someone who actually did something great or worthwhile: that would only remind them that they sit on the couch all day eating potato chips and watching Oprah. No, they want to read the memoirs of a now-successful loser—a person who was, only yesterday, in jail or on crack or eating from a dumpster. If a man living in a shopping cart, eating cockroaches, can turn his life around and appear a year later on Oprah with a million-selling book, then the sky is the limit for them, too. All it takes is a good therapist, some post-it notes on the mirror, and a few nights with Microsoft Word.
Now, I don’t know if my imagined gloss of Frey’s book is anywhere near the mark. I didn’t read it. I categorically refuse to read any book of that sort. In fact, I refuse to read most contemporary books, since not one in a thousand is worth reading, fiction, non-fiction, or memoir. If I am looking for someone to say something sensible, interesting, or wise, the cutoff line is about 1955. Most usable information is much older. In general, the further you get away from the contemporary US publisher, geographically and chronologically, the better. The modern publisher and author only want to sell you pabulum of one bland flavor or another, in short sentences and easy words. That or shock you with some transparent and scriptable outrage. God forbid you should ever have to open a dictionary, stress your brain with a compound sentence, or digest any idea not invented by television since 1960.
In choosing a book to read, one must take into consideration who is recommending it. Occasionally I do read a book by a living author, and when I do it is because someone whose opinion I trust has recommended it. One must ask why anyone values Oprah’s opinion on books? What, exactly, has she done to earn anyone’s trust or admiration? She appeared in a couple of movies, I think, to no great acclaim, then landed on a talkshow. I don’t pretend to understand talkshow standards, but by those standards she must be a phenom, since she captured and held a large audience. By those same standards, Jerry Springer is also a phenom. Should we thereby value his opinion on books and art and fine wine and brain surgery? Oprah seems to be a brilliant investor: she knows how to move in the market. If I wanted advice on how to make money in entertainment, I might read her book. But beyond that, I fail to see her expertise. As a critic in a field she knows no better than the man on the street, she can only be a nuisance.
Some will say that is the nature of the modern critic. As an equal of his audience, he can best advise it on what it will like and dislike. But this is to dismiss the function of literature as an educational tool. It is to dismiss the educational value of any action, whether it be going to the cinema or to the museum. Many think of Oprah as a sort of spiritual advisor. But a spiritual advisor treats his or her subject not just as a means of entertainment. He must also treat it as a didactic device. Even Oprah pretends that her book club does its audience some good. But advice from an equal cannot do you any good: it can only keep you at the given level—the status quo. That is why we read in the first place—we read the words of someone who knows something we do not. Otherwise the effort is pointless. This means that both the writer and the critic must be in some sense superior to their audience. If they do not know more about the subject they are addressing than the audience, the whole show is a waste of time and effort.
Oprah cannot be a proper critic or advisor, since she is not an expert of any sort in the field of literature. To be an expert she would have had to have proven herself either a very good writer or a very good reader, or both. She has done neither. The same can be said of most modern critics. They have no expertise of any kind in the fields they infest, and often do not even pretend to. No critic is ever asked to present his or her qualifications. Usually, being on TV is qualification enough for anything, even becoming President.
This is the problem at the root of the Oprah/Frey affair, not
the question of truth. Dowd tried to
tie the Frey subject to Bush’s frequent lies, but this was only a matter of
pushing all headlines into her own pet projects. Bush is one subject, Oprah is another. With Oprah, the problem is that book publishing has been
compromised further by her entry into it.
Her influence has led to an accelerated popularization of literature, to
a greater push to the middle, and to a near-complete loss of the margins. Publishers have finally capitulated in
toto to the masses and the higher end has been trimmed as a residue of the
aristocracy (or the old school by another name). “What every schoolboy knows” is now long dead, and good
riddance, it is thought. All education
beyond a low and sentimental one is now thought to be pedantry, a sign of
elitism. Even the last crusting of
intellect in literature has dissolved into self-parody (see for example Infinite
Jest—a tiresome conglomeration of poses) or au courant vulgarity
(see The Crimson Petal and the White, which, despite being sold as
update of Dickens, must open with anal sex).
We appear to be approaching some nadir, some dark age of the mind and
soul, some lastmanhood of the species.
Truth is an important thing, but it pales in comparison to a complete
cultural disintegration. Which is
perhaps why the commentary has focused on the former and not the latter. The former is a bit easier to tie up in a
box and post to this week’s editor.
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