Thursday, January 26, 2006

Usually, I won't use this space as a place for random thoughts on current issues, but I thought this relevant to the writers here at Dotde as it may connect to travel writing in an interesting way.

Oprah, since when have we supposed memoir to be absolutely honest? And how come you look younger now than you did in 1986? You must lather it on to look good, right?

Nonetheless, you may catalogue your readings here at Dotde under the realm of "mostly" nonfiction. If you are able to penetrate the fabric of reality we at the office attempt to pull taut, at least don't cry at us on National TV. Not only do we produce 99% biographical work, but any embellishment is purely for your entertainment. Most embellishment, I might add, takes place in the comment box from those mysteriously anonymous quips.

And we mention this now because we fear concern of this type from our readers. If there's any need for concern or anger, let us here redirect you to humph and humph. These two links will satisfy your needs (for anger or entertainment, depending on your mood).

Yes, we are in Mainz. And yes, I'm taking another road trip to play ultimate near Munich this weekend. D will hold down the office, and hopefully we'll have more reports from Chocolate Mombach (not to be confused as Nagin's mini-practice-plan for New Orleans) while we close down January and reopen the second month of the year.


Blogger d said...

I should say, this is a bit of ongoing debate here at dotde (can't you tell we both study literature? I promise, we talk about other stuff, too). I'm of the opinion that James Frey is something of a schmuck, not so much because he wrote a book in which he fabricated some of his "memoirs," but because he continually asserted on tv and elsewhere that the events described in the book were true. If you write a memoir and then people ask whether or not it is true, you should just tell them, in my opinion. What you write in the book may or may not be fiction--this is artistic perogative. But, what you say on a day-time talk show to millions of people is not artistic, it is just lying at that point. At least come clean and and admit it when you've been caught.

1:48 PM

Anonymous Klamka said...

It would seem to me that the issue brings too much importance to the media. What we watch is what we now assume to be fact and that the presenters have an obligation to be honest. Springer, the Fox News station and others have long since gone over that line. Now comes this issue that seems to give Oprah far too much importance in evaluating and presenting the writings of others. Please keep in mind that her validity come from a group of people who have the time and/or the lack of interest to watch her show. Thus the ratings of that show now give her some sort of moral acceptance. Careful.....the masses have never shown good judgement on their own.

9:31 PM

Anonymous Nathan E. Milos said...

I've been interested in this kind of thing for awhile now (for a time I thought my dissertation would be on biography - now it's a little more complicated). Anyway, this is my favorite kind of thing - people "fabricating" their lives. All narrative is fabrication - the idea of a true narrative strikes me as an oxymoron at this point (though I admit I may be taking things too far - at this point I think language = lying; so I concede that this may be a bit ridiculous). The attempt to narrate your life in any way is always false - to narrate is to place meaning on something & if you're narrating your own life, you are imposing that meaning; I'm not sure I can think of anything more subjective than that. Besides, there are far more interesting versions of this scenario. There was Binjamin Wilkomirski who wrote a Holocaust memoir, and then it turned out he'd been nowhere near a concentration camp. So what? Frey added a few days to his prison sentence and was wrong about how long he'd been in a relationship with a woman who killed herself (and he changed the method). This guy is a small timer; it sounds like his most egregious action was to slip outside the arbitrary human notion of time. Memoir must have roots in memory and memory is weird place. Anyway the point is I blame language in general.

11:11 PM

Blogger d said...

hmm, well, I think your example of Binjamin Wilkomirski is a good one, Nathan. It reminds me of Joseph Ellis--the prof at Mt. Holyoke who claimed to be a platoon leader in Vietnam but who really spent the whole war lecturing at West Point. And your idea that all narrative is (to a degree) fiction makes a lot of sense to me in a fairly theoretical way. Afterall, if language itself is inherently metaphoric (or metonymic) then how can language truly represent reality? That said, though, books are still products to be bought, sold and consumed, and I think it is fair that the average consumer should know what they are buying. Isn't this part of the reason why we have different categories for literature to begin with? Obviously, these categories change, and I recognize that, but when I walk into a bookstore and head over to the graphic novel section, on the whole I expect the novel I pick up to have pictures in it. Why should that be different for memoir? Binjamin Wilkomirski might write a book about the Holocaust in order to reveal the limits of the memoir genre, to criticize how Holocaust memoirs have been written, to experiment with the memoir, or even to create a totally knew genre. I don't know (and I haven't read his book), so I'm just speculating. But if your purpose is to experiment, then why not simply tell your audience this? A graphic novel with no pictures might force me to think a great deal about how I define "graphic novel," but then I wouldn't expect the unillistrated graphic novel necessarily to describe itself as such--it is something new, something different, and distinctly not a graphic novel, though it might be a related genre. A more apt example for Frey might be William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Is it a memoir? Is it "true"? Does it matter?

If Frey wanted to write an experimental novel that questioned how we define memoir, and how drug use, in particular, changes our perception of what is "real" and "true," (and maybe that is what he was trying to do) then all well and good. But I get the impression that wasn't his goal. Frey's book, as many people have pointed out, still would have had an effect on a reading audience if it had been a novel instead of a memoir. It might not, however, have been chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Or it might not have been published at all. J! asked me last night, actually, would I expect they guy to turn down the publishers when they offered to publish the book not as a fictional novel but as a memoir? Well, I might not expect him to say "no, it gets published as a novel or not at all," but this seems to be the moment that caused problems. For most readers (I'm willing to bet), when Frey agreed to claim the book as a memoir, he agreed to sacrifice some kind of artistic integrity--his belief in the book as a fictional novel--in exchange for getting it published. And now, all of the sudden, the whole thing just seems like a dirty scheme to get money and fame instead of an honest attempt to relate the struggles of drug addiction and recovery. And he seemed to dig his own greedy hole a little deeper every time he tried to qualify what was "true" or not "true" in the book, since instead of admitting the original mistake, he kept repeating it over and over. So, while he might not now be addicted to drugs, he hasn't emerged as the sterling personality we all think he should be. The addiction is gone but the reform isn't there and, in my opinon, that's what bothers people. We want the story where the mean, selfish guy becomes a do-gooder instead of figuring out that a little deception and Oprah's Book Club will make him a ton of money and land him on Good Morning, America. The reality, in this case, doesn't measure up to what the reform memoir should deliver.

1:53 PM


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