the truth of the matter

more erudite minds than mine (not to mention those in possession of more free time) are doing a marvelous job rounding up the various charges of literary plagiarism being flung about these days. Over at the Freakonomics blog, Stephen-with-a-ph does a bang-up summary of the brouhahas (brouhahae?) surrounding Jimmy Carter's otherwise-well-intentioned bit of slapdash political writing, and Augusten Burrough's memoir-if-by-memoir-you-mean-fiction.

What blows my mind here is manifold, but as I started writing it out this first thing wound up taking up all the space, so it's the only one I'm really going to touch on right now. If you would like the short version, there is a nice little summary down at the end, and you can scroll down to it because I don't know the HTML for a jump. Here it the mind-blower: what is up with this expectation of truth in publishing?

Seriously - bear with me here. It's one thing if the book we're talking about is scholarly in tone, or is journalistic in its nature. If it's intended to be the hardcover equivalent of foreign-war correspondence on CNN or a meticulously researched biography of a person who actually existed, then yes - obviously - the readers have a right to unmitigated, objective truth (assuming it exists at all, etc etc).

But the vast majority of book-writing falls outside of this pure reportage, and we as consumers ought to be a little smarter in our consumption. Carter's book - a lambast against Israel's treatment of Palestine (which I haven't read, since in theory I don't actually care about the real world, but nonetheless a copy is fluttering my way thanks to amazon.com) - isn't journalism. It's a book-length opinion piece, and as such calls upon the tricks used in opinion writing everywhere: wholesale ripoffs of others' ideas, half-baked notions and catchphrases, and overall hyper-hyperbole - all in the name of driving home a simple, straightforward point that is generally summarizable in a sentence. Tom Friedman? This War Is Good. (or, the later columns, No Wait, My Wife Was Right.) Maureen Dowd? Everyone Is Less Smart Than Me or, alternately, Hey Look! There Went Feminism! And then Jimmy Carter, using a book rather than Times column inches: Stop Killing And Oppressing People, You Stupid Israelis.

(This isn't to say that it's okay that he uses these tricks. It's not, and he shouldn't. It undermines his future trustworthiness, and it undermines this issue itself of which he's trying to raise awareness. Despite its demonstrated dissemination - the book is among the top 10 on the Times bestseller list - the very high-profile criticisms of its methods only provide fuel to those who would seek to criticize its message. It's the literary equivalent of an ad hominem attack, and it serves Carter in poor stead.)

Then there's Burroughs. Okay, kids. Running with Scissors is a book I have actually read. Have you read this book? This book is OBVIOUSLY fiction. No one's life is actually this narratively pat. Dudes. Please. I read it the whole way with this sort of indulgent mental stance - the same thing you take on when you listen to your internet-first-date tell you a story that he is obviously making up as he goes along, just so he can appear interesting and witty and like his life relates to your life. "Uh huh," you're saying. "That's really fascinating." And it is - the story is fascinating. But it's a story, not a factual account. I felt the same way while I was reading James Frey's outed-as-fake autobiography, A Million Little Pieces.

But even beyond these skeleton-of-fact/musculature-of-fiction pseudoautobiographies, there's a whole ocean of salt with which we ought to take autobiographies in general. Above, I offered as books for which we can have a fair expectation of truth (a) journalism and (b) biography. But not autobiography. There's no objectivity in experience (unless you can find a way to put qualia to paper, in which case: holy crap), and so inherently any recounting of one's own life is going to be a little bit tinged by the haze of memory, the extraordinary powerful ability of the brain to convince itself of truths that aren't true, and the common writerly affliction of desperately wanting things to fit a classic narrative arc of mounting intensity and eventual redemption.

Think of the great stories you have in your life. I have this amazing one about the time that Harvard Medical Services misdiagnosed me with gonorrhea despite the fact that, at the time, there was *ahem* no real way I could have acquired it. The Story Of The Immaculate STD has moved into legend status, and I tell the story so often - with so many minor embellishments and smoothings-out - that I don't know that I could really pick apart the actual bits from the ease-of-retelling bits that allow me to set up the story as a buildup with a punchline. Take that. Take your best story, and then make it the story of your entire life. Tell me you can really write an autobiography and have every single word be true. Tell me you can write 500 pages about yourself and have it all - every sentence, every idea - be fact, be fully attributed, be remembered perfectly.

You can't. So does this mean that we should let these fictionalized autobiographers off the hook? Absolutely not. But it does mean that these guys - and any would-be memoirists - should stop pretending that autobiography is journalism. Memoir isn't fact - it's (as the frenchtastic name tells us) memory. And memory (as my favorite Foer brother, Joshua "no really, not Jonathan" Foer would tell us) is quite a mysterious thing.

When it comes both to Carter and to Burroughs, the weight of criticisms falls largely and appropriately onto both their shoulders. But it's also to a nontrivial degree the responsibility of readers to realize that these gray areas between Fact and Fiction exist. The idea of a literary binary is, in fact, sort of a terrifying one - it's injections of reality into fiction that often make the best novels the most compelling (for all that I hated it, Ian McEwan's recent plaigiarism scandal was over medical and technical passages about what it was like to be a WWII nurse), and similarly some elements of fiction incorporated into fact can help it go down more easily.


Authors of books: stop being arrogant assholes.
Readers of books: stop being sheeplike morons.

Thank you.


Mr Phipps said...

personally i just think of them as metabiographies, a new genre.

in mine, i'm an american volunteer in the spanish civil war being nursed back to health by desirea smythe, unknown heiress to the smythe cotton gin (the failed drink concoction, not the machine which made america wealthy), and our quirky david mametesque dialouge would be peppered with brilliant exchanges and liberal use of the "f" word.

no, the other "f" word.

that one.

Oliver said...

ZOMG! Your writing is stunning, both in terms of style and in flow. It makes me feel that all my past (and to be honest, future) writing should be destroyed as a sin against the english language.

But then i write academic Comp.Sci papers which i believe are meant to be dry, monotonous, and arduous to read...

Anonymous said...

You know, actually following the link to the Freakonomics blog and from there to the NY Times article on Carter, you find almost zero substantive criticism of the Carter book.

The whole article is about how this Stein guy says the book is crap, but won't give any serious examples. Here's all we get in the article:

Mr. Stein declined to detail all the inaccuracies he found, saying he was still documenting them for a planned review of the book; but he did offer a few examples.

Mr. Carter, he said, remembers White House staff members in 1990 being preoccupied by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait when the former president tried to describe to them talks he had had with Middle Eastern leaders. But the White House briefings occurred in the spring, Mr. Stein said, and the invasion of Kuwait was not until August.

That's it? This completely irrelevant point is worth an article and apparent media brouhaha?

Wait, maybe it is this part that's worth the controversy:

Mr. Stein also said he had been struck by parts of Mr. Carter’s book that seemed strikingly similar to a work by a different author, but he would not disclose the details.

“There are elements in the book that were lifted from another source,” Mr. Stein said. “That other source is now acting on his or her own advice about what to do because of this.”

Well that settles it then. Clearly this is enough evidence to show that Carter is a complete fraud.

The Times has done a truly splendid job here.

helen said...

anonymous, i agree with you that stephen dubner isn't criticizing carter, and that the times totally sucked it hard with this particular bit of reportage.

still, it doesn't change the fact that people - nonspecific "people" kind of people - are hyperconcerned wtih the notion of veracity in literature. i think there's a lot to be said for occupying a gray area, and acknowledging your occuption thereof - both as a writer, and as a responsible reader.