Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Author As Myth

By now, you've probably all seen The Smoking Gun's enviable debunking (note: link is to an excellent Slate article that summarizes Smoking Gun's findings) of the myth of memoirist James Frey. The quick recap is that Frey wrote a memoir called "A Million Little Pieces," about his recovery from addictions to alcohol, cocaine and crack. Oprah Winfrey, who had for a year decided to only pick forgotten classics for her "Oprah's Book Club," after being snubbed by the excellent novelist Jonathan Franzen, decided to wade back into contemporary literature by lending her name and influence to Frey's book.

In "A Million Little Pieces," Frey tells a recovering addict tale that's as graphic as a splatter horror film but that only seems as cheesy as one knowing what we know now. Turns out that a lot of his exploits, like fighting with cops, spending three months in prison, and blowing a county record on a breathilyzer were at worst fabricated and at best embellished. Either way, seems like Frey, rather than being a penitent abuser was playing the classic role of incorrigible outsider -- a kind of James Dean for the new millenium. In truth, it's hard to blame him for trying. I've done it. It's a kind of game where you exagerate your own exploits even (and sometimes especially) your stupidest or most embarassing or most chastening exploits in order to be the guy who's really pushed the boundaries of modern life. To really pull that off in 2006 is a tough feat, too, since the boundaries of modern life, at least in America, are not so strict as they historically were. I mean, we're well past the time of "Romeo and Juliet," where a Montague marrying a Capulet might bring death and tragedy.

What makes the Frey exagerations harmful is that part of his tough guy pose was to tell a whole lot of readers (his book has sold over 3 million copies) something like this: "I was more far gone than you'll ever be and I beat my demons on my own, through the power of my own will, and therapy and the twelve steps and all of that is bunk." Problem is, if he really wasn't "more far gone than you'll ever be," then he's peddling some pretty bad advice to people who have lost control and he's profited from it.

Heck, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" has always been one of my favorite books. But, Hunter Thompson never meant for anybody to take his advice on having a good time literally and his readers knew it. If a Hunter Thompson fan wants to trip they know not to eat the entire blotter of acid in five minutes and they know not to mix it with freaking human adrenaline. I'm all for author's building their own myths, and a myth should, by its definition, test the limits of real life. But, when you're doing that, you don't sell the product as a manual for living and you don't sell yourself as an example to others.

Consider Ernest Hemingway. The myth of Hemingway certainly grew beyond the facts of his life. What people said he could do, things like playing a pivotal role in the liberation of Paris during World War II while working as a magazine correspondent, is just a bit of fun and a way of making a normal person into a demigod. Were Hemingway to catch you travelling to Iraq as a journalist and trying to lead a battalion in a raid against even the least dangerous of insurgent outposts, he would think you were a moron. Enjoy the myth, learn from the myth, even aspire to become the myth, but live in the real world! Hemingway didn't write "The Old Man and the Sea," in order to inspire people to take badly crafted boats out into the ocean in pursuit of game fish. Sure, he wanted you to admire Santiago, but he didn't want you to mimic him. Santiago did what he had to do, in his circumstance. The only lesson is that you should bravely do what you have to do in your own circumstances. Had Santiago had a modern fishing trawler, a net on a crane and some advanced sonar, you can be damned sure he'd have used them.

It's fine, to me, if Frey wants to write a book about a character who faces the worst depths of human living. But, don't pretend it's all true if it isn't. The truth would probably have been gruesome and chastening enough, in any event. It usually is. A big trap in writing, I think, is the impulse to over-embellish when it's not needed. There's nothing wrong with embellishment, per se. I think it's a tool. If you cut it out entirely, there's no writing beyond reporting and literature becomes a collection of lists and mundane observations.

However, there's power in evoking reality as well. The good writer, and I'm nowhere near at this level yet, embellishes to elucidate but is faithful to what's real (and I mean "real," obviously, in a broad sense).

To embellish to be liked, feared or respected isn't really writing, though. It's advertising. It sells a product that's a persona. I love a lot of authors who have lived lives that don't measure up to the standards of their works. That's to be expected. One great thing about art is that it isn't life. If I just wanted life, I would never need to read. I'm living now and I'll keep living until I die, after all. I even like a few lies. Truth might be beauty, but a well-crafted lie, told for a purpose, can sometimes reveal truths that you wouldn't otherwise see.

What happened with Frey, though, seems a bit too base to defend. He, perhaps guided by his publisher, tried to capitalize on a still vibrant market for memoirs that other writers like David Sedaris, Dave Eggers and Augusten Burroughs helped to create. Further, and especially after he got Oprah's endorsement, he tried to capitalize on an age-old, best-selling gimmick in book writing -- the self-improvement market. Frey meant his book not only to be a revealing glimpse at a real, modern life, but as a guidebook for the reader. If you're out to give advice, it's not too much to ask that you be honest about what you know and how. The self-help book industry, from books about losing weight to books about making money or making friends, might be a racket, but if the authors are honestly giving the best advice they know how, based on their honest experiences, it's at least not a sordid scam.

I don't blame Oprha for being scammed though, as a journalist, I have to admit to some feeling some professional jealousy towards the folks over at The Smoking Gun. See, I tried to read "A Million Little Pieces." I got stalled half way and went on to better books. I never doubted that Frey was being honest, though. I didn't like his writing style and the substance of the book kept grossing me out. He wrote too much, for my taste, about blood from bowels and chunks of stomach in his vomit. However, I've completed and enjoyed many a book with more disturbing content. I didn't think to question why I can read about Humbert Humbert making a young Lolita bloody and sore while still getting grossed out by a little fleshy puke from Frey.

I think, perhaps, that Frey's dishonesty, while not striking me as dishonest enough that I was moved to investigate it, actually killed the book for me. In retrospect, based on the half of the book I did read, he kind of was bragging about what a bad, bad, man he is, at just the times that an honest memoirist would have been revolted by their own story.

I'm fine with authors and creative types in all fields achieving some level of myth in my mind. The Hemingway I imagine is tougher than Hemingway could have been. The Salvador Dali in my mind is likely weirder, more mystic, than the man who turned his strange visions into a marketable living. My Gertrude Stein threw parties where the conversations, I'm sure, were far headier than what was actually discussed in Paris during the 1920s.

That's all fine. Give me heroes who make me question my assumptions about what's possible in real life. But, in that case, ask me questions and make me question. Don't sell me a a user's manual for life unless you honestly believe that it is one.


At 10:37 AM , Blogger adriana said...

well said.

At 4:38 PM , Blogger tifanie said...

You're brilliant. I love you.

At 1:20 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the best discussions I've seen on this topic yet.

At 11:21 PM , Blogger Mike M. said...

Thanks, anonymous poster... that comment made my day.

All right, all right, I get easily made days these days...

Still ya made it for me!


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