January 30, 2006
January 29, 2006
I am, by the way, writing a novel. I have 82 pages plus an outline but that needs to swell to at least 200 by March 15, when that much is due to the invitational novel workshop I'll be attending in May. Which of course is why I'm putzing around on LJ.
Anyway, I'm growing a beard and not shaving it off until the first draft is complete. Don't worry! That doesn't mean I won't keep it trimmed! ZZ Top look cool, but I won't be ready for a beard like that until I'm in my sixties.
January 27, 2006
Yes, we all seem to be more up in arms today about James Frey and his partially made-up memoir than we are about domestic wiretaps, freedom of information in China, and terrorists taking power in Palestine. And it makes sense to me why.
Countless hordes of people feel like they were lied to by James Frey. The reason this is more upsetting than being lied to by the President and his cronieswhich happens and continues to happen on a regular basisis that we're used to being lied to by politicians. We may be appalled by it, but we take this as expected behavior.
Writers, however, are a breed apart. Yes, their main job is to entertain us, but when they're doing their job well they are saying something true to us about what it means to be human, something that resonates in us, the readers, to our very cores. Thousands upon thousands of people felt that James Frey had told them something very resonant and true about their own lives, only now it's come out that what he said was, in many ways, made up. Of course people are upset. Of course they feel betrayed. On some level it must feel like finding out your spouse has been leading a double life.
I feel betrayed as well, but not because I read and believed A Million Little Pieces. I have not read the book. I feel betrayed as a writer on behalf of my profession. James Frey's responsibility as a writer was to tell the truth, and he failed to live up to that responsibility.
But what do I mean by "telling the truth"? Certainly writers of fiction do not "tell the truth" in the conventional sense of the phrase. They make up stories. But the stories they make up should speak to a deeper truth, saying something true about the way the world and the human soul work. The best fiction is made up from whole cloth yet woven from the fabric of reality. It is true in a way more meaningful that mere facts can be.
But a memoir is a different case. It's a work that stakes a claim to a different sort of territory. By saying "This really happened to me," the memoirist sets up a different set of rules for himself. His job is still to entertain and to illuminate the truth of the human condition, but even as he employs some of the same tools as the novelist, he has excluded himself from using a certain other subset of those toolsnamely, the right to freely invent incidents and events.
Note that I say "freely." No memoir can possibly be unimpeachably factual in its every aspect. Conversations from years past can never be reconstructed accurately, for instanceunless they happen to have been recordedand would likely make for less than compelling reading if they were. Events in the real world rarely have the dramatic arc of compelling fiction. Participants in those events may be less than thrilled to see themselves portrayed in all their factual warty glory. The memoirist deploys the novelist's tools insofar as he chooses what events to emphasize and how, in what ways to distill amalgams of old conversations to their most readable, meaningful essence, and what balance between literal reportage and obfuscating detail to employ in order to avoid embarrassing the real participantsor prodding them to legal action.
What the memoirist definitively cannot do is make up events without letting the reader know.1 To do so is to shatter the delicate surface tension between real-world facts and the amount of distortion they can bear while still rendering a more deeply truthful report of the world. Or, if not to shatter it immediately, certainly to set up conditions to make it more likely to be shattered at some point in the future. As has happened with James Frey and A Million Little Pieces.
Never has a book's title reflected the state of its pretense to truth more accurately.
For all that I feel betrayed as a writer, I can understand and even sympathize with what happened to Frey. He says he tried marketing his manuscript as a novel originally. And perhaps as a novel A Million Little Pieces could have survived as a work that speaks to a core truth. But the moment Frey decided to call the book a memoir instead, he changed the nature of relationship between the outer and inner worlds of the work. Whatever truths lay at its heart were now subject to a different set of torsions from without, were now viewed through a different prismchoose what metaphor you will. The work changed.
The work changed in a way that no doubt made it easier for him to sell to a publisher, and consequently made it easier for a publisher to sell to the public. It had to have been a very tempting and even easy choice to makebut once made it led, as lies will, to even bigger lies, and then to bigger lies still. At what point does to stop seeming possible to reverse the avalanche you've started? How much effort must it take to keep trying to outdistance it? I don't envy James Frey the last couple of years, let alone the past few weeks.
I'll come clean here. Part of what pisses me off about the whole situation is that Frey, at least at the moment, is continuing to make money off his big lie, big money. He may be taking a world of shit, but you know what? At the end of it all, he still has the wherewithal to writea pursuit for which he obviously has vast talentfull-time. And he has the wherewithal for all the therapy and/or rehab he still so richly needs.
And still The Accidental Terrorist, over which I labored hard, and in which I went to exquisite pains to adhere to the truth as best I could, sits unsold, while I sit here in a 7th floor office in Manhattan doing a job that merely pays the bills and doesn't feed my soul.
Okay, whatever. We all have it tough, and I feel real sympathy for James Frey and the hole he's dug for himself. I live in fear of the mere thought of the accusations of lying that may be leveled at me by pissed-off Mormons when my memoir finally sees print. Hell, I have moments when I fear that I did make up the whole story of my arrest and conviction. Being caught out and called to task can't be a very pleasant experience. But that doesn't change the fact that James Frey lied and lied his way to the top of the bestseller lists, and if the worst he has to endure as a consequence is a stern tongue-lashing from Oprah, well boo fucking hoo. We should all be so well rewarded for our bad decisions.
That doesn't mean Oprah herself get a free pass on this one. I'm sure she feels genuinely pissed off at James Frey, but I doubt very much it comes from a personal sense of betrayal. No, James Frey put her precious Book Club in jeopardy. Do you think Oprah would have chosen Elie Wiesel's Night as her latest club selection, let alone announced a high school essay contest about it, if she didn't need to distract us from the unpleasant little storm brewing over A Million Little Pieces? Not a chance. Frey taking his lumps on television yesterday was all business. Bank on it.
1 It's common practice for memoirists to state clearly at the outset of the book to what degree they have taken liberty with the facts. The work that comes to mind immediately is the addiction memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs, which states on the copyright page: "This memoir is based on my experiences over a ten-year period. Names have been changed, characters combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events." The caveat disappointed me when I noticed it, having already made it more than halfway through, and diminished my enjoyment of the book, but didn't prod me to pick up a pitchfork.
January 23, 2006
January 19, 2006
So Laura and I were walking across town on 9th Street on a recent frosty eveningTuesday just past, to be preciseour arms laden with new purchases and our minds casting ahead to the pleasures of an evening at the Kettle of Fish on Christopher Street in the company of our CD Mix of the Month club cohort, when we spied a spasm of utter disgust and contempt twist the features of a squat, portly pedestrian approaching and about to pass us on our right.
For a moment I wondered what horrific sight or gut-churning smell it might be that had made such unholy handiwork of this Andy Richterlooking fellow's fat face, but all became clear when the porcine perambulator spat these words with a venom that would not have disgraced a slithering specimen of Naja nigricollis nigricincta: "What is that on your head?"
Ah. Owing to the evening's chill, I proudly sported my infamous Mad Bomber Hat1, tugged snugly down around my ears. Lined with genuine and luxuriant lapin fur, this toasty headgear never fails to elicit hearty compliments from more discerning critics (as, in fact, it did not much later that evening). Never before, however, had an imprecation of such vehemence been hurled at my innocent chapeau.
Needless to say, such churlishness could not be allowed to pass unchecked. Shrugging off my shock, I turned as the surly stranger passed and sent this salvo sailing over my shoulder:
"It's the last guy who said that to me."
1 A much-beloved gift of the esteemed bobhowe some few holiday seasons past. So called on account of the manufacturer, but possessed of added resonance due to certain of my past legal entanglements.
2 The accompanying photograph of Ella and me, snapped by Laura on the Upper East Side early last year after a morning stroll through the Gates at Central Park, is also featured as November's offering in the Ella-Vation 2006 12-month calendarstill a timely purchase and readily available for your online-ordering pleasure at Lulu.com.
January 17, 2006
- 20% of the stuff takes 80% of the time to pack. (Corollary: 20% of the stuff takes 80% of the time to unpack.)
- If it's valuable and you don't pack it yourself, it may not turn up at the other end.
- It's never wise to start a long day without either coffee or breakfast.
- Never attend a new Woody Allen flick on opening night on the Upper East Side. (Corollary: Never attend a new Woody Allen flick.)
- Better to spend a little extra money on higher-quality packing tape.
- Self checkout at Home Depot rocks. (Corollary: But only if you have the deft touch of an Indiana Jones.)
- Never attend a kid-friendly exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History during the holiday break.
- Nothing hits the spot after three days of moving like grilled cheese, fries, and a chocolate shake.
- Reversing the doors on a refrigerator is not a trivial operation, but neither is it impossible.
- Even the friendliest, least threatening of dogs can make you believe even the friendliest, least threatening of moving men, telephone technicians, and cable installers are serial killers freshly sprung from the lowest depths of hell.
- Some apartments look bigger when furnished than when empty.
- Antibiotics are more wisely acquired before the move than after.
- Friends and in-laws make everything go better.
- Sleep is good.