Sunday, January 29, 2006
Friday, January 27, 2006
It's not always easy to tell the truth, but I think it's always possible at least not to countenance and encourage lying. In this James Frey controversy, Oprah Winfrey lent the enormous weight of her influence to the proposition that it didn't matter, in a book of nonfiction, whether the facts related were true or false.
Anyone who reads their own fiction in public knows that the first question from an audience -- someone always asks it, is "Is that based on your real life, your own experience?" There are two answers. One is all the facts of your life and how they match with what you wrote in the story, if the story is based on your experience. The other answer is the simple version: it doesn't matter.
With fiction, it doesn't matter whether it is based on "factual" truth, because you are going after a larger truth, and you are deliberately using fiction to do it. It's like the Victorian novelists setting their stories in the town of B****. It doesn't matter where it took place or whether it actually did. You the reader know perfectly well that there is no such town as B****. And this clues you in that the kind of truths that you will encounter here are of a different order than the kind that, say, you rely on the business section of the newspaper for. Both good in their way, but different. These fictional place names are meant to help the reader not to worry about whether the story is true.
(Actually, the demands of fictional truth are much more rigorous and challenging. You don't notice this because there is always so much bad fiction about, and you can read it to get through, you can read it while you're getting an oil change, and you know what's wrong with it, why it's false, but you can't really do anything about it, just then.)
If it is so necessary, in fiction, to deal with the reader's demand to to know whether the story is factually true, then what does tht tell you about the importance of being on the level in both fiction and nonfiction?
If you make a factual claim in a work of nonfiction, and that claim turns out to be a lie, this is a betrayal at such a fundamental level that you really have forfeited the right to expect any interest from a reader ever again. You have no other relationship to the reader but that which arises from the reader's trust in you as a writer. The reader is not your mother who will love you no matter what; the reader is not your best friend, your drinking buddy, your old high school english teacher who thought you were such a cut-up.
Oprah's insistence that it didn't matter because the message was what mattered was an endorsement of the betrayal. If nothing else it shows you how easy it is for an intelligent person to do something stupid.
No one wants to be lied to. No one. No one wants to be lied to even for the sake of an idea of redemption that is all cornpone anyway.
Effectively, Oprah delivered an insult to her book club members by suggesting that their quite correct feelings about Frey's deceit were just about nothing. She told them it didn't matter that they had been lied to. She did this, I'm sure, without thinking very much, she was doing her Famous Oprah Best to salvage the situation. I think she really didn't know what to make of this thing.
Then she figured it out.
From the NY Times yesterday:
Oprah Calls Defense of Author 'a Mistake'
By EDWARD WYATT
Published: January 26, 2006
In an extraordinary reversal of her strident defense of the author whose book she catapulted to the top of the best-seller list, Oprah Winfrey said today she believed that the author James Frey "betrayed millions of readers" by making up elements of his life in his best-selling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces."
She added that she believed "I made a mistake" when she said that the truth of the book mattered less than its story of redemption.
In a live broadcast of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" from her studios in Chicago in which she interviewed Mr. Frey, Ms. Winfrey apologized to her audience for her call to "Larry King Live" earlier this month defending the author. Today, Ms. Winfrey, alternately fighting back tears and displaying vivid anger, berated Mr. Frey for duping her and her audience.
"I gave the impression that the truth does not matter," Ms. Winfrey said. "I made a mistake." To all of the viewers who called and wrote to her telling her she was wrong to allow Mr. Frey to maintain that his book reflected the "essential truth" of his life even though substantial details were falsified, Ms. Winfrey said, "You are absolutely right."
"I feel duped," she said. "I don't know what is true and I don't know what isn't," she said, before addressing Mr. Frey with the question, "Why did you lie?"
So we have now just watched Oprah have a genuine literary experience.
I have a certain relative of a bookish turn of mind who years ago got into a big argument with me (or vice versa) about Oprah's Book Club. It seemed to bother him that this talk show host was having anything at all to do with recommending books for people. I myself said I thought it was rather nice, because it certainly seemed to be encouraging people to feel they could read just as the people that they were. And this is true. Academics have made literature seem so inaccessible, that what a revelation it has been for millions of people that you could read Anna Karenina for pleasure! So she has done more to promote the pleasure of thoughtful reading than any single person around today. Her taste is often awful, but the aim and the interest -- and the success -- of the whole book club endeavor comes from her conviction that her audience consists of people who want to reflect and think about their lives, and who would like to have reading as part of it. A rare compliment. And where else are people to go for this? Who takes the hand of an aspring adult, a woman who maybe has a little time to improve her mind and wants to, and places it on a book that will speak to her?
Will that reader get anything out of the New York Times or indeed any of the newspaper book reviews? They are not written for ordinary people who read. They are a sort of perfected genre of hackery all their own, it's like every week they produce a collection of villanelles, that are bad every week in exactly the same way, and that, consistency of product, is their great virtue. I mean, OK, each one will have something by a visiting star once in a while, but the bread and butter of the NYT Book Review section, the part where you might look for a new novel, is worse than useless. You cannot read the NYT Book Review and not come away with the conviction that it serves the publishing industry and not its readers.
Oprah, serving her audience of readers, has given quite a boost to the book publishing industry. HOW ODD. Remember the era of the short story, when you had all these magazines that printed short stories, and through them people read authors who were, some of them, middlebrow, but others now part of the pantheon of the 20th century. It was good to mix them up. I think the entire 19th century and a good part of the 20th century illustrate that literature and thrives when it is not class-segregated, when everybody feels that what there is to read is for anybody to read. This is true of all the arts. They thrive on a wider audience. Where there is a large audience, there is money and opportunity for talent. So why NOT invest in educating an audience?
An illiterate person believes that a book's being factually true will give it more "impact." This is sort of the reverse of the thinking of any writer with integrity. If Frey had sold his book as fiction no one would have quarreled with him except possibly me because frankly it sounds to me like a piece of shit no matter what you serve it on. But nothing tells you how utterly devoid of literary instincts the man is like this business of insisting that this work of fiction was factually true. Because the factual claim has been discredited, and no reader will ever ever ever again trust a writer of anything who shows such poor judgement, who is such a wretched clumsy dimwit in his own chosen medium. But his making that factual claim shows such a dismal, utter failure to understand the nature of fiction and its truth-telling power, that he proved himself utterly disqualified to write that too. Frey is a con artist, he is a slob, and that is that.
And anybody who wants to believe the sort of rubbish that he writes, well, they deserve to be disillusioned in exactly this way. An experience like this one of the pathways to becoming a more discriminaating reader, it's part of the education of a reader.
Eric Hoffer said we should judge a good deed by its results, not by its motives. "We are made good by doing good," he said. Most of us don't look that good subjected to close inner scrutiny of our motives, and we put that hard truth in novels. It's one of the truths that fiction tells best.
Oprah's duty, as a person whose opinion in these matters counts to a lot of people, was to come out and say, no, I cannot endorse falsehood as truth. Readers should not be lied to. And she did her duty. Whether she gained or lost some personal advantage out of it is not my business, not my problem.
One day I'll take up this whole business of bogus psychologizing of people's motives. I see some fun to be had there, I tell you.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
This one is for Quentin
Yet another reason to go to Tobago.
Every year, on the Tuesday after Easter, the Buccoo village prepares for the exciting sporting event and renovates itself into a sporting arena. Complete with a 100-yard track and a growing number of spectators who come from all over the world, the Buccoo Goat Race Festival combines excitement, entertainment and sportsmanship from an out of the ordinary sporting event.
A cousin to the sport of horse racing, goat racing started in 1925 as a working class alternative to horse racing. While it possesses many similarities such as the presence of stables, owners, trainers, jockeys and steeds, the races differ because the jockeys run barefoot behind the animals, holding them by leashes, rather than riding them and goat jockeys use twigs instead of whips to make their animal go faster and stay on course.
I was in St. Kitts for the revival of donkey racing and went to a donkey race. It was at Warner Park, the stadium in Basseterre. The jockeys were these totally wild-looking rasta-looking guys from the country. Sitting astride the donkey their toes were just sort of lightly scraping the ground. Instead of whips to urge the donkeys on, they used the flat blade of a machete, so the visual impression was awesome, all these men holding their machetes aloft, visions of Caribbean fearfulness. Before guns came, people got chopped up with machetes. So for people it was sort of a thrilling and alarming sight, but it made, as far as I could make out, no impression on the donkeys who regarded the whole thing as an annoyance. A race would start and the donkeys would set off at a trot around the track, well, OK, maybe about 50 yards up the track and then decide that they had had enough of the maniac with the machete. They would then concentrate their efforts on trying to get rid of the maniac, rubbing him off on the rails, bucking, stopping dead and lowering their heads, or turning around and trotting back to the gate, just generally showing a non-sporting attitude. It was impossible not to cheer wildly for the donkeys.
I think it must take some ingenuity to stay on a donkey.
When I was in St. Kitts a man got fined EC$300 for calling an off-duty policeman a donkey.
There are wild donkeys throughout the Eastern Caribbean. I remember people who used donkeys for work -- they traveled on them to town, or carried produce to market on them. But as cars became more ubiquitous people just let their donkeys wander off and they bred like crazy. So a lot of the islands have wild donkeys, herds of them. For some reason, they are more active at night. When I lived in Nevis - which has killed off most of the donkeys that at one time overran the island - at night in Gingerland the noise that would wake me up would be donkeys in the meadows below my house, those gradual slopes going to the sea. Driving home late at night I would see donkeys in odd places, you had to watch out for them when you were driving. Probably they were nocturnal because it was safer than being out when people were about.
At the paper where I worked, there was one family of them, a male and several females and a couple of babies, that would come and drink water out of a big oil drum out in the yard. One night Sweetie heard them and rushed down the stairs and barked at them. The daddy donkey, who was big and of a dark brown, not the usual gray, looked up from whatever he was doing and then charged at her braying in the most horrible fashion. He was splendid, really a beautiful creature. Sweetie turned around and ran right back up the stairs. After that she was very nice to the donkeys. I wanted a donkey so so so bad, and if I could have been certain that I was going to stay there for at least 20 years I would have got myself one. There was an expat couple in St. Kitts who had befriended one and it was like a pet, it wanderd at will in and out of their yard and even came into the house.
They need looking after. Something is owed to them, I truly believe. You know, when Caribbean society integrates care for the welfare of animals into its habits and culture, those islands will be a paradise. Right now, it's a paradise that can suddenly make you sick.
England Sleeps Better Tonight
Nevis Pledges Continued Supporty for Relationship with Britain
I promise to make more of an effort to keep you apprised of Nevisian developments.
Today's Word From Quentin
Chip. Chip. Chip. You're all alone in the lab, if it was me I'd have something nice and meditative in the background, a Mozart string quartet maybe, I'd be deep in that absorbed state of concentration, delicately removing the plaster, yep, I go the lab for peace and quiet, I don't notice the time going by, as I'm pecking away with delicate instruments at the foss --- JEEEEEEZUS CHRIST ON A BICYCLE!!!!!!!!!.
SALT LAKE CITY - A scorpion lived for 15 months without food or water inside the plaster mold of a dinosaur fossil, breaking free only when a scientist broke open the mold.
Don DeBlieux, a paleontologist for the Utah Geological Survey, said he was sawing open the plaster mold when the scorpion wriggled from a crack in a sandstone block.
DeBlieux is still chipping away at the 1,000-pound rock to expose the horned skull of an 80-million-year-old plant eater — a species of dinosaur he says is new to science.
The scorpion "must have been hanging out in a crack the day we plastered him," DeBlieux said Thursday.
He discovered the two-inch critter on Jan. 5 after spending two months carefully removing the plaster mold. DeBlieux said he'll spend more than 500 hours cutting the fossilized skull out of sandstone using tiny pneumatic jackhammers.
It took three and a half years to cut the sandstone block in the field, where researchers encased it with plaster. They moved it by helicopter from the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument to a laboratory in Salt Lake City.
Scorpions, which eat insects, are capable of surviving for months without feeding or moving in a sleep period known as diapause, said Richard Baumann, a Brigham Young University zoologist.
Under other circumstances, the scorpion might have met an untimely end, but DeBlieux said he wanted respected the creature's will to survive. He set the scorpion free in a field on the west side of Salt Lake City.
Quentin sent me the link with one word: FASCINATING.
He is the source of so many good things.
Now, I have to tell you, Mr. DeBlieux is a man after my own heart. I think Uncle Toby would like him too. That's Tristram Shandy's Uncle Toby, not mine personally, though I like to think of him as mine.
My uncle Toby was a man patient of
injuries ; -- not from want of courage, -- I
have told you in the fifth chapter of this
second book, ``That he was a man of
courage :'' -- And will add here, that
where just occasions presented, or called
it forth, -- I know no man under whose
arm I would sooner have taken shelter ;
nor did this arise from any insensibility
or obtuseness of his intellectual parts ; --
for he felt this insult of my father's as
feelingly as a man could do ; -- but he
was of a peaceful, placid nature, -- no
jarring element in it, -- all was mix'd up
so kindly within him ; my uncle Toby
had scarce a heart to retalliate upon
a fly. -- Go -- says he, one day at dinner, to
an over-grown one which had buzz'd
about his nose, and tormented him cruelly
all dinner-time, -- and which, after infinite
attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew
by him ; -- I'll not hurt thee, says my uncle
Toby, rising from his chair, and going a-
cross the room, with the fly in his hand,
-- I'll not hurt a hair of thy head : -- Go,
says he, lifting up the sash, and opening
his hand as he spoke, to let it escape ; --
go poor Devil, get thee gone, why should
I hurt thee ? -- This world surely is wide
enough to hold both thee and me.
Uncle Toby is also responsible for one of the lines in the book that just never dies for me. I read Tristram Shandy about once a year, just to lift my spirits. And every time I get to the buildup to this line I am like a child who wants to hear the same story over and over.
Dr. Slop has cut his finger while trying to undo a tangle of knots that the servant, Obadiah, has tied around his medicine bag. So now he won't be able to assist at the delivery. This is just the last of a series of Obadiah-related mishaps that the doctor has suffered. Dr. Slop is an obstetrician, and he is also a Roman Catholic. He starts to say, "Damn the fellow!" but Walter Shandy, brother of Toby and father of Tristram, interrupts him and invites him to do it properly. He hands him the text of Ernulphus's curse, a long anathema covering every conceivable bodily function and chance of life.
I declare, quoth my uncle Toby, my
heart would not let me curse the devil
himself with so much bitterness. ---- He
is the father of curses, replied Dr. Slop.
---- So am not I, replied my uncle. ----
But he is cursed, and damn'd already, to
all eternity, ---- replied Dr. Slop.
I am sorry for it, quoth my uncle Toby.
Monday, January 09, 2006
More On The Golden Notebook
I like the idea of a book built around notebooks. I love notebooks. Also colored pencils and watercolor paints. I am a nut about paper. You know what's sad? My favorite kind of watercolor paper was this Fabriano Artistico, because I just loved the texture. it was not like the others, instead of a random texture it was a sort of wove texture, as if it had been laid on a grid. And apparently some wise head at the 500+ year old Fabriano mill decided that the thing they needed to do was make their paper just like all the other papers. And now I can't find the old stuff any more. I have a small stash of it, and then after that
Anyway the thing is I am a fool for notebooks, sketchbooks, paper, notepads, I just love it all. So a book built around notebooks is nice. And I did like the central character Anna's feeling about her notebooks.
But basically I think that the book has become a bit dated, like the movie JAWS. I imagine that at the time when it was written and for a long time afterwards, people thought it was really exciting to sit around and talk at length about whatever Jungian discoveries they were getting out of their therapy sessions. A person's waffling for pages and pages and oh my god she's still on about this about whether or not to leave the moribund communist party ("It is pellucidly clear that it is moribund," as Henry Browne would say), would be interesting to someone. As for me, I think you'd find yourself carrying me home blind drunk from any party where all that was the subject of conversation.
The novel demonstrates something I'm not sure I'll be able to describe, but it's something about how at any given time people are at risk of being bound up by the conventional wisdom or the intellectual fad du jour. But the novelist can't be. Otherwise time marches on and leaves the novel looking like Richard Dreyfuss in JAWS. The novelist is accountable to a much longer time frame and a much larger view. And that doesn't necessarily mean larger subject matter. Great novels can be written about Big Ideas. But the novelist in writing about them has to be in command of the meanings, of the relationships among these things. Even if that command is sort of contingent and accidental, the novelist should not be floundering about helplessly along with the characters.
I want to say that a novelist should not share his characters' point of view, but he should enter it - and then be able to depart from it for some other perspective. When once you get the feeling that a novelist can't see his way through whatever is blocking the characters' vision, you lose something. The character of the novelist in a work of fiction, I mean what MM used to call "The presence of the author in the work," could certainly be allowed to be an artifact, at least as much of an artifact as a character like, oh, say, Mr. Woodhouse in Emma. But if that artifact goes wrong in its design, if the reader can't rely on it for guidance, then what do you have, exactly?
I remember once, years ago, teaching a short story class to some junior high school students. I threw in Dorothy Parker's short story about the woman waiting for the phone to ring, which I had always rather liked. The students hated it. "We hate being inside of this woman's head," they said. And they were right. I read it and laughed at the woman, but they read it and tried to identify with her and they couldn't. They hated being in her head.
When you get inside the head of Anna in The Golden Notebook, you are inside the head of a woman for whom everything she is supposed to be believing in is failing and there is only this somewhat chaotic helplessness and dependency - that neediness that just won't quit. Art isn't working for her. Political engagement isn't working for her. Marriage didn't work for her. Affairs haven't been working for her. She really really needs a man, she feels at sea without a man anchoring her life. And yet except for the one who died early in her life they are all pretty worthless, liars, cheaters, disloyal, and they all sooner or later just walk out -- because they can. And she can't seem to think her way out of the need for one. I don't know, maybe one can't. I've certainly been there. But what Lessing seems to be saying is that this is the fault of the world and not of the woman. Well, it is a problem of the world. It is the core thing between men and women.
But all of Anna's approaches to it are so helplessly bound up in these totally moribund intellectual fads, communism, revolution, Jungian psychotherapy. And I dunno, maybe I was too bored in the parts where she was dreaming her way out of them. But to conceive of the problem in these ways is to make for a lot of talk and no action. Towards the end of the book Anna is listening to a lot of Bessie Smith. But apparently she was not listening to the lyrics. She would have heard Bessie Smith singing about all those things.
Up on Black Mountain
A child will slap your face.
Up on Black Mountain
A child will slap your face.
Baby's cryin for liquor
And all the birds sing bass.
Bad as it is up there, she's going to look for her man because she is THAT MAD at how he has treated her.
Anna in The Golden Notebook didn't, apparently, listen to my absolute Bessie favorite, "When I Get Home I'm Gonna Change My Lock And Key."
Take off those clothes or I'll shoot them off
I'll shoot them off if I hear you cough.
You just got to be the latest squeeze?
Well, let them squeeze you in your BVDs.
It's also strange for me reading this book to think that at the time of Anna's experiences boatloads of West Indians were arriving and facing years of discrimination in housing and employment, setting out on the long journey of transforming the society in ways that this novel doesn't even begin to imagine. Which it would not be fair to bring into consideration of the novel except that it purports to be about political realities. But it isn't, it's about living inside of certain political myths and getting stuck there - and, well, you just shouldn't have gotten stuck like that. Easy for me to say, maybe. But I'm not much of a joiner.
Lightly Used Year
I got a wee check today for some books I sold that I had forgotten all about from Copperfields. Which is funny because I was thinking about them and about how much I missed living in the sort of place where you could WALK along a STREET to a secondhand bookstore where apparently everybody who works there likes to read and likes to talk about what they are reading.
There is nothing like that out here in Germantown/Gaithersburg. There is a non-Borders/non-Barnes and Noble place in Rockville but I haven't gotten there yet. it is all big box stores and places that sell greasy food of every ethnic persuasion. You can have your plate of greasy glop served up to you by a Chinese person, an Indian person, a Vietnamese person, a Brazilian person or whatever culture is reponsible for Cheese Subs. Other than that, an eerie sense of cultural vacancy pervades all. You know, when I got chatting on the phone with a certain highly placed federal bureaucrat last year he asked me if I didn't find Sonona County a little bit culturally deprived.
Well insert long dry bitter laugh here if you please, and note that clearly that party doesn't get out to the Maryland Burbs much.
This is really all going somewhere it's not whining because I promised not to whine.
Here is where it is going:
The general anathema above does not extend to the Designer Shoe Warehouse. Or to the crockery odds and ends at TJ Maxx.
I need to get out more so I have been. I take the dogs for long walks every day. The result is that Mischa the neurotic one is getting less so. But her appetite for nature is a lot less avid than Sweetie's. Sweetie would run herself into exhaustion chasing gamy little rodent smells in the tall grass. Mischa, on the other hand, doesn't even try to disguise her relief when she realizes we are headed for the car. Also she has apparently decided that one of her jobs in life is to protect Sweetie from being petted by strangers.
Another thing I need to do is finish reading Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook."
I'm reading it and I know that it is an IMPORTANT book but I have long stretches where I'm reading and thinking thoughts like, "Oh Jeebus H. Christ on a bicycle woman, snap out of it!" Or, and you must imagine me sort of chanting this, "BO-ring BO-ring," like six times. It violates certain rules, the sort of rules I only become aware of in mid-stream, so to speak.
- Do not have long therapy sessions in a novel, and I would say anything more than one sentence of 25 words or less alluding to the therapy session is a long therapy session.
- The Clarissa Rule: No more than ONE dream per 1400 pages. I have lost count of the number of dreams in this 600-page novel so we are talking serious violation here.
- The relationship in the novel might go around and around but the novel itself must not go around and around.
- A character might be bogged down but the novel must not be bogged down.
I'd say those were the big ones.
But I'm only about 50 pages from the end and if I don't finish it I will go on into the rest of my life thinking "Well, now if I want to know how it ends I'll have to go back to the beginning again." I did that with The Brothers Karamazov and it took me YEARS and I found my dislike of the parts I disliked totally unabated. I will say that the parts I did like, mostly the scenes featuring either Father Zossima or Old Karamazov (or better yet, both) just as good. In my mind I still hear Max reading them to me and they were funny.
That said, she's onto a subject. Definitely. it's like a great untidy handbag full of clutter of a book, but look, there is actually a $100 dollar bill wrapped around that old teabag.
A couple nights ago I was up late, couldn't sleep, dozing in front of the tube and JAWS was on. I watched a few minutes of it, the bit when Richard Dreyfuss was examining the first victim the young woman who got drunk with some guy and went skinny dipping at night - THAT'LL TEACH HER, THE SLUT - and I was watching Dreyfus's performance and wondering, "What is he supposed to be so het up about?" I have no idea. I think it was something about the 70s, I suspect that when we all watched this film in the 70s we all knew what was eating him hahhahahahahahaha. Now I can't remember what it was. I mean, out off the Sonoma coast there were a few shark attacks a year and I don't remember anybody - even the victims - getting so pissed off about it.
I watch a lot of cop shows now and the cool thing to be is not passionately angry - except in heroic fits at the child molesting murdering pornographer for instance - but affectless. Except for those bursts of righteous indignation you are keeping your head while all about you are losing theirs etc. (Kipling wuz here and by the way try to say this poem to yourself without experiencing sort of weird Australian/South African nasalities and a powerful temptation to drop aitches). I think with CSI: Miami some sort of outer limit of coolth has been reached. (I mean let's grant, just for the sake of this little comic aria, that a person who takes himelf/herself utterly stone cold deadly seriously can be cool.) David Caruso is almost catatonic, and he's the one with all the feelings. Thoughts too deep for words have collected into these sorrowful pouches under his eyes and he takes off his sunglasses, I think they are opaque sunglasses because he just can't stand to see any more plus they sort of protect his soul from getting jaded in this cruel world, but here he is, there's something wrong with that stray strand of pubic hair, it's been dyed orange, so he's gotta look at it so he does, so wearily. And it's key, this dyed single pubic hair, but it's a false lead, but he's not surprised. He is incapable of being surprised. He has seen it all and it's all just so - sad.
Oh GOD I need a life.
Saturday, January 07, 2006
Tom is running a slide show of our road trip on his blog. I gave him the quickie tour of the splendors of Sonoma County, then we spent a hellish two days with the boxes, then we loaded up the car and left one Wednesday evening. Amazingly, the worst weather we had, and the scariest driving, was in that four or five hours it took to get out of California. That was a month ago.
So now he's back in Tom-land and I'm in Germantown, MD. Sweetie never used to pay squirrels much mind in California but out here she pretty much doesn't think about anything else when we're out for walks or "Squirrel Mania Episodes" as I prefer to call them.