gall and gumption

Friday, January 27, 2006

On Lying

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'

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.


At 2:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, please do it soon.

At 11:43 PM, Anonymous Max said...

This is so much clearer and truer and more interesting than anything else I've seen on the subject. I was struck by it.

At 1:19 AM, Anonymous Pete said...

I enjoy reading the blog, thanks

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