Monday, May 14, 2012

Discerning the Truth

SO YEAH, California. Just like Jimmy in The Wizard. Califooooornia. If I'm lucky I'll get to play Super Mario 3 and see the big fake dinosaurs. [1]

But that's not what I want to talk about today, folks. I want to mudpuddle around in a Topic instead. I read this article this morning about David Sedaris, and the wee problem that some of his stories might not be strictly true. It's the latest in a long line of articles I've read about memoir authors not sticking perfectly to facts, a topic I never seem to get tired of reading about. This fascinating article/book review about fact-checking is probably the most memorable one for me, mostly because of the third-to-last paragraph turning the whole thing on its head. It's a subtopic for another day, but that article did 75% of the work of convincing me that I can't be a professional writer of nonfiction, not even essays. I don't "massage" very well.

I believe in truth. It's the bedrock of how I live. One of the most startling compliments I've ever gotten was Matt telling me that I have a relationship to the truth that's well out of the ordinary. Part of why I love fiction so much is my devotion to truth - I believe that fiction shows us truth that only the absolute best writers of nonfiction can convey. Life is hardly ever all one thing or another, and I think nonfiction tends to need to sweep people and their actions down into specific drawers, labeled clearly, where they can be stored and safe. Fiction has the power to show us our myriad facets by showing us many characters; one of the best realizations I ever made was seeing that the five main characters in Fraggle Rock, a big influence on my childhood, are five different aspects of pretty much any personality [2], all of which we need to call upon at different times in our lives.

I'm addicted to the articles on, because they tend to take the time to really explore all the sides of a person or an issue. Virtually never are real human people just evil or just good or just bigoted or just pitiable. [3] When you have several thousand words to kick around, it means you have the time to explore all the available contradictions, which is invaluable to people who read.

So when I find out that writers mix the truth with not-quite-the-truth and market their work as nonfiction, I'm never sure what to think. The James Frey thing made me a little mad, but mostly thoughtful, because although I think Frey himself is a pretty poor poster child for this sort of thing - his fiction factory disgusts me, and I don't enjoy his work - the inner issue remains compelling. If people read his book, felt something, were moved, does it matter that those feelings were brought on by falsehoods? Is it appropriate to feel cheated by an emotional experience that was true if the inspiration for the experience was not?

The devoted-to-truth part of me gets mad when I read stories like this. If it's not factual, don't promote it as nonfiction. Because it's not. But then the philosophy kicks in - no work of nonfiction is ever objective, unvarnished truth, because nothing created by real humans is ever objective. Not textbooks, certainly not documentaries, and laughably not memoirs. Memoirs in particular are always seen through the hazy lens of human memory, so absurdly subjective and inaccurate. When I read that fact-checking article, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe Mary Karr doesn't actually have the memory of an elephant [4], but that she's just really good at remembering certain things and squeezing not-necessarily-perfectly-true detail out of them, like dyed water from a cellulose sponge. The audience, though, presumes that memoir comes from a place of fact, that Augusten Burroughs sincerely had that hair-raising childhood, and that very little of it is made up. That label of memoir seems to confer unique responsibility on Burroughs, not just to write as truthful a book as possible (which is the inherent responsibility of all writers), but to write as accurate a book as possible.

One could argue that this is actually the responsibility of the audience, related to the Photoshop problem. [5] If you look at magazines and accept that pretty much nothing in them is real, that it's all Photoshop, then you can admire the depictions of celebrities and models as works of art pieced together by talented technicians, and stop attaching your own self-worth to them in any way. (Yeah, not easy. So worth it, though.) If you look at memoir with a sort of permanent skepticism, understanding that it's all been massaged and constructed, events reordered and reworded to make them more appealing to the audience, then you can find the art in it. Rather than being amazed that such things actually happened to someone you can be amazed that the writer tells an extraordinarily good story. Isn't it better to have loved some truth and lost some facts than never to have loved at all? Only in certain cases do I think it makes the art instantly not worthwhile.

In the Washington Post article that started this train of thought for me, the word "storyteller" keeps appearing in regard to Sedaris. I find this word exceptionally appropriate, and given the allegations in the article about some of his best-known stories not being factually true, far more appropriate than "memoirist", which is how I would have categorized him before today. Donald Maass talked, in a keynote I was lucky to attend, about the role of the storyteller throughout history, moving most of his audience (full of writers) to tears. For me, that word evokes Homer, and the countless unnamed bards throughout time who strummed their instruments (perhaps only their vocal cords) and entertained. Usually I also think of the Epic of Gilgamesh, humankind's oldest story. Wikipedia tells me that Gilgamesh was a historical figure, a king of Sumeria, but if the story told in the Epic is more than 50% factually accurate, I'll eat my laptop. It's a 4,000-year-old story, and that's a hell of a lot of games of Telephone. A lot of subjectivity, of humans shaping the tale to fit their own perceptions, the needs and politics of the time, the requirements of the audience. But there is truth in Gilgamesh's story, truth that still resonates, truth that doesn't require a specific time, place, or perception.

The writer at issue in the Slate article above, John D'Agata, has this to say regarding people who get angry about nonfact in nonfiction:
Stop demanding to be spoon-fed like a baby. Figure out how to deal with art that you disagree with without throwing a fucking temper tantrum. 
Along with his other interesting (and unfailingly hostile, it seems) arguments about creative nonfiction being necessarily more art than fact, I find this one very much to the point in terms of putting responsibility on the audience. I'm not certain, though, whether he means "disagree with" in that there must be something about this art to which I react badly, so I'm prejudiced and hateful about the art anyway, or if he means "disagree with" in that I disagree with the writer's choice not to tell the objective truth. It's a pretty important distinction. I tend to agree with him that people need to find a way, a way that isn't just screaming at the writer, to cope with nonfiction art which doesn't keep to the facts.

One of the themes of my life in 2012 has been taking the world less seriously. Laughing at stuff that makes fun of stuff that I love deeply, rather than being offended. Shrugging when I encounter people with whom I fundamentally disagree. Caring a lot less about the damaging influences of culture and media, and committing instead to a discerning eye. And with this perspective, I wonder if feeling cheated by a memoir that isn't true is just taking things too seriously. Taking upon yourself something that just doesn't belong to you, and putting responsibility on a writer who never intended or attempted to be responsible. There are exceptions - when false memoir offends the conscience, or if you happen to be one of the people harmed by such fudging. But overall, I can't help feeling we should be looking for truth instead of fact in stories. That may be all we'll ever find, and all we'll ever need to feel satisfied.


[1] Are those dinosaurs still there?

[2] Gobo = strong leader, sensible, down-to-earth, your everyday self; Red = all raging id, impulsive, self-centered, enthusiastic, adventurous; Wembly = sensitive, fearful, gullible, sympathetic, able to see all positions in any argument; Mokey = utter embodiment of creative spirit, flighty, overly woo-woo, hard to rattle, easygoing; Boober = utter embodiment of pessimist, obsessive, dramatic, funny, dutiful.

[3] I would say never-never, but there's always Ted Bundy. 

[4] I remember only narrow ribbons of my childhood, disembodied incidents and images and sounds here and there. Probably 1% of the experience of my life during those years. I was bowled over by The Liars Club, because she seems to remember everything.

[5] I'm well aware that Photoshopping is a very, very different problem when you get into responsibility. So many women (and men, I presume) of all ages are harmed by media images cajoling them into eating disorders and self-hatred. Selling clothes and cosmetics to impressionable teenagers is a really different issue from falsely claiming to have been arrested while on crack. But the issues are related: both have something to do with audience discernment.


Denise said...

Very interesting. I like what you say about focusing on being discerning and finding truth rather than being rigid about labels and rules. If you haven't listened to Daisey's program on This American Life, it's worth listening to. Even more interesting and pertinent to this conversation is the follow up episode with the retraction of his story and his interview.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I consider the Daisey thing very different. A writer of an exposé has a different set of responsibilities than a writer of personal memoir. Naturally the same questions and considerations come up, so I may take you up on this and listen to it. (I'm not much for NPR.)

Katharine Coldiron said...

(Blasphemous, I know.)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that I'm not the only one who is fascinated by this sub-genre of the invented memoir. Sedaris has never bothered me in the least. He's first and foremost a humorist and he does that better than anyone else.

But what is going on in our culture that people feel inspired to invent the fact that they were in the holocaust or kept in cages as little children? It's victim porn.

As for James Frey, he's earned a special place in hell. His two books on alcoholism weren't just not true, they directly disparaged AA and traditional treatment/recovery. That's totally fine if he wants to do that, but the entire weight of his argument rested on the idea that if a guy that far down could pick himself up and dust himself off and quit drinking without any help from those jerks in smoky church basements then you can too. And he did it all with willpower alone. It is just the absolute worst advice you can give to problem drinkers.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Yeah, agreed on all points. Except that I think some people (I know one) might interpret Sedaris as a truth-teller rather than a storyteller, which makes his not-quite-truth-telling verge on the not-quite-right.