Friday, January 27, 2006

Hoaxing Literature

Gavin at Wordwright was all over the James Frey disaster from the first, but I thought I would chime in with some recent updates.

Of course, most people know by now that one of the things that fueled the fire was Oprah Winfrey's initial defense of the book -- that if it wasn't true, it was at least truthful, and if not entirely truthful, it was at least "true" in some, I don't know, nonfactual sense.

Well, yesterday, Oprah turned around and bitch-slapped Frey -- live on her own television show! (The NYT's TV critic went with the headline "Ms. Winfrey Takes a Guest to the Televised Woodshed.") She did an about-face on the book's truth content (or lack thereof), forcing Frey to admit to her viewers that he fabricated information -- including, apparently, legal documents testifying to the veracity of said information -- not that Frey forged them, he just made them up as well.

Even people who want to defend the distinction between memoir as recalled and autobiography as recorded fact have to acknowledge that Frey (and quite likely his publisher) went to extreme and probably fraudulent lengths to vouch for the factuality of his memoir, and that its presumed factuality greatly augmented its value as literature. A Million Little Pieces isn't even inaccurate -- it's dishonest, from cover to cover. Once a memoirist gives up even on honesty, there's no way to redeem it, except as a cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) executed hoax. And I think Oprah realized that, or was made to realize that.

Literary hoaxes can have their own fictonal or metafictional value -- Borges's Ficciones is an excellent example at the formal level, the poetry of Ossian (a fictional Celtic contemporary of Homer, invented by James McPherson in the late 18th century) might be another. But this one just stinks.

Actually, though, I was prompted to write this summary less by Oprah than by two excellent and complimentary pieces that appeared on literary hoaxes recently in LA Weekly. The first, "Free James Frey!" by Permanent Midnight author Jerry Stahl, is a smart and witty summary/analysis of the whole Frey affair, and linking JF to George W. -- kinda like the Frank Rich "Truthiness" column on crystal meth.

The second is a whole new hoax, titled "Navahoax," by Matthew Fleischer, about a memoirist named Nasdijj, who, in addition to fabricating his memoirs, is probably lying about being a Navajo Indian AND plagiarized other Indian authors to come up with his stories. It's not as ripping as Stahl on Jim Frey, but has some great lines from everyone's all-time favorite Indian author Sherman Alexie, who spotted the hoax early on, including this one:

“My stepfather once told me, if you want anyone in the world to like you, just tell them that you’re Indian. For some reason we are elevated simply because of our race. I’m so popular I could start a cult. I could have 45 German women living with me tomorrow.”

I don't know what to say after that, other than this little paradox: more than the skill or deceipt of the authors, it's their readers' credulity, and their longing for some kind of authentic experience, that lets these fictions thrive. It's because we live in the world of "truthiness" that anything that seems to offer The Truth about life, any life different from ours, appeals to us. And appeals to us so much that we'll swallow garbage to get it. And anyone can sell it to us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the question for me is this: why the hell was this book marketed and published as a 'memoir'. Certainly it toes-up to, at least, some level of fiction...Why the bleeding attempt at personal credibility? I authoring a piece of ficiton that antiquated that we must now attempt to gain some sort of 'cred' as writers by claiming and marketing a false validity? Shit.