Lying authors and the readers who love them
Much ado has been made lately over the case of Winfrey v. Frey, the public tiff between the Queen of Pages and the author who fabricated large parts of his criminal history so as to arouse the sympathy of his readers. While I thought the whole affair was a carnival sideshow to begin with, I am pleased that The O had a change of mind and brought James Frey back to justice. While her sheep are hers to command, I’m glad she is herding them back to an appreciation of the truth. It will be interesting to see whose stock rises faster now, hers or his.
Predictably, the evil publishing industry and its media minstrels have been falling over themselves to “debate” the issue of whether nonfiction should be true. I find the whole thing rather distressing, because I believe that books are sacred and not to be trifled with. Call me naive, but the idea of an author, editor, or publisher knowingly permitting outright lies to go into a book offends me deeply.
On the other hand, it is amusing for bookwatchers to act as though this kind of thing has never happened before, and that’s the main reason for this post. I was reminded by some of the Frey coverage that John Berendt was similarly involved in a controversy over his book, Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil. Not only did I buy this book, it inspired me to take a trip to Savannah so I could see it for myself. Only after I got back did I learn just how much had been made up in his story. This Columbia Journalism Review article from 1998 lists some of Berendt’s sins (not all, I should note, are admitted by him). The most egregious in my mind is the allegation that he did not really start hanging around Savannah until 1985, four years after the murder that is the central event of the story, but there are several other slips and misstatements. Several of these problems, I researched, made it into national newspapers.
I think it is interesting to compare this historical book “flap” (pun couldn’t have been avoided) with today’s. Both authors were embarrassed in the national press. Both prompted a nominal “debate” over the fate of nonfiction. And both sold like a jillion copies. Nothing much changes, it seems.
“While her sheep are hers to command, Iâ€™m glad she is herding them back to an appreciation of the truth.” Is it really possible to lead such sheep to an appreciation of the “truth” when their collective truth is limited to whatever it is the O tells them they need to watch, read, respect, and feel for?
As our venerable host implies, there are several (even many?) other examples of authors who have fictionalized, to varying degrees, their memoirs, essays and autobiographies and been caught in the act. When considering the topic, I think it is important to realize that this debate is had in many more circles than the publishing industry and media. More particularly, this debate has been raging, quite literally, for years and years within the literary community; students, teachers, and writers have been discussing the propriety of such conduct for quite some time. Some would even argue that the latter discussions are much more important, and even more valid, than anything that O or some publishing industry exec could ever have to say on the topic.
For what itâ€™s worth, I think the debate itself as debatable as the underlying point of contention. There is little in this world that is â€œtrue,â€ as meant by the classification â€œnon-fiction.â€ For example, as a reformed student of history I find it amusing that the study of the past is considered non-fiction, because the slant put on any story by a teller – or by those who provide the author with his information, or by those who interpret primary sources, or even by those who create primary sources – fictionalize the events the teller portrays as much as authors embellishing their stories do. Memory is infinitely fallible, and oneâ€™s own ideologies, experiences, education, desires, mentors, etc., etc., etc., infinitely color our perspective. I donâ€™t believe that anything any of us say or do is â€œtrue,â€ but only our take on whatever it is we are attempting to accomplish (and our methods for doing so), or are relating to the world. How often do two people tell the same story the same way? I wouldn’t be in lawschool if that happened more frequently.
Honestly, I think the only reason this gets talked about so much is because people need something to feel self-righteous about. And I donâ€™t know that we should become so absorbed in whether or not something is actually true, partly true, or entirely fictional when the point of the story is no different no matter the genre. Frey wants to sell books, and we want to feel good about the story. Why canâ€™t we ever just leave sleeping dogs lie?