Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Of James Frey: Verisimilitude, and the Stupid People Who Care About It

Yesterday, KM was jabbering on about wanting to read James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, though he would rather avoid the Oprah sticker. Today, I came across this article in the NYT. To summarize both, if you are too lazy to take a gander at them yourself:

A guy wrote a book based on his struggle with drugs, etc. Didn’t know whether to publish it as an novel (in the vien of Hemingway, Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac) or as a memoir (in the vein of every other sucker who has published a book in the last couple of years). The publisher chose the latter. Oprah told people to read it—her pick for “non-fiction.” People read it. Now people have started coming out with stuff demonstrating that it’s not entirely true. Some things exaggerated and such. People are mad. They think he is a liar, and Oprah is a liar too.

I have no particular desire to read the book, at least not right now. Nevertheless, I am upset about two things with regard to this escapade.

a) I am upset that people care whether what they read is true or not. I am reminded when, upon going in to talk to DB about Greek tragedy one day, he made a comment about how frustrated he was when students care about "verisimilitude" in art--as if whether something could have "really" happened mattered a wit to anyone. It clearly did not. Nor, I believe, should whether or not the things in this guys book happened matter to the jillion Oprah lemmings and Memoir gulpers. That said, I am also upset about:

b) The fact that the "memoir" craze is so huge right now that this guy was essentially forced to publish his “autobiographical” novel as a “memoir,” so it would sell. To be fair, it shouldn’t matter what he publishes it as, but, for the sake of avoiding shit like this, it should have been published as a novel, so people’s claims that he is a liar would truly sound as ridiculous as they are.

I am upset at the publisher for doing otherwise, but not as upset as I am at people for needing nonfiction--for somehow thinking that a story is better if it is true. That is just plain stupid. It’s the same stupid nearsightedness that so many people get when they read the Bible. They think the Goddamn Bible needs to be true. The Bible! The most influential work of literature in the world! And they get their panties in a bunch if you stop talking about it’s verisimilitude. If you tell them that no, God did not make the earth in an extended work-week. This is what they get upset over. They cling to the completely nonsensical fantasy that it is somehow “better” if it is “true” when, surely, the whole mother fucking point of storytelling is that the artist’s creation, their invention, is far truer, far better, and purer, and, for many, far closer to god, than anything “real” that might happen. What is “true” in a factual, historical sense is irrelevant. All that matters is whether it is true in an intangible sense—whether it captures true emotion and real beauty.

There is a section of my Hemingway table-weight in which I take issue with a guy who claims that The Old Man and the Sea could not have happened--that it was "physically impossible." He is, without question, the dumbest literary critic in history and he is helping no one’s cause.

Anyhow, I think this is an important article for understanding a huge problem in our literary (and otherwise) society.

No comments: