In the late 1990s, a young writer fresh out of rehab began writing a novel about his escape from a life of addiction. Like his hard-drinking literary heroes Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, the young novelist wanted to set down the facts of his life with searing honesty, but like his heroes, he juiced the truth to make the story more interesting. Some years earlier, for instance, he had been locked up for a few hours on a drunk-driving charge. In his novel, he threw in a punching match with the arresting officer and a bag of crack cocaine and left his protagonist to rot in jail for three months. In another instance, a girl he had known as a kid had been killed in a tragic train accident, and in his novel, he wrote his protagonist into her story and added a scene in which the whole town blames him for her death.
But when he tried to sell this thinly disguised autobiographical novel, it was turned down by 17 major publishers. In fact, his novel might still be sitting in a drawer had not Nan Talese, a big-name editor at Doubleday, one of the houses that had originally rejected it, offered to publish it instead as a memoir called A Million Little Pieces. By 2006, after Oprah Winfrey put the young author James Frey on TV, his novel-turned-memoir had sold 3.5 million copies.
A decade after Oprah dragged Frey through the mud on national television, memoirist Mary Karr is still pissed at him. Karr, who has chronicled her own battles with addiction, says she smelled a rat in Frey’s tale all along, but what sticks in her craw is the brazenness of his deception. “He didn’t really believe he was incarcerated for months, when he never served a day,” Karr writes in her new craft book, The Art of Memoir. “He set out to fool people.”
That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Frey wrote a mediocre autobiographical novel and a savvy editor saw that, given how the modern publishing industry is built, his unsellable work of fiction had the all makings of a hit memoir.
As a literary form, memoir dates back at least to St. Augustine’s Confessions, but as Julie Rak reminds us in her book, Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market, it is only recently that writers who weren’t already well-known began turning nonfiction versions of their life stories into bestsellers. Which is not to say that writers weren’t retailing their life stories with great success long before the so-called “memoir boom” ignited in the early 1990s. As Frey himself notes in an interview with The Guardian shortly after the Oprah dust-up, many classic novels of the 20th century might today be published as memoir. “I mean, the idea that The Sun Also Rises is not about Hemingway’s life,” he says, “or On the Road is not about Kerouac’s life, or anything ever written by Bukowski or Celine or Henry Miller is not about those men’s lives, is a ridiculous idea.”
Frey then adds:
What’s interesting is that On the Road was going to be published as nonfiction, and they altered it [because] they were worried about legal ramifications. And because at the time fiction was much more popular than nonfiction. For me it was almost the opposite, y’know — nonfiction is much more popular now.
Whether or not this is literally true of On the Road, Frey is right that readers have long been drawn to autobiographical tales of authors’ youthful misadventures. What has changed is that we no longer require these writers to don the respectable veil of fiction — and in fact, as book buyers, we would rather they didn’t.
As writers of literary fiction increasingly find they have to traffic in high-concept premises or be satisfied with poorly paid critical respect, a writer with a personal, character-driven story to tell is more likely to cash in if he or she can claim the story is true. Thus, we get James Frey and an ever-growing shelf of “fauxmoirs” like Love and Consequences, a 2008 work of fiction about race and gang life in South Central, L.A., by Margaret Seltzer, a middle-class white woman who changed her name to Margaret B. Jones and went on radio speaking with an affect so readers would believe her novel was a memoir.
Critics of the modern memoir tend to credit its rise to a culture of narcissism and navel-gazing among the young, or less pejoratively, to a yearning for authenticity, a reality hunger born of a blurring of truth and fiction in public life. In reality, the growth in popularity of the form has as much, or more, to do with the restructuring of the publishing industry than it does any cultural shift. As Rak notes in Boom!, the advent of cheap paperbacks in the postwar years not only created new markets for popular detective, romance, and sci-fi novels, but also for quickie nonfiction books about a person in the news. These could be produced quickly and cheaply, with a sensibility more in keeping with the news business than that of the stodgier book business, and were sold not in bookstores, but alongside their “pulp fiction” brethren in drug stores and train station newsstands.
Thus, for a decade or two after World War II, American publishing operated along two parallel tracks. Older, more prestigious publishing houses produced high-quality hardback volumes of nonfiction about ex-presidents and other grandees alongside literary fiction written for an educated elite who shopped at independent bookstores. At the same time, a far less prestigious book industry sold pulp fiction and nonfiction to middle-class and working-class readers who bought their books where they bought their newspapers and magazines — in drug stores and train stations.
These two business models collided, however, when publishing firms began merging in the 1960s. Between 1960 and 2001, by Rak’s count, there were 1,250 publishing mergers, subsuming literally thousands of small, often family-run publishing firms into a handful of multinational conglomerates, which were in many cases owned by even larger media companies. In this mad shuffle, prestigious literary houses got swallowed up by the same companies that bought out firms producing cheaper books, blurring the institutional line between “literary” and “pulp.”
While the merger frenzy injected fresh capital into publishing, it brought with it a corporate-style focus on high profit margins, creating ever more pressure to produce bestsellers. At the same time, publishing houses began to publish the hardback and paperback editions of the books they produced, further diluting the distinction between “quality” and “cheap” books, which helped give birth to a new species of book, the “trade paperback” — the form, not so incidentally, in which most bestselling memoirs take off.
As publishing was evolving in the postwar years, so were bookstores and media companies. Fifty years ago, good bookstores were rare outside major cultural centers, but by the early 1980s bookstore chains had invaded malls across the country, draining business from the drug stores and newsstands that had sold pulp books in the past. Now, not only were publishers producing literature and pulp, but readers were finding them in the same store, sometimes shelved side by side. Meanwhile, as newspapers began their long descent into digital irrelevance, the book page was often one of the first casualties, and TV and radio became prime drivers of book sales. Since a talking head reviewing a book is deadly boring, hosts instead began inviting authors onto their shows to talk about their books — an exercise made exponentially more entertaining when a book’s author and protagonist are the same person.
This, then, was the state of play in 1989 when Tobias Wolff, author of several respectfully reviewed story collections and a prize-winning novella, published his first memoir This Boy’s Life, which became a national bestseller and a hit movie starring the young Leonardo DiCaprio. A few years later, Susanna Kaysen hit the bestseller lists with Girl, Interrupted and Elizabeth Wurtzel bared her navel on the cover of Prozac Nation, and by 1995, when Karr came out with her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, the gold rush was on.
You will find little of this history in The Art of Memoir, but it is there, albeit subtextually, in the defensive crouch Karr adopts toward critics of her chosen genre. Boiled down to its essence, Karr’s defense of memoir rests on her belief in an artful admixture of truth and storytelling moxie. Karr readily admits that no memoirist can be expected to perfectly recall dialogue spoken decades earlier, and that even if she could, the very act of choosing one detail over another distorts the objective truth of the events in question. “Memoir done right is an art, a made thing,” she writes. “It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page.”
Still, she has zero time for memoirists who don’t aim for the truest versions of their life stories they are capable of telling. Speaking of another writer who admits to embellishing details in nonfiction, Karr is blunt in her disdain: “It’s as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, ‘I put a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice it at all.’ To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.”
This is both funny and true, but while Karr appears to be addressing the largest knock on memoirs, her book neatly sidesteps the deeper, structural problems with the genre. Though she doesn’t use the term, The Art of Memoir, which grew out of MFA courses Karr teaches at Syracuse University, focuses on what one might loosely call creative nonfiction. This term means different things to different people, but if it has any practical meaning in a publishing sense, it denotes a work of nonfiction conceived and written exclusively by its author, not dreamed up or shaped by an agent or editor.
But while the creative nonfiction model may be the one taught in university classrooms, it isn’t how most commercial memoirs are actually produced. With rare exceptions, novels are submitted to agents and editors only after they are finished, while nonfiction books, including memoirs, are typically bought based on a proposal. A book proposal can take many forms, but generally it includes some sample chapters, an outline of the book, and often a discussion of who is likely to read it and why. In other words, while novelists arrive in the publishing marketplace with a finished product, memoirists show up with a business plan, which has itself typically been heavily shaped and edited by a literary agent.
In my reporting in the publishing world, I have sat with agents whose job it is to trawl the blogosphere and tap their personal networks with an eye out for someone whose zeitgeisty blog or proximity to the pop culture spotlight might net a book contract. In some cases, these people created the blog or instigated their brush with fame precisely in order to cash in on it. In other cases, the would-be memoirists have no notion of themselves as potential protagonists of a book, and are stunned to learn they might be. Either way, the agent helps the memoirist craft a proposal, offering advice on how to structure the narrative, how to position it in the current market, and, if need be, providing a ghostwriter to write the actual book.
This, the old-school pulp mentality that produces so many of those strange quickie books that appear and then disappear from bookstore shelves, is the real enemy of the creative nonfiction Karr so avidly defends in The Art of Memoir. Because whether its practitioners like to admit it or not, contemporary memoir, to a far greater degree than contemporary fiction, is an agents’ and editors’ medium. Readers, even those who couldn’t care less how publishing works, sense this, and are put off by it.
When the consolidation of the publishing industry lumped pulp publishers in with prestige literary houses, it gave literary artists like Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr access to a lucrative mass audience they wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it also forced them, and more particularly the writers who came after them, to play by the rules of the pulp world, which emphasizes extremes of experience, often involving emotional or physical trauma, coupled with a yearning for middle-class normality.
Think for a moment about the authors whose books set the memoir boom in motion. Wolff and Karr were academics. Frank McCourt taught high school. Susanna Kaysen was the daughter of a famous economist at MIT. Any educated American reader could identify with these people, even aspire to be them. In their books, they reveal horrific trauma they endured in their past, but what made their books so moving, and what moved so many units, was that they survived, thanks to a mix of smarts, pluck, and a deep yearning for a respectable middle-class life. In one way or another, all these books recast the American Dream in a fable-like form — except that these fables were true.
In the mainstream imagination, where literary and pulp sensibilities meet, the fact that the stories are true matters enormously. Wolff has written heartbreaking fiction about growing up poor with his half-crazy mother, including one of my all-time favorite stories, “Firelight,” collected in the 1992 Best American Short Stories, but it wasn’t until he used real names that Hollywood came calling. If his story is true, and Wolff really survived the childhood he describes in This Boy’s Life, then whatever life lessons he might have to impart are also real, and I as a reader can apply them to overcome whatever traumas I might have suffered.
This trick was easy enough to pull off for these early trailblazers, whose lives fit the template without too much embellishment. But once creative nonfiction left the rarefied sphere of literary publishing, where the author is king, it entered a rougher, pulp-minded world whose books look the same as their more literary cousins, are sold in the same stores, and follow much the same narrative playbook, but are partly or wholly created by publishing professionals who know a money-spinning formula when they see it.
In this world, the agent notes that the cooking blogger was single when she started and is now married and tosses out, just as a possibility, the title “Table for Two: How a Single Girl Cooked Her Way Into the Heart of the Man of Her Dreams.” Your recipes are great, he explains, but the book needs an arc, a journey the reader can travel. In this world, an editor asks a newly successful entrepreneur if by any chance he had a overbearing father who belittled his ideas. Was he dyslexic as a child? A teen drug user with a rebellious streak? Before long the entire genre is tarred with the pulp brush, and even the most earnest creative nonfictionist knows he needs at least one heroin overdose in his past because a merely unhappy childhood, no matter how artfully rendered, equals a life of quiet literary desperation.
And then, into this world, walks the next James Frey.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I was working at Brookline Booksmith in Boston when the allegations surfaced that James Frey had fabricated large sections of A Million Little Pieces. It was a fun week. Frey had done a reading at the store a few years earlier, and any staff that were there for it remembered him as a jerk. That, combined with the general rarity of interesting literary scandals, meant that we were all enjoying ourselves. I also remember how many customers seemed to come in specifically to talk to us about it, their eyes aglitter with excitement. The impression I got was they just wanted to be involved. If someone was going down in flames, we all wanted to watch.
That universal urge to take up your pitchfork and join the screaming mob is the focus of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the latest book by Jon Ronson (The Psychopath Test). Public shaming has always been a part of the human experience, but 21st-century technology, specifically social media, has given it new life. Ronson first took notice when three academics from Warwick University created a spambot Twitter account using his name and picture, and then refused his request to delete the account, spouting some nonsense about layers of identity and how algorithms run the world. They did, however, agree to a filmed interview, in which they come across as the world’s biggest barfheads, the pretentious academic version of SNL’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party.”
Ronson couldn’t convince them to delete the spambot, or even admit that he had a right to want them to, but when he posted the interview on YouTube, the Internet took up his case, posting hundreds of comments on how infuriating these guys were and how much physical punishment they deserved.
Ronson felt liberated, vindicated. “Strangers all over the world had united to tell me I was right,” he writes. “It was the perfect ending.” (Three years later, the video is still being viewed and garnering comments, my favorite recent one being: “It would be great if at the end of the video the sofa just ate the three of them.” It would be great.)
But the power of social media outrage went beyond Ronson’s trolls. As he says: “Something of real consequence was happening. We were at the start of a great renaissance of public shaming…Hierarchies were being leveled out. The silenced were getting a voice. It was like the democratization of justice.” And so he decided that the next time somebody big was publicly shamed, he would watch carefully, and a few months later Jonah Lehrer happened.
Lehrer, the bestselling author of pop-neuroscience books and a staff writer for The New Yorker, was exposed as having fabricated quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his book, Imagine. I remember this scandal as being less fun than James Frey, but only slightly, as Lehrer was annoyingly rich and successful for a 31-year-old, and once people started digging they found instances of plagiarism in more of his work.
The apex of Lehrer’s shaming came when he was asked to give a speech at a conference as an opportunity to explain what happened and presumably apologize. The speech was live-streamed, and a screen erected above the stage displayed the live tweets of anyone using the conference’s hashtag. What this meant was that as his speech went on, and became less about apologizing and more about justifying, outraged tweets began scrolling behind his head. Tweets like: “Rantings of a Delusional, Unrepentant Narcissist” and “Jonah Lehrer is a friggin’ sociopath.”
Not only was this shaming brutal, it was sort of cutting edge. People all over the world were watching his speech live, and their reactions were being instantly displayed both alongside him and, cruelly, in his sight line. It’s the sort of next-gen shaming Ronson was starting to notice everywhere, but it’s not used exclusively to fell the prideful.
Sometimes it rains down like hellfire on people who make jokes about sensitive topics. Justine Sacco tweeted a thoughtless joke about AIDS before boarding a plane to Africa, and was the most reviled person on Twitter by the time she landed. Lindsey Stone was tagged in a Facebook photo flipping off the camera at Arlington National Cemetery, which eventually came to the attention of the online veteran community. An anonymous man, who goes by Hank in the book, made a “dongle” joke at a tech conference that offended the woman sitting in front of him, who tweeted the joke with a picture she took of him. Ronson spends time with Sacco, Stone, and Hank, all of whom were fired from their jobs after their e-floggings.
Jonah Lehrer, like James Frey and Mike Daisey (who lied in a monologue about the Apple factory in China that he performed on This American Life, and who also appears in the book), broke a public trust. They asked for our time and money, and then delivered a fraudulent product. Daisey posits that “public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person.” Sacco, Stone, and Hank weren’t public figures, weren’t consciously presenting a narrative for judgment, and never expected their mistakes to be picked up and broadcast by Gawker. They each admittedly acted carelessly, but the speed and totality of their downfall seems out of proportion.
Unless we’re all public figures. If 21st-century technology has made public shaming easier, faster, and more random, it’s also made us all targets. We put an enormous amount of our lives on public view, expecting it to be ignored, but this book makes it clear than anything you say or do can be held against you in a court of opinion, by people who don’t know anything about you, in perpetuity.
(Like all of Ronson’s books, this one is hard to put down, but you will absolutely do so at some point to Google yourself.)
Ronson’s specialty has always been exploring hidden worlds, and in that way this book is what we in the business call “a departure.” While his previous books have let us spy on the world’s weirdos — clucking our tongues at those taken in by a psychic or gleefully taking and failing the psychopath test — this one is about us. He does chase his fascination with public shame down a few classic Ronson rabbit holes — visiting the set of disgrace porn, taking a truly stupid workshop on “Radical Honesty,” and talking to the guys who run Reputation.com — but while they provide the comedy and light voyeurism we’re accustomed to in one of Ronson’s books, they can come off as a little kooky and inconsequential next to the incisive and slightly terrifying stories of public shame finding the common man.
The topic of shame is a much larger umbrella than Ronson has chosen in the past, and as a result, the book can read more like a series of loosely connected essays than a single argument. That hardly affects the enjoyment of the book, but the sections that hit home the hardest have the most staying power.
Someone Ronson told about his book replied that it must be about “the terror of being found out,” how we’re all scared that our worst sins could be exposed to the world at any time. This must be part of the thrill of watching a public shaming — beyond the gratification of seeing a just punishment, it’s seeing it happen to someone else, and being affirmed that you are in fact the decent person and they are not. Maybe we all deserve to be shamed for something, but pointing our finger at someone else keeps us on the other side of that line.
Because, I have to say, even after reading the entire book, and having my basest instincts dissected for me, when I watched the video of Ronson’s spambot trolls, I had a powerful urge to leave a nasty comment about them. I barely stopped myself.
Why, in the end, do we read memoir? What’s in it for us – these stories about someone else, these hundreds of pages of adversity and self-discovery, triumph and tarnish and gleam? These are other people’s lives, after all. Strangers, mostly. People we’ll never meet, people whose clocks most often keep on ticking, long after the last words have been inked. Sure, the form has had its fair share of bad press, thanks in no small part to the not-true “true” stories offered by the likes of James Frey’s discredited addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces, and Herman Rosenblat’s invented Holocaust love story Angel at the Fence. Sure, it’s been furiously protested, as countless otherwise unknown writers have turned to memoir to package and parade their tall adventure, their unhappy childhood, their ghastly marriage, their misguided mother, their bad luck. Still, every single week a new batch of personal stories is released. Memoir isn’t going anywhere.
So what does memoir offer? What can it yield? Why am I, after all these years, still reading it, teaching it, shaping it, seeking it? The answers are many, but here I offer just one: Because memoir at its very best is the start of a conversation. It makes its interest in readers explicit, offering not just a series of life events, but a deliberate suggestion of what it is to be a human being – to experience confusion, despair, hope, joy, and all that happens in between. True memoir is a singular life transformed into a signifying life. True memoir is a writer acknowledging that he or she is not the only one in the room.
Consider, for example, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s international bestseller The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which later became a major motion picture. It’s a slender book – a mere 132 pages. It’s a terrifying book, written by a man who, in December 1995, suffers a massive stroke that leaves him permanently paralyzed. Bauby is “locked in,” unable to move or speak. It’s his left eye that saves him – his left eye, which he relies on to blink at the slate of letters an assistant shares. Blink by blink, letter by letter, Bauby communicates his story. He was a famous magazine editor, we learn. He is trapped, we learn. But he is still alive – and still, miraculously, hopeful. And even though each word comes slowly, even though he has no words to spare, Bauby makes the explicit effort to tell us about ourselves. He looks up from where he is and acknowledges our presence.
Here Bauby is, in the early pages, communicating the possibility for epistemic peace in the face of an unspeakable tragedy:
You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.
Here he is, pages later, telling us what survival is, ensuring that we understand that sometimes anger is life-giving, too:
I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.
If anyone has earned the right to self-absorption, it is Bauby. He cannot, after all, move or breathe or speak without the help of another, and he does not have long to live. But self-absorption is not his métier. All-consuming anger is not his mood. He does not expect, by the end of his book, to be congratulated for the losses he’s endured. Bauby’s interests extend far beyond the terrible thing that has radically rearranged his life. His ambitions are empathic ones. He writes so that we, his readers, might come to know that imagination is salvation, that we must trust the dreamworks in our heads.
Bauby, in short, wants to leave behind an artful record of what it is to live. He wants us to know hope, to imbibe it, even though his own existence is fragile. If you want more proof of Bauby’s writerly generosity, look at his final passage. He’s staring straight at us:
Does the cosmos contain keys for opening up my diving bell? A subway line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking. I’ll be off now.
I have written five memoirs and a new book — Handling the Truth — about how memoir gets made. I teach the form. On an urban campus in Philadelphia, I sit with young people on the verge of adulthood, talking about the lives they’ve lived and the things that have mattered and the personal details from which stories are sprung. The talk, in my classroom, is about transcendence. It’s about making the work bigger than the writer. The record is only the record, I say. Make the details speak for all of us.
It is all too tempting to allow that let-me-tell-my-story instinct to rule, all too easy to spend the time sussing out details, confirming chronologies, giving the whole thing some shine and some sass. Memoirists must succumb to weeks, months, years spent examining (and cross-examining) themselves. But things grow claustrophobic – monochromatic, monologue-esque – when memoirists fail to say to the reader — one way or another— I know that you have lived your joys and sorrows, too. These are my lessons, for you.
Consider, now, Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a book that begins with these lines:
This is what I remember: My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth. He said these words: “I’ll kill you if you scream.” I remained motionless. “Do you understand? If you scream you’re dead.” I nodded my head. My arms were pinned to my sides by his right arm wrapped around me and my mouth was covered with his left.
Sebold will, over the course of her book, render every detail of this brutal, horrifying, unforgivable rape. She will tell us about the police and the hearing and the search for safety. She will share with us her slow return to the world:
I was dancing and falling in love. This time, a boy in Lila’s math class: Steve Sherman. I told him about the rape after we had gone to see a movie and had a few drinks. I remember that he was wonderful with it, that he was shocked and horrified but comforting. He knew what to say. Told me I was beautiful, walked me home and kissed me on the cheek. I think he also liked taking care of me. By that Christmas, he became a fixture at our house.
This is Sebold’s story. It’s a riveting story. Reporting back must have been excruciating, and we deeply empathize; I profoundly do. But to read Lucky is to tunnel in so completely to another’s tragedy that we forget – and are not encouraged to remember – the communality of survivors.
Personal, headline-making, loved by many, Lucky does not, nonetheless, transcend itself. We readers close the book knowing what happened to Sebold. We hold in our hands the blow-by-blow account, a strictly chronological retelling. This is a story about one, told by one. Its lessons – about victimhood, shame, justice, and living forward – may be suggested by the nature of the events, but they are never made explicit. Readers will not find deliberate signifiers here, nor expressly articulated universal truths. It’s not a conversation, in other words, but a tragic (if quite important) story, well-told.
Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites is, for the most part, precisely what its title suggests – a reporting on Christensen’s life story, amplified, along the way, by recipes, or, as the jacket copy puts it, “a narrative in which food – eating it, cooking it, reflecting on it – becomes the vehicle for unpacking a life.” Christensen has an uneasy childhood. She has a raucous, unstable adolescence, a difficult time settling in as a young adult, a wild foray journey into middle age. She marries and loses that marriage. She falls in love with a man almost half her age. She finally publishes the novels she writes, to increasing acclaim.
Throughout it all, food is Christensen’s salvation; it is her mecca, and the narrative’s primary driver. But Christensen knows she’s not the only woman who has ever leaned on food for emotional succor. Look, for example, at these words from the book’s prologue. Food, Christensen is saying, embodies life lessons for us all.
To taste fully is to love fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsible to complexities and truths – good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you’re chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon.
Yeah, we say, when we read this. I’m in. For Christensen has opened a door; she has acknowledged us, has said, in so many words, I may be about to tell you a story that is all about me, but don’t think that I’ve lost sight of the fact that food persuades and maps and consoles you, too. Christensen lifts her story toward something bigger, something signifying. She looks up and glances across her page. I see you, she says. And we feel seen.
The office of literary agent Ellen Levine is a sun-struck jewel box of a place overlooking Madison Square Park and lined with shelves of signed first editions by Levine’s many famous clients, including Marilyn Robinson, Russell Banks, and Michael Ondaatje. Despite these trappings of power — that view, that big desk, the young editorial assistant who ushers you in with a hushed reverence that suggests you are being granted an audience with the pope — Levine is herself unpretentious and approachable. She is a small person, bird-like and soft-spoken, and when she settles in at a conference table, her manner suggests not a big-wheel New York literary agent but a college professor taking time out of her day to sit with you in her office and talk about books.
I had invited myself to Levine’s office one sunny April morning last year to interview her for the first in a series of features I was writing for Poets Writers Magazine called “The Aha! Moment.” The idea was that I would talk to writers, editors, and literary agents about the moment the light went on for them about a particular manuscript, the moment when they thought, I have to do this project. I had asked Levine to pick a novel by a new client and show me at what point — where exactly, on what page — she decided she had to take this writer on. Then we would print that manuscript page in the magazine, with Levine’s quotes explaining how the writing had grabbed her and why.
As we sat down to discuss the page in question, midway into the first chapter of a first novel by an unknown African-American writer living in Brooklyn, Levine described the writer’s command of language and storytelling craft, but when she reached a key passage in the scene, in which a young mother is about to lose her twin babies to pneumonia, Levine’s voice caught. When I looked up, her eyes had misted over. If you interview a lot of people, you develop a radar for when people are selling and when they are not, and in this case Ellen Levine was not selling. She was genuinely moved by this scene in an unpublished book by a writer nobody had ever heard of. I left her office that day thinking: Something really, really good is going to happen to that book.
Sure enough, eight months later, I read that the book Levine and I had been discussing that day, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, had been published in December, six weeks ahead of schedule, and had been picked by Oprah Winfrey for her newly rebooted Book Club. This weekend — on Super Bowl Sunday, of all days — Mathis will sit for an interview with Winfrey to discuss the book.
Long before Jonathan Franzen famously dissed her for picking his novel The Corrections for her Book Club and James Frey’s pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces blew up into, well, a million little pieces, Oprah and her Book Club were the subject of an unseemly mix of love and hate from the publishing industry as well as from many readers of literary fiction. On the one hand, Oprah clearly moved product. An astonishing amount of product. According to one study by Fordham University marketing professor Al Greco, during the 15 years Winfrey ran the Book Club before she shut it down along with her syndicated show in 2011, the 69 “Oprah Editions” embossed with the signature Book Club seal sold roughly 55 million copies.
So much for the love part. Franzen, thoughtless as his comments may have been, was only saying out loud what many others had been saying when he suggested Winfrey had larded her list with “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” novels, directed primarily at women readers. At the time, the blowback at Franzen was all about him being an elitist, but I always thought there was a gendered element to the knock on Oprah books. Franzen, and many others, said the books were middlebrow and directed at women, but to my ears, anyway, there was a strongly implied causal relationship between the two: the books were middlebrow because they were directed at women, as if serious fiction — the kind written by Hemingway and Faulkner — was for guys while anything written with a female audience in mind was, almost by definition, middlebrow.
After the Franzen dustup, Winfrey started devoting fewer shows to books, and after the James Frey debacle, she pulled back even further, picking only a few books a year and relying more heavily on established classics like Elie Weisel’s Night or novels by guy-friendly authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cormac McCarthy that countered the stereotype of an “Oprah book.” By the time she invited Franzen back on her show in 2010 to discuss his novel Freedom, she just seemed weary of the whole thing.
In many ways, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, the second book picked for the rebooted Book Club 2.0 featured on Winfrey’s eponymous Oprah Winfrey Network, neatly fits the stereotype of an “Oprah book.” For one thing, Hattie focuses on a damaged family, as so many previous Oprah picks have, and like a number of earlier picks, it is set in black America. A cynic — and don’t pretend there aren’t a few of them among you — might even go so far as to say that Hattie is a perfect Oprah book because it is the sort of book about black people that white people like to read, meaning one that allows white readers to bear witness to, and passionately decry, America’s long history of racial oppression without feeling personally indicted for playing any role in that oppression.
It is true that much of Hattie is set safely in early and mid-century America, before many contemporary readers were even alive, and the passages that deal with the most straightforward white racism take place in the South, which allows liberal northerners to blame such ugly behavior on those white people, who are of course nothing like themselves. But such calculations, and indeed all the baggage that comes with being an “Oprah book,” are unfair to the novel Mathis has written, which is a dazzling debut, rich in language and psychological insight, steeped in the history of 20th-century black America and black American writing, and yet fully in tune with a 21st-century America capable of twice electing a black man president.
Hattie is being marketed as a novel, but it would be more accurate to say that it is a collection of linked stories revolving around the dysfunctional Shepherd family, starting in 1925 and ending in 1980. There isn’t a truly weak story in the lot, but the book is best when its central figure, the hard-hearted “plow horse” of a matriarch, Hattie Shepherd, is present, and loses some of its vitality when she is not.
We first meet Hattie in that heartbreaking opening chapter when she is a joy-filled 16-year-old escapee from the Jim Crow South imagining how when her newborn twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, begin to walk they will “totter around the porch like sweet bumbling old men.” This moment of dreamy bliss lasts barely a page before the twins come down with pneumonia, and Hattie, crippled by her inexperience and pride, fails to save them. Hattie goes on to have nine more children — far more than she and her sweet, but feckless husband August can support in Depression-era black Philadelphia — but the twins’ deaths mark her, turning her into a cold, rage-filled woman capable of beating a child until he wets himself in terror for having left a window open in the rain.
But Hattie isn’t a villain, nor is she a helpless victim of her circumstances. She comes alive on the page in all her complexity as a woman fiercely determined to never let another child slip away, but neither strong nor resourceful enough to keep them alive without terrorizing them within an inch of their lives. “Hattie knew her children did not think her a kind woman,” Mathis writes late in the book.
She had failed them in vital ways, but what good would it have done to spend the days hugging and kissing them if there hadn’t been anything to put in their bellies? They didn’t understand that all the love she had was used up in feeding them and clothing them and preparing them to meet the world.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has its share of stock figures — child preachers whose touch can heal the sick, good-time men who live for the gambling table, and loose-living women who shack up with criminals — but it is Mathis’s gift to breathe life into these characters, render them in three dimensions as ordinary people striving to be decent but lacking the strength of character or willpower to get there. They are often very destructive and Mathis is too clear-eyed a writer to turn away from the wreckage they leave behind or to pass off their recklessness as a mere product of racism and poverty. But she doesn’t pass judgment on them, either. Mathis’s characters are those rarest of fictional creations: real living, breathing people.
A central element of the Oprah Book Club narrative has always been the sudden reversal of fortune experienced by those lucky few Oprah authors. The poor wretched scribe, the tale goes, was toiling away in obscurity in the backwaters of American literary culture until one day the phone rings, and — Oh, my God! — “Hi, this is Oprah.”
Whether this narrative was ever really true of the earlier Oprah picks is debatable, but it is certainly not true in the case of Mathis who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a client of Ellen Levine, one of the top literary agents in New York. I have exactly zero knowledge of what levers Levine pulled, but it is hard to imagine that an agent as well-connected as Levine, sitting on a book as good as Mathis’s, could have resisted at least suggesting to one of Winfrey’s show bookers that they might want to give this book a read.
But if this plucked-from-obscurity narrative is partly a media fiction, it does point up a fact Oprah’s detractors would do well to keep in mind: while Winfrey has occasionally leaned on books by Nobel laureates like Faulkner and Toni Morrison, the bread and butter of the Book Club was always new books by little-known authors. Try this at home sometime. Tell yourself you need to pick a book that will appeal to millions of readers, by an unknown author who will be interesting to talk to for an hour on national television, but who has also written a serious work of literary fiction. And then tell yourself you need to do this once a month while running the highest-rated talk show in the history of television. Let me know how that works out for you.
It is high time defenders of American literary fiction cut Oprah Winfrey a break. These days, even Oprah is no longer Oprah, and while Mathis’s novel has shot up into the bestseller lists, it is unlikely stay there for months the way books did in the Book Club’s 1990s heyday. Still, imagine what would have happened if Winfrey hadn’t picked it. It still would have garnered raves from reviewers in print and online, and over time booksellers would have begun quietly putting it in the hands of favored customers. In other words, it would have remained a well-kept secret among a bookish few. Instead, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie will be read by hundreds of thousands of people and Mathis will sit down for a well-publicized interview on the high holiest day in the American television calendar, Super Bowl Sunday. With any luck, this gritty, tough-minded work of literary fiction that also happens to be a mesmerizing read will enter into the cultural mainstream. Who else but Oprah could pull that off?
Rule number one in journalism: Don’t call the person you are interviewing a fucking asshole. James Frey of A Millions Little Pieces discloses what he believes is the future of the written word. (via)
Say “historical fiction,” and your listener’s eyes may glaze over, as you fight to re-seize attention. Younger readers or those with edgier tastes, especially, may associate authors of historical fiction with dotty academic types in tweed, or their narratives with conventional period dramas, the cinematic equivalent of which might be a Merchant Ivory production. So let me just say, with as much un-dotty enthusiasm as I can muster, that I am, like, way super excited about the histo-fi seminar I’m teaching this fall, “(Re)Imagining True Lives.”
More specifically, the reading list focuses on works of fiction that feature, either prominently or peripherally, real historical figures as characters:
American Woman by Susan Choi
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Stories from You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard
Stories by Roberto Bolaño, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Colm Tóibín
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
Written Lives by Javier Marías
Libra by Don Delillo
The Master by Colm Tóibín
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck
(Now, if this list doesn’t get your reading chops watering, then sure, maybe historical fiction just isn’t for you.)
What fascinates me as both reader and writer (and also as teacher and lifelong writing student) is the always dynamic tri-level experience of delving into these works and their like; one is always simultaneously aware of 1) the author’s particular knowledge of and relationship (intellectual, political, emotional) to the real-life material; 2) one’s own particular knowledge of and relationship to (or lack thereof) the material; and 3) one’s engagement/response to 1).
Where has the author stayed close to “facts,” and where has she taken liberties of imagination, supposition, projection? Does my experience of the novel grow more, or less, deep and interesting as I identify the fact-fiction seams? Personally, I would say more – which is to say that, as we see the way in which researched and imagined history braid together, the author himself ultimately becomes a compelling character in his own right. As the author decides what to imagine/suppose/project (and of course how), he reveals, inevitably, his own concerns, ideas, obsessions.
What is it about the German romantic poet Novalis’s rather banal, albeit eccentric, middle-class family and upbringing, and his courtship of the dull-witted 13 year-old Sophie von Kühn – years before he came into his full powers as poet and philosopher – that captivated Penelope Fitzgerald’s literary imagination? By what instinct or logic did both Susan Choi and Somerset Maugham take liberties in renaming their characters and revising their stories, while also rendering them clearly recognizable to the reader (as Paul Gauguin, and Patty Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura, respectively)? What do Bolaño and Le Guin mean by backgrounding primary figures like Borges and Cortazar, and the Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, while foregrounding peripheral, fictional protagonists (the novelist Sensini in the story of the same name, and the all-female exploration team in “Sur”) in their stories of literary greatness and extreme adventure? Similarly, how important in the scope of history are figures like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Freud – in Doctorow’s literary vision – relative to a minor ragtime musician (the fictional Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), the Vaudeville escape artist Harry Houdini, and an immigrant street artist (also fictional), given Morgan’s and Ford’s relatively peripheral (at the same time utterly fascinating) scenes in Ragtime? What do Walbert’s imagined depictions of suffragette Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s female descendants tell us about her “what if” thought process (i.e., what if your mother, grandmother, great grandmother starved herself to death for a cause?) and conceptions of emotional inheritance? In other words, in their particular, idiosyncratic manipulations of history and imagination, and through our careful study of the results, these authors show us glimpses of not only their characters’ but also their own inner moral landscapes.
How we read these works also reveals to us something about our own relationship to fact and fiction. To what degree am I aware of divergences from strict facts as I am reading? Do I give myself over to the whole of the created world and characters, or do I pause to ask myself, “Did this really happen?” and then click over to Google to fact-check? Or do I engage in this research afterwards? Or not at all? Why, or why not?
We read a memoir, a la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and take it for true, only to learn that key elements have been fabricated, embellished. We are offended, insulted, maybe impressed, maybe not so surprised. But what of the converse? You are reading an absurd or incredible scene in a novel (the episode in Ragtime where J.P. Morgan sleeps solitary in the crypt of an Egyptian pyramid comes to mind), and then come to find it really happened. What is the effect, then? The other day I was walking in the park and saw, in a pond, a bronze sculpture of a turtle, nose in the air, perched on a rock. How quaint, I thought. Then, movement in the water: an actual turtle swimming, nosing up to the sculpture, trying to get its attention. Silly, dumb thing, I thought. Then, the sculpture’s eyes – black on white with blood-red outlines – suddenly flickered; the turtle stretched its neck even longer up toward the sun, then twisted to acknowledge its suitor-compadre. I stood there a few moments, smiling stupidly.
What was the nature of my delight? The translucent hologram of truth and falsity, real and fake, shifting and melding, captivates. In the hands of a skillful and mindful artist, the effect is unsettling and exciting: we start out on a smooth, hard path, but then find our feet sinking into warm sand, or slipping on ice, at times finding again stone-solid footing, only to slip or sink again. Where are we? Whose reality is this? History, the author’s inventiveness and fixations, our own projections and obsessions call out to us all at once. In historical fiction, studied closely, perhaps more so than with other sub-genres, this motional holographic magic comes into stark relief – not unlike the red flickering eyes of a turtle or, one hopes, the un-dotty aha moments of a seminar-class discussion. For good measure, maybe I’ll show up on the first day wearing gold lamé and skinny jeans.
Why do people read literary fiction?
This is the puzzle motivating English professor Timothy Aubry’s new study of American reading habits, Reading as Therapy. And it’s a good question. After all, everyone knows that America has a dead or dying literary culture, yet novels—including “literary” novels—continue to be written at a record-setting pace. Many of these novels find no audience, but some of them find a huge one. The audiences for such “best sellers” cut across class, gender and race, and their enthusiasm and size, contra highbrow suspicions, cannot always be attributed to clever marketing. What, Aubry asks, makes certain books appealing to broad bases of readers? How is it possible, given the supposedly dire literary climate, that an emotionally lacerating novel like The Kite Runner, or a famously difficult one, like Infinite Jest, can become a best seller, and, at least for a short time, a ubiquitous subject of national conversation?
There are easy and cynical answers to such questions. Perhaps people are drawn to novels that affirm their own self-image as intelligent, or empathetic—or maybe they look to fiction to validate selfish impulses and desires. Academics are frequently attracted to such explanations, as they are to glib dismissals of popular taste as founded on entertainment or shock value. This is just one of the things that distinguishes Aubry’s approach from much of what passes for scholarship in English departments today. Rather than searching for the “true cause” behind the embrace of certain books in America, Aubry takes readers at their word. What he finds is that most readers do not expect novels simply to entertain or inform them. Rather, they treat fiction “as a practical dispenser of advice or a form of therapy.” That is, they expect it will help them deal with problems in their lives.
This diagnosis may come as no surprise to most non-academics, and it will remind some of Jonathan Franzen’s advocacy for the “Contract” model of literature in his 2003 essay, “Mr. Difficult.” The real power of Aubry’s book, however, lies in the close attention he pays to the way the “therapeutic paradigm” shapes the encounter between various American authors and their audience. The six novels Aubry treats—in addition to Infinite Jest, and The Kite Runner, he covers Toni Morrison’s Paradise, Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife —are all best sellers (with four bearing Oprah’s O-shaped seal). They might seem radically dissimilar, though, in the challenges they pose for readers. Infinite Jest and Paradise are experimental works that frustrate easy readerly identification, while Divine Secrets and The Pilot’s Wife both offer conventional immersion in a stirring domestic narrative. A Million Little Pieces was thought to be a heroically confessional memoir, before being revealed as a manipulative fabrication. Yet Aubry insists that the six books have something deeper in common: each acknowledges the supremacy of the “subjective interor,” which its American readers know to be “the site of greatest importance, complexity, depth and fulfillment in the world.” Although Aubry is agnostic about the value of this development, he has no doubts about its pervasiveness. The novels Americans read most, and how they read them, now inevitably reflect the triumph of the therapeutic.
In chapter after chapter, Aubry shows the therapeutic model at work through his sensitive readings, not only of the novels themselves, but also of data—TV interviews with authors, Amazon.com reader reviews—often ignored by critics. His first chapter, on Toni Morrison’s complicated Paradise, draws heavily from a transcript of the Oprah Winfrey Show. The episode devoted to Paradise begins with several audience members complaining to Morrison that they don’t “get” the book. Morrison responds by asking them what exactly they “don’t get.” It turns out, according to the author, that they have gotten more than they think. Moreover, she attempts to validate her readers’ initial confusion by affirming “that it is precisely the point that they not ‘get’ everything in the text.” The episode thus develops as an object lesson for middlebrow readers coping with “difficult” modern fiction.
But the interaction works the other way as well. According to Aubry, the episode is also a testament to the way difficult fiction justifies itself to therapeutic culture. The point is crystallized when an audience member questions the artistic value of Paradise, on account of its difficulty:
I was lost because I came into—I really wanted to read the book and love it and learn some life lessons; and when I got into it, it was so confusing I questioned the value of a book that is that hard to understand.
Here is Aubry’s insightful gloss on the comment:
The woman’s remark merits consideration. She, like many of Winfrey’s audience members, approaches literature with passion and a readiness to challenge herself intellectually. Paradise’s difficulty, however, effectively blocks her critical engagement. Her response echoes the observations made by [Oprah’s friend] Gayle King and Winfrey that Paradise might simply be “over our heads,” impossibly inaccessible…. Their comments imply a critique of the elitism and exclusiveness that characterize the entire world of so-called high culture along with the academic institutions, such as Princeton [where Morrison teaches], that support, celebrate, and embody this world.
The comments, as Aubry points out, pose a special problem for a writer like Morrison who (in the paradoxical manner of many “highbrow” writers) claims to value inclusivity and tolerance even as she fills her novels with textual mysteries likely to defeat the enthusiasm of the common reader. And it is symptomatic that the author, aided by Winfrey, responds to the complaint, and others like it, by stressing that the difficulty of the book has a therapeutic purpose—namely, to help the reader deal with disorientation, and confusion, in life. “You have to open yourself,” Winfrey tells the woman, “It’s like a life experience. It’s getting to know people, getting to know people in a town. It’s not everything laid out.”
There is much to be said about such exchanges, and much of it gets said by Aubry. Just as important is what he does not say. Aubry does not conclude that the readers in Oprah’s audience are simply deluded or naïve. To be sure, their questions about the “payoff” of Morrison’s experimental strategies place them in a somewhat precarious position (what does it mean for a book to pay you off?), but no more precarious than Morrison’s (in what sense can she guarantee that her book is “worth” the effort it requires?). The “payoff” of the scene for Aubry’s readers, anyway, is clear. We get to watch as a critically acclaimed contemporary writer attempts to justify her practice to precisely the kind of readers she claims to be writing for. Can she do it? It will depend, Aubry implies, on whether she can make the case to such a reader that the novel, including its difficult or experimental elements, has therapeutic value.
If Paradise and Infinite Jest raise the question of how difficult literature can serve popularly therapeutic ends, the other books Aubry treats, like Wells’s Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Hosseini’s Kite Runner, pose a different question: Does what is often known as “sentimental literature” do enough to engage its readers politically or morally?
Aubry’s answer to the question, explored most forcefully in his exceptional final chapter, is a qualified “yes”—or, at least, a “more than you might think.” The chapter is structured around Aubry’s reading of thousands of Amazon.com reviews of The Kite Runner. Aubry interprets the reviews against arguments by academics like David Damrosch and Lawrence Venuti, who worry that normal readers have trouble “identifying” with foreign-born characters while also respecting their “otherness.” In fact, Aubry argues, the Amazon reviews reveal a surprisingly sophisticated variety of responses to the book, with readers balancing their recognition of the novel’s alien setting against their conviction that it speaks to “universal themes.” Aubry is aware that nobody in the academy any longer believes in literature as a repository of universal themes (a view Damrosch, for instance, equates with “amateurism”); against this prejudice, he stresses that it is only because the reader believes the novel addresses such themes that she is willing to seriously, and morally, concern herself with the particular story of Kite Runner’s traumatized Afghani protagonist, Amir.
Of course, empathy is a long way from political action, and left-wing commentators (beginning back with Benjamin and Brecht, and continuing now with Fredric Jameson and nearly everyone with a PhD in English), have long criticized sentimental art for promoting the illusion that strong feelings constitute an adequate response to suffering and injustice. One of the charms of Aubry’s method is that, as with Oprah’s enthusiasts, he refuses to condescend to the Amazon “amateurs” who claim to have had their curiosity, and sometimes their political conscience, aroused by Kite Runner. “I am now fascinated by Afghanistan and want to learn as much as possible about the country,” reports one reviewer. Another believes the novel may help Americans “begin to understand what has been done to the Afghani people.” Indeed, even in cases where readers articulate no political message, Aubry emphasizes that strong emotions can have effects far beyond momentary shifts in mood; and it is impossible to predict how the readers of Kite Runner will integrate their literary experience with other aspects of their lives.
The most common criticism of therapeutic fiction—that it functions for its readers as an escape from the social world—is therefore reductive, Aubry convincingly claims, since it “deliberately disregards the social character and social purchase of therapeutic discourse.” If there is any weakness in Reading as Therapy, however, it is in how often Aubry feels the need to insist on this point, as if he can never quite get clear of the now-conventional academic piety that art’s “justification” need be discovered in its political or social effects. In his conclusion, Aubry asks two questions which he pretends are really one: “What, after all, can contemporary novels accomplish?” and “What influence do they exert upon the public sphere?” What influence literature has in the public sphere is not a pointless question, but it is one that has been, so to speak, answered to death by cultural critics over the past four decades. What novels accomplish for their individual readers, on the other hand, seems the question Aubry has spent the book answering in therapeutic—which is to say primarily private—terms. Therapy would seem to be precisely the process whose accomplishments cannot be objectively quantified; presumably, a novel like Kite Runner could have no discernible political effect and still succeed as therapy.
In a rambling Amazon review quoted at length in the Kite Runner chapter, reader Roy Munson finally concludes that:
True redemption can only be found within the soul, and for each person redemption requires a separate definition and asking price. This book carries within it a whirlwind of human emotions, and a universal link to what we are intrinsically—connected. Any thought of separateness is in the mind.
The feeling Munson describes, and which he presumes it has been the novel’s task to demonstrate to him, is akin to the “oceanic” emotion Freud identified as basic to the religious mindset. Academic critics, long hostile to terms like “redemption” and “soul,” have tried for some time now to convince their readers that literature can or should be about culture or politics or economics; the result has been that academic critics no longer have any readers. That art speaks to the inner-lives of men and women, and encourages empathy between them, remains the prevailing assumption of the average reader, not to mention most of its creators (cf. David Foster Wallace’s oft-quoted assertion that fiction makes us “less alone inside”). Whether that assumption is voiced in quasi-religious (as in Munson’s case), or in therapeutic (as in Oprah’s) terms, it is not clear that commentators on literature can or should do without it. As Aubry shows, it may be just this assumption that accounts for the remarkable persistence of the novel today.
Everybody loves a train wreck. This one started when Jonathan Lethem came barreling down the tracks with an essay in Harper’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence,” in which most of the lines were cribbed from other sources and then ingeniously stitched together to argue in favor of appropriation and against the tired old 20th-century notion that an artist owns what he or she makes – that dinosaur known as copyright. Then right behind him on the same tracks came David Shields with last year’s sensational freight train of a book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, an expanded echo of Lethem’s themes made up of a pastiche of Shields’s own words and the words of many other artists. Among Shields’s words: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.”
Then suddenly – watch out! – along came the little engine that could, Marco Roth chuffing down the tracks in the opposite direction with an essay in the journal n+1 called “Throwback Throwdown,” in which he set out to derail the two speeding locomotives. He called Shields’s book “an authentic act of copying” that fits snugly into the “pervasive and growing fantasy of the writer as hip-hop DJ.” Roth added, “To a certain kind of white writer, engaged in the increasingly professionalized and seemingly ‘nice’ work of churning out novels, poems, essays and reviews, the rapper DJ comes to stand for this brazen, unapologetic appropriator, regardless of whether actual rappers think of themselves as heroes of ‘copyleft,’ Proudhonists of the ghetto.”
Once the collision took place, as you can imagine, there was a lot of twisted metal on the tracks. But before the smoke cleared, an actual rapper, the superstar Jay-Z, plowed into the debris with a book called Decoded that cleverly turned the train wreck upside-down by showing how a master of an art form built on appropriation uses old-school literary techniques and a quaint thing called imagination to write lyrics that bristle with originality and socially potent meaning. For good measure, Jay-Z tells the story about the time he stabbed a rival for stealing his music. Train wrecks don’t get any more perfect than this.
Which brings us to the fun part. Now we get to sift through the wreckage, counting bodies and looking for survivors.
I just found a survivor. It’s Michel Houellebecq, the baddest bad boy in French lit today. All this racket about copyright and appropriation (or bricolage, sampling, collage, poaching, rip-off, homage, plagiarism, call it what you will) – it bloodied him a bit but he’s actually in excellent shape. His latest novel, The Map and the Territory, was an instant smash – until someone pointed out that Houellebecq had lifted several uncredited passages almost verbatim from Wikipedia and other websites, including an entry on how flies have sex. The bad boy went ballistic when the word “plagiarism” was uttered. “If those people really think that (this is plagiarism), they haven’t the first notion of what literature is,” he fumed. “This is part of my method. This approach, muddling real documents and fiction, has been used by many authors. I have been influenced especially by Perec and Borges… I hope that this contributes to the beauty of my books, using this kind of material.” The novel wound up winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt.
Sitting next to Houellebecq, also battered but in remarkably good shape, is a German teenager named Helene Hegemann. Her novel about Berlin nightclub kids, Axolotl Roadkill, was a best-seller in Germany last year and was nominated for a major prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. Then word got out that she had lifted passages from several other sources. After admitting to “thoughtlessness” and “narcissism,” an unrepentant Hegemann told Die Welt newspaper: “But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material. What matters is what they do with it. If my novel is interpreted as representing our times, then it has to be recognized that the novel was created in accord with what we saw in the last decade – that is, with the rejection of all those copyright excesses and the embrace of a right to copy and to transform.” The newsmagazine Der Spiegel agreed, comparing Axolotl Roadkill to Naked Lunch and Manhattan Transfer: “Everything from newspaper articles to ads to all kinds of other texts are embedded in these foundational works of literary modernism.” In a statement released by her publisher, Hegemann added, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
James Frey is slumped in a seat across the aisle. He’s not going to make it. As far as Shields and Lethem are concerned, his fatal mistake was not that he fabricated much of his “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces; it was that he went on TV and apologized for it and, to prove his contrition, allowed Oprah to pillory him publicly. He forgot the First Commandment of the 21st Century: “Reality-based art hijacks its material and doesn’t apologize.” Frey is toast.
Jay-Z came through without a scratch, of course, which brings us to this train wreck’s central irony. The makers of popular music have been brazen and fruitful plunderers for many years because, let’s face it, there are only so many ways to arrange a simple melody and only so many ways to say “I love you” or “It’s over” or “You tore my heart out and stomped that sucker flat.” While blues and jazz artists and practitioners of other more saccharine forms of pop music have been borrowing for years, hip-hop DJs were perhaps the first to revel in their piracy, though they made a point of dressing it up with the lofty word “sampling.” Being a pirate, an outlaw, a gangsta has always been central to the rapper’s pose. Jay-Z didn’t need to do a lot of posing, it turns out, because he was an industrious purveyor of cocaine long before he transformed himself into a one-man corporation.
The source of Decoded’s fascination, for me, is not the author’s projects-to-the-penthouse biographical arc, nor his tales of hustling drugs and hobnobbing with Russell Simmons and Bono and starting his own clothing line and helping turn Cristal champagne into a bling brand. The book’s fascination comes from three very different and very surprising sources.
First, it’s beautifully made – lavish illustrations, clever layouts and ingenious use of fonts, quality paper, plus a Warhol on the cover. Second, and most importantly, the book allows us to peek into the tent of Jay-Z’s creative process. He begins with his epiphany, the day he heard a kid named Slate rhyming couplet after couplet before a rapt, clapping audience at the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. Jay-Z writes that he “felt like a planet pulled into orbit by a star.” That day he started writing rhymes feverishly in a spiral notebook and poring over the dictionary to expand his vocabulary. (This brings to mind Lewis Hyde’s contention: “Most artists are converted to art by art itself.”)
Decoded illustrates its author’s creative process by laying out song lyrics on one page, then on the facing page letting Jay-Z deconstruct (decode) the sources and meanings of the lyrics through elaborate footnotes. It’s a revelation. On one drug-selling run to New Jersey, for instance, here’s how he describes his crew watching television while they work – Watchin Erik Estrada baggin up at the Ramada. In the corresponding footnote he writes: “There are a lot of motel references in my songs. Hotels are where a lot of our work got done, where we bagged our powder.”
There’s a telling reference to the made-up selves of rappers. The lyric “They’re all actors” is limned like this: “When I say that rappers are actors, I mean it in two ways: first, a lot of them are pretending to be something they’re not outside the booth; second, it also means that those who are being real often use a core reality as a basis for a great fantasy, the way a great method actor like DeNiro does.”
Street slang is dissected. “Spike Lees” are “the best seats in the house – in this case whether it’s at the arena or in the jet.” “Sprees” are “custom rims that have internal discs that spin when the car stops, named after Latrell Sprewell… Fun for kids, but for grown-ups, a sign that you might be trying too hard.” Sometimes the reader absorbs the method without aid of footnotes, as when the words “breakfast,” “Lexus” and “necklace” cozy up to each other in a single couplet. Jay-Z freely acknowledges that he plundered his parents’ vinyl record collection, floor-to-ceiling stacks of Motown, pop, R&B, soul and funk, but the act of plundering led to his creative birth, not to mere mimicry. “We were kids without fathers,” he writes, “so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves… Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.”
The book’s elaborate footnotes demolish twin misconceptions: that rappers are merely brazen, unapologetic appropriators with nothing original to say; and there’s no longer such a thing as originality, just authenticity. Jay-Z, for one, does not see himself as a hero of “copyleft” or a Proudhonist of the ghetto. As he puts it, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” He’s also a writer in the purest, oldest sense of the word – that is, he’s someone who uses his experiences, his influences and his skill with language to say something original and new.
I agree with what Michiko Kakutani wrote recently in the New York Times: “In the end, Decoded leaves the reader with a keen appreciation of how rap artists have worked myriad variations on a series of familiar themes (hustling, partying and ‘the most familiar subject in the history of rap — why I’m dope’) by putting a street twist on an arsenal of traditional literary devices (hyperbole, double entendres, puns, alliteration and allusions), and how the author himself magically stacks rhymes upon rhymes, mixing and matching metaphors even as he makes unexpected stream-of-consciousness leaps that rework old clichés and play clever aural jokes on the listener (‘ruthless’ and ‘roofless,’ ‘tears’ and ‘tiers,’ ‘sense’ and ‘since’).”
To say that rappers possess originality and that they rely on traditional literary devices is not to say that they don’t – or shouldn’t – borrow from other sources. And it’s not to say that writers of prose and poetry shouldn’t borrow from other writers of prose and poetry and, for that matter, from rappers and jazz musicians and newspaper reporters and advertising copywriters and absolutely anyone else. All art comes from art. To admit this is not to concede that there’s no such thing as originality any more than it’s a license to borrow without attribution and then call it your own. William S. Burroughs freely admitted that he cut up texts and re-arranged them and inserted the results in his novels. Michel Houellebecq is free to be influenced by Perec and Borges and Burroughs (and anyone else), but I think he’s making a mistake if he thinks copying from Wikipedia adds to the beauty of his books. He’s too good a writer to make such a lazy claim. And while I agree with Helene Hegemann that what matters is not where artists get their materials but what they do with them, I believe all artists need to give up the cheap crutch of claiming that since it’s all been done before, all they can hope to do is rearrange the familiar in some unfamiliar way and then call it “authenticity.” That trivializes art. And it’s stupid and wrong.
Back in 1992 Cormac McCarthy told an interviewer: “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” That’s not to say that writers do nothing but steal from other writers; it is, rather, to admit that literature comes to us not through a writer’s unfiltered experience of life, but through that experience as filtered through the things the writer has read, as well as the things the reader has read.
In “The Ecstasy of Influence” Lethem writes, “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.”
Of course we all quote. But if quoting is all we do, then we don’t do very much. Shields and Lethem seem to acknowledge this without fully admitting it, because they do so much more than merely quote in Reality Hunger and “The Ecstasy of Influence.” As Roth put it in his essay in n+1: “Art may be theft, as Shields likes to quote Picasso, but it doesn’t follow that theft is art. Art is not ex-nihilo, but neither is it all ‘ready-mades.'” Precisely.
Lynne McTaggart, who won a plagiarism lawsuit against Doris Kearns Goodwin, acknowledged in the New York Times in 2002 that all writers are “relentless scavengers.” Then McTaggart added, “Writers don’t own facts. Writers don’t own ideas. All that we own is the way we express our thoughts… But it is important not to excuse the larger sins of appropriation. In this age of clever electronic tools, writing can easily turn into a process of pressing the cut and paste buttons, or gluing together the work of a team of researchers, rather than the long and lonely slog of placing one word after another in a new and arresting way.”
I think she’s right. Shouldn’t we expect novelists to do more than cut and paste Wikipedia descriptions of how flies have sex?
The third and final source of Decoded’s appeal is the revealing story Jay-Z tells about what happened the night of December 1, 1999 at New York’s Kit Kat Club. His album Vol. 3, Life and Times of S. Carter was not due to be released for a month, but bootlegged copies were already selling on the street. This infuriated Jay-Z. After all, he’s a business, man. He believes that he – and he alone – should get paid for the music he makes. When a rival record producer showed up at the club and admitted that he was behind the bootlegging, Jay-Z stabbed him twice.
This violent outburst left no doubt about Jay-Z’s opinion of people who hijack his material and don’t apologize – and take money out of his pocket while they’re at it. You might argue that bootlegging is more invasive than sampling, and that it goes way beyond the relatively benign forms of plagiarism Lethem and Shields so ingeniously espouse. In fact, Lethem admits as much in the closing lines of his essay: “Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.”
It’s a seductive bill of goods, but you simply can’t have it both ways. You can’t say Pay me for what’s rightfully mine and feel free to rob me while you’re at it. Jay-Z, who understands the workings and the worth of originality, isn’t buying this bill of goods. Neither is Marco Roth. Neither am I.
That sound you hear is a thousand book publicists wailing. Oprah Winfrey will announce today that her eponymous talk show will end in September 2011. That means that in less than two years, the ultimate book publicity coup will be off the table.
Oprah’s Book Club isn’t quite the powerhouse it once was. The club was started in 1996, a savvy move when neighborhood book clubs were in vogue with the Oprah demographic. The Book Club also was a way of distancing the show from its increasingly shock-oriented daytime peers (a format, we may forget, that Oprah once partook of.) In those early years of the Book Club, Oprah would often, though not always, chose a little-known, “mid-list” book that would become an overnight bestseller. In a literary world where writers are playing the lottery against the longest of odds, Oprah was the winning ticket.
The Club earned a reputation, perhaps unfair to the Club and perhaps unfair to the books that were a part of it, as a redoubt of “women’s fiction,” but the selections were more varied than that, ranging from melodrama like Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife and Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone to more nuanced fare like Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying and Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat. The Club went on like this for about five years, selecting 10 or 12 books a year, and, with a flick of this magic wand, turning each one into a bestseller.
And then Jonathan Franzen came along. You can argue whether Franzen should have accepted Oprah’s selection as just another of many honors bestowed upon The Corrections or whether he had every right to exert some well-earned control over how his book was marketed, but one thing seems clear. Oprah had never contemplated the idea of someone turning her down.
After Franzen, the Book Club, as if trying to find its purpose again, meandered, initially with some fanfare, but increasing as an afterthought, through classics by Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy and others. The books still sold but she was only making a couple of selections a year, and some of the dazzle had leaked out of the enterprise. Then, to juice things up, Oprah announced that she would return to selecting living authors.
In all the furor that followed the uncovering of James Frey’s confabulations in his memoir A Million Little Pieces, it’s easy to forget that prior to selecting Frey’s book, Oprah had actually announced that she was going to go back to picking books by living authors, and there was a good deal of discussion around this, as though “living author” was a genre you might find in the bookstore. But implicit in this announcement was a recognition that Oprah’s Book Club just wasn’t as exciting without the sub-plot of making an author an overnight millionaire and household name.
Or, to put it another way, What Oprah told the New York Times was, “I wanted to open the door and broaden the field… That allows me the opportunity to do what I like to do most, which is sit and talk to authors about their work. It’s kind of hard to do that when they’re dead.” But that was before Frey turned the whole thing into a circus, culminating with Oprah’s finger-wagging excoriation of Frey on her show.
Since the Franzen-Frey double-whammy, the Book Club hasn’t been quite the touchstone it once was. There some moments of cultural relevance, like the cognitive dissonance of Oprah selecting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road days before it won the Pulitzer, seeing an Oprah logo next to McCarthy’s name on the book cover, and later, her visit to his ranch for her show. But the Book Club remains an afterthought, with new selections happening only rarely (Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them in September was the first of 2009) and, while the books she picks still sell and publicists still get excited, the Club isn’t as much on the media radar, and no one wrings their hands about Oprah’s impact on literary culture any more.
This isn’t to say, however, that the Book Club was the only reason that Oprah was important to the publishing industry. Oprah had guests flogging books in categories outside of fiction and confessional memoir (and, yes, fictionalized confessional memoir) on the show all the time, and the big sales that followed for these celebrity memoirs, diet books, and self-help guides showed that, in publishing (and in every other business), landing Oprah was still the ultimate publicity coup. While gallons of ink were spilled on the Book Club’s literary taste, Oprah’s role was probably far more insidious with these other titles, most notably with her incessant flogging of the “power of positive thinking” pabulum found in The Secret. (Salon.com’s 2007 takedown of The Secret, and Oprah for hyping it, is essential reading.)
So, with the Book Club wasting away and the end of Oprah now in sight, what’s a publicist or mid-lister hoping for a miracle to do? The reality is that it’s hard to imagine our culture supporting an enterprise like Oprah’s Book Club again. In 1996, audiences were far less fragmented, and even a daytime show could command enough of the public’s attention to achieve the desired critical mass. Oprah is set to extend her media empire in new ways, as she’s launching her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) early 2011, and while word is she’ll do a daily show there, don’t be surprised if she takes the shift as an opportunity to retire the Book Club concept. And even if she doesn’t, OWN will be just another, and maybe smaller, piece of this already fragmented media landscape, and a new Book Club likely wouldn’t be the winning lottery ticket it once was.
Who knows, maybe she’ll get into publishing, instead. (I can almost hear the manuscripts flying her way.)
Bonus Link: The complete list of Oprah’s Book Club titles
At Slate, media critic Jack Shafer cuts through the effusive eulogizing of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (here at The Millions and elsewhere) to point out that it was “widely conceded that Kapuscinski routinely made up things in his books.” As a trained journalist, I recognize and respect Shafer’s insistence on this point (though the essay’s incendiary headline might have been a step too far.) And as such, I’m happy to concede to Shafer’s wish that we not use the same yardstick to compare Kapuscinski and contemporary foreign correspondents like Anthony Shadid who put their lives on the line to deliver reports on Iraq and other war-torn places.However, one shouldn’t take Shafer’s discomfort as a condemnation of Kapuscinski’s work. I think it’s telling that Shafer mentions Truman Capote and Joseph Mitchell, two masters of so-called narrative non-fiction, as others who “straddle the wall between fiction and nonfiction.” And yet I’m glad to have read these writers’ work. Even James Frey’s now infamous memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was considered by many to be a great read, and had it not been for the Oprah factor and Frey’s irritating arrogance, the reaction to the fabrications it contained would likely not have been as severe. To define these books as journalism (or memoir, or “truth”) exclusively does a disservice to journalism – offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate – but to suggest that there isn’t a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers. (Thanks to Brian for sending the Slate piece my way.)
After bringing us rankings and tags and reviews and recommendations and lists and blogs and discussions, Amazon, which never met a feature it didn’t want to add to its product pages, has now added wikis. They live way down close to the bottom of the page. There aren’t many of them yet, and it’s hard to see a reason why they would really take off at this point, but who knows. To give an example here’s the text that currently resides in the wiki for James Frey’s infamous A Million Little Pieces: Author James Frey was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969. He was educated at Denison University and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2000, he spent a year writing A Million Little Pieces, which was published in 2003 by Doubleday Books, a division of Random House, Inc. He is married and has one child. In early 2006 he admitted that much of the content in A Million Little Pieces, which is presented as a memoir, had been fabricated.That’s it. Not very exciting, is it. But perhaps there are more exciting wikis floating around in Amazon-space. If you’re inclined to explore, the list of most-edited wikis might be a good place to start.
So, think about this: In the last 5 to 10 years the way we consume all sorts of media has changed drastically, everything, essentially, except books. From a new Business Week article:”Every other form of media has gone digital — music, newspapers, movies,” says Joni Evans, a top literary agent who just left the William Morris Agency to start her own company that will focus on books and technology. “We’re the only industry that hasn’t lived up to the pace of technology. A revolution is around the corner.”The idea here is that a confluence of improving hardware, reader readiness and the prevalence of digitized books are setting the stage for the digital revolution to finally reach the world of books.In a minimal sense, the hardware already exists in the form of Treos and similar handhelds which some people find comfortable enough to use as a book delivery device, but just around the corner is “digital ink” and “e paper.” I had once thought that such technology only existed in the realm of science fiction but was surprised to find during my graduate new media journalism studies that these technologies are not far off and are much anticipated by some (and dreaded by others) in the journalism business. Between current handhelds and the “e paper” future are dedicated reader devices set to come out this year. The Business Week article references the Sony Reader, which I’ve heard is astounding in its ability to make reading off of a screen feel like reading off of a page. Last spring, Jason Kottke tried out a Sony device that presumably uses similar technology and was quite taken with it. But even this will be a far cry from “e paper.” For a peek at that technology, take a look at the slideshow that accompanies the Business Week article.The other two pieces of the puzzle – reader readiness and digitized books – are already in place. People are used to consuming their media on handheld devices and I think many, especially younger folks, would like to be able to do this more. Meanwhile, between Google and the publishing companies trying to compete with it, it seems like we’re approaching a future when all books will be available digitally.An obvious response to all of this is to wonder whether or not the book as we know it will die. I don’t think that question is as pertinent as it seems. In all likelihood, books, like magazines and newspapers, will be marginalized somewhat, still available in their current forms, but not necessarily thought of as tethered to paper and bindings. The content, of course, will live on, and these new ways of reading books will allow them to evolve as they have evolved since words were first written on papyrus.One side note. From the article referenced above:George Saunders, a short story author and professor of English at Syracuse University, says he’d like a way to get his work out to readers more quickly. After the scandal broke over James Frey’s falsehoods in his hit book A Million Little Pieces, Saunders penned a humorous essay stemming from the events. It was a confession to Oprah Winfrey that all of the fiction he’d written had, in fact, been true. But Saunders had a hard time getting the piece published quickly, and now it feels dated. “There might be a different model for a literary community that’s quicker, more real-time, and involves more spontaneity,” he says.George! Such a thing already exists. If you had a blog, you could have posted it there. (And how awesome would a blog by George Saunders be). If you don’t want to start a blog yourself, feel free to send your spur of the moment pieces my way and I’ll happily post them here for (potentially) millions and millions to see.Update: George Saunders responds via email:George Saunders here. Just wanted to thank you for the mention at The Millions. Great site. I’ve considered a blog but knowing how obsessive I am, worried that I might get consumed by it and my family would expire and my house crumble to dust. Plus I worry about how much I would have to pay myself to keep my blog supplied with content. My fear is that, knowing I was working for myself, I would start cheating myself, only submitting my worst pieces, then get into a labor dispute with myself and never speak to me again.
I haven’t said much about the James Frey fiasco, just because it’s been covered so well by other blogs and news outlets, but I did want to share a couple of thoughts:I was working at a bookstore when A Million Little Pieces first came out in April 2003, and I think it should be known that there were questions about the veracity of the book from day one. When you work at a bookstore, you become pretty jaded about the publicity efforts of your counterparts from the publishing companies. When hyperbole is the order of the day, it’s hard for a particular book to stand out from the crowd. But, on rare occasions, the publishers put on such a full-court press, you can’t help but think – from the retailer’s perspective – that a book is going to be big. Pieces was one of those books, and the number one selling point was that the book was unbelievable but true. Still, my coworkers who read advance copies found the book hard to believe, there were whispers among many in the industry that the book was heavily embellished and people who went to see Frey in person as he publicized the book found him to be both vague and abrasive when he was asked about particular parts of the book. With cases like this one – J.T. Leroy comes to mind here as well – it’s almost as though the media knows about these doubts all along, but they play along to build a story line: the credulous public and media buys into the unbelievable story, the author achieves fame and fortune, and then, like clockwork, Boom! the big hoax is revealed and we – the public and the media – all gleefully tear him down. It seems like an age old story to me.My second point is that before this whole story goes away, I’d like one thing cleared up because I think it speaks to the publishing industry’s culpability in this whole saga. Was Pieces originally shopped as a novel or not? As far as I can tell, this notion was first put forward by Frey in a profile by Joe Hagan in the New York Observer in February 2003:Mr. Frey said he originally shopped the book as a work of fiction, but Ms. Talese and Co. declined to publish it as such. He said he hoped Ms. Talese’s imprint would deflect the characterization of his book as part of the sentimental recovery genre. “That imprint lends a lot of credibility to what otherwise might be considered a recovery memoir. Nan’s not in the business of publishing that bullshit,” he said.(I love that quote, don’t you?) This idea has since been oft-repeated by the media and was, in fact, repeated by Frey himself on his most recent appearance on Larry King Live. A story in yesterday’s New York Observer quotes Frey as saying this on the show:”We initially shopped the book as a novel, and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a nonfiction book. When Nan Talese purchased the book, I’m not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir.”The question is this: Is Frey making this up or did Frey’s agent, Kassie Evashevski of Brillstein/Grey, or publisher, Nan A. Talese, decide to relabel a work of fiction as a memoir in order to sell more books? Talese denies this in the same Observer story: “Ms. Talese said that she ‘almost collapsed’ when she heard Mr. Frey make that statement.” I think most people will believe Talese, a well-respected name in the publishing industry, over the now disgraced Frey, but I still want to know for sure.Update: According to this GalleyCat post, Evashevski told Publishers Weekly, “Nan Talese believed in good faith they were buying a memoir, just as I believed I was selling them one.” So Frey’s been lying from day one.
Still in the throes of controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Oprah has selected Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night as the next selection for her book club. While this selection was no doubt in the works long before the Frey controversy, the juxtaposition is still remarkable. Frey’s confessional, sensationalized addiction memoir, the credibility of which seems to crumble further with every passing day, looks awfully silly next to the beloved memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor whose character is unassailable as far as I know. In the New York Times, Wiesel says he hasn’t read Frey’s book (big surprise), but then goes on to make some comments that seem to me to be directed at Frey’s fast and loose treatment of the truth (emphasis mine):He acknowledged that some people and institutions, including on occasion The New York Times, have referred to Night as a novel, “mainly because of its literary style.””But it is not a novel at all,” he said. “I know the difference,” he added, noting that Night is the first of his 47 books, several of which are novels. “I make a distinction between what I lived through and what I imagined others to have lived through.”As it is a memoir, he said, “my experiences in the book – A to Z – must be true.” He continued: “All the people I describe were with me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel.”Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Amazon is changing the classification of Night from fiction to memoir. As of this writing, Night is number one on Amazon, bumping Pieces to number two.
When I started a book blog two and half years ago, I had no idea I would be paying such close attention to the activities of Oprah Winfrey, but here I am, again. The truth is, when I worked at a book store a few years ago (and not a very Oprah-friendly one, mind you) her influence on book sales and mainstream book culture in America was evident on a daily basis. With a few reservations, I applauded Oprah’s decision to highlight “classic” novels, because it put these essential books into the hands of readers who might not otherwise be drawn to them. Now it appears as though this phase of Oprah’s club has ended, and her gaze (which can bestow millions upon an unsuspecting author) has fallen once again upon the living. She says that she was “moved” by a letter signed by various living authors asking her to consider contemporary books once again, but perhaps, with the Summer of Faulkner, the “classics” experiment had simply run its course.Even if it hadn’t been preceded by the Faulkner books, the current selection, James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces would be a disappointment. While entertaining (I’m told), it’s the switch to non-fiction, and more importantly, confessional memoir, that bothers me. Oprah’s entire show is a confessional memoir. Her guests are invited on the show to pour out their souls so that viewers can cry along with them, and Oprah joins in. While previous picks, classic or otherwise, take us out of Oprah’s world and into a narrative created by the author, books like A Million Little Pieces are indistinguishable from the content of her show, all of which makes this choice seem incredibly self-serving. Perhaps she’ll get everyone to read a self-help book next.Several other bloggers have already weighed in: Scott, Annie, Authorstore