(A repost from the archive of one of my other blogs, ruminating on identity and writing)
The weird turn professional, and apparently write a memoir about it, which is all very nice when it sells a LOT of copies, and the writer becomes FAMOUS and sells a mega-jiga-million copies, and everyone remembers that they knew you when – maybe. Journalistic fabrication is so last year (Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, whatsisface at the NYT), the current flave of the moment must be the memoir; One’s own life, but with improvements.
The fun begins when everyone who knew you when — the people next door, brothers and sisters, employers, co-workers, ex-spouses, friends and former friends score a copy and begin to realize that there is a whole ‘nother reality reflected there, one with which they were completely unacquainted. So the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey ruckus was just one of the most current disconnects between real life and life remembered with advantages. The lesson ought to be for memoirists to linger meaningfully in the general vicinity of verifiable facts, either that or wait to write it all when everyone else is dead and can’t argue the point with you. If you really can’t wait that long, perhaps it would be less embarrassing to just call it fiction, loosely based on your own life. Even if the stuff that really happens is sometimes stranger than you can ever make up.
Some time past there was a story about another writer — somewhat less well known since Oprah didn’t personally have to rip him a new one on national television— who wasn’t a Native American at all. What is it with wanting to be a Native American, all that mysticism and wilderness wisdom? And Timothy Barrus wasn’t the first, (Grey Owl, anyone?) only being a porn writer may have been a little less embarrassing than the resume and club membership of this best-selling but unfortunately fraudulent Indian. And Carlos Castenada and Rigoberta Menchu still have passionate defenders willing to deny or discount certain uncomfortable findings.
Really, I feel quite sorry for people who begin with a little fib, a touch of exaggeration and eventually wind up believing it; some of them do not take contradiction well, and it is way too late in the game to get a writer and memoirist like Lillian Hellman a little painful cross-examination (But Mary McCarthy tried, anyway.)
Fraudulent memoirists like Frey and Barrus may be a passing evil, best selling or not. Grey Owl and Asa Carter, although not as advertised, were possessed of a lovely and sympathetic writing style and may even have done good with their output, in the long run. But Menchu and Hellman, with the deeply politicized aspect to their writings and public personas probably have not. After contemplating how their books inflamed or warped the perceptions of certain public issues, it is a positive relieve to contemplate Ern Malley and Penelope Ashe, two last literary frauds which were done for no more reason than to make a point, and for their perpetrators to have a little fun putting one over; A self-consciously literary magazine called Angry Penguins is just begging to be sent up, and as for Naked Came the Stranger – it was proved in 1969, and for a hundred years before and ever since, that trash with a naked woman on the front cover will sell.