Saturday, March 8, 2008

When the going gets weird...

...The weird turn pro, 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 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. In light of a couple of fameous and fraudulent memoirs in the news this week the lesson should 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.

About two years ago, there another such a case of a writer with a dicy memoir --- 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 Barris 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. 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 and for some it is way too late in the game to administer very painful cross-examination... like to writer and memoirist Lillian Hellman. (But Mary McCarthy tried, anyway.)

Fraudulent memoirists like Frey and Barris 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. They 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 relief 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. 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.

I do, as matter of fact, have my own little memoir still in publication, with the following corrections noted: Mom says the Toby-dog got stuck on the fence in the morning, not evening... and Pippy says that her rabbits' name was Bernadette Bunny. Not just Bunny.

(The original version of this was posted in January 2006 at the Daily Brief)

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