On literary truth and other pointless notions

I have been introduced to Berrett-Koehler Publishers (BKP) five-odd years ago, through one of their books. Recently, I mentioned another book of theirs, a new addition, dedicated to the art and skill of networking, called “The Connect Effect“. Some time ago, I wrote BKP’s Senior Managing Editor, Jeevan Sivasubramaniam (jsiva@bkpub.com) for their e-newsletter, and have been connected ever since.

The latest edition of the newsletter discusses a few cases of “false autobiographers” – people who admitted that the biographies they published were, in fact, made up. These include Misha Defonseca’s Holocaust memoirs “Surviving with Wolves” – harrowing account of her life as a little girl under Nazi occupation, including a period during which she was protected and nourished by a pack of wolves, then there was James Frey’s memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” catapulted through Oprah Winfrey’s TV/media machine to massive success, only to be found to be a great storyteller of a fictitious tale. Lately, Margaret B. Jones “Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival”, telling a personal story about a child born out of a mixed race marriage grows up to a life of abuse and neglect, forced to work the drug-trade for a living. This, too, was exposed as a fake.

Let’s take a closer look at these exposed fakes. The similarities between the three books are far from coincidental:

  • They are all exquisite examples of quality storytelling. Readers were riveted, literary critics were infatuated; the media trumpeted these works on to quick stardom.
  • The stories are stories of deliverance, from poverty, abuse, neglect, danger, oppression, depraved existence, through some amazing, mostly unexplainable, survival skills and capabilities, to a happy end in which the exhausted Straggler reaches a well-deserved personal and, no doubt, financial catharsis.
  • The stories straddle actual, real, historical and social events (Defonseca’s Holocaust, Frey’s drug dependency and rehabilitation at a Minnesota treatment centre, and Jones’s gangster-infested Los Angeles – are all reality-based.
  • The stories answered a clear need, filled a void and satisfied readers’ thirst for yet another “dump to palace” story.
  • The stories’ main selling point was their assumed pedigree – they were “true story” and therefore precious. Unmasked as fakes, they lost their veneer and became yet-another-fairytale.

One needs to ask if the stories are any less captivating, now that we know that they are pure imagination, as real as Dolores Claiborne, Alice, Huw Morgan, Lemuel Gulliver, Jean Valjean, Marjorie Morningstar and Alexis Zorba. Secondly, what internal force makes us crave “true” stories of redemption and deliverance so badly that highly talented authors like Misha Defonseca, James Frey, and Margaret B. Jones need to subvert their creative gifts to the benefit of the reality industry? The biggest joke is on the publishers – like that idiot who recalled all copies of Margaret B. Jones books – what is it? She cheated in exams!? If the story is as good as everyone says it is, who cares if it’s true or not? Who cares!?

In a rare, seemingly unplanned phone call to Larry King’s show on CNN, Oprah Winfrey defended James Frey:

“But the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book.”

“What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil from the time he was 10 years old drinking and tormenting himself and his parents, and stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves.”

“To me, it seems to be much ado about nothing,”

Spot on. You tell them, girl!!
Contribute to ToingToing!