05 March, 2008

Isn't it fiction anyway?

The Times writes:

In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.

Strangely, I'm tempted to say "So what?". Any memoir is going to be half-fiction anyway because scenes are rewritten and recasted by the author (and ghostwriter) for dramatic effect. Moreover, it's ridiculous to assume that anyone remembers all of the details from their life from one month ago, let alone twenty or forty years. Rather, they've filled in the gaps based on the internal narrative that they tell themselves about their experiences. Just because your narrative corresponds much more loosely to what actually happened doesn't make it any less compelling or entertaining. After all, we are all compelled and entertained by books that we acknowledge are fictional.

Now, if the purpose of the document was to convict or acquit someone of a crime or have some sort of direct effect on the world, I'd condemn it. But it's a book, basically a novel anyway, that is meant to raise awareness of what life is like in a world that is very different from most of ours and to tell a story. An explicitly fictional book with the same purpose would have had exactly the same effect. The reasons that Jones gives for writing the book remind me of the Rigoberta Menchú kerfuffle in which she exaggerated parts of her story for, essentially, political effect.

Similarly with the furor surrounding Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergrad who copied bits and pieces of her chick-lit novel from Megan McCafferty. These kinds of novels rip off themes, characters, and plot-lines all of the time; isn't that far worse than copping a sentence structure or two?


Cassady said...

Just think of the authorial tradition of a great many of Victorian and post-Victorian novels: the author (who is probably a fake name) comes right out and states that all of the story is completely true, when it's a complete fabrication.

It doesn't really matter whether it's fiction or not. The idea of reality is a powerful literary tool, then believability takes over.

Elliot said...

Yeah, except the Menchu controversy was at least interesting because it brought up all these difficult questions about who speaks for who, and how, and what do things like "fiction" and "testimony" and "narrative authority" mean across cultures, and just what is the relationship between literature and the "real world", anyway.

This, on the other hand, has kind of a shadow of that relevance (ie, well, you can say it doesn't matter if its fictional or not, but how people react to its un-truthfulness will now impact how they react to the social problems it addresses, so how much of a never ending feedback loop is art vs. reality anyway...) but really its just about a yuppy that wanted to get rich/famous by peddling a false sob story.

To the extent theres something interesting here, it seems to be along the lines of Yglesias' post on how there is this market for fluff among readers who consider themselves "above" fluffy pop-lit, and so there is an incentive to re-package fluff as deep and moving life stories, since the actual supply of deep and moving life stories falls short of this demand.

spencer said...

Also, Tim Burke's post on this topic is much more subtle than mine:


He thinks that the person that Menchu actually was seems more interesting than the person she portrayed. This seems to be not at all the case here.

spencer said...

And Tyler Cowen weighs in
: http://www.tnr.com/story.html?id=82eb5d70-13bd-4086-9ec0-cb0e9e8411b3