Friday, March 03, 2006


NBCC panel: Just the facts, M'am

I won't be attending the National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony this evening, and have already handicapped the proceedings in an earlier post. (Nothing more to say on that subject, but I'll be throwing a major hissy fit if William Logan fails to win.) I did, however, catch the NBCC-sponsored panel discussion earlier today, "The Critic and the Memoir." The organization put together an impressive roster to kick around this live-wire topic, including Sam Tanenhaus, Kathryn Harrison, Vivian Gornick, Betsy Lerner, and moderator Laura Miller.

Miller began with Tanenhaus, whose stubble and consistently creased forehead gave him a Don-Johnson-at-grad-school look. Her question: in the wake of so many memoir-related scandals, was the Book Review changing the way it handled such books? "In a word," he replied, "no. Obviously it's a fraught subject. And particularly in the case of James Frey, people want to know why we're still listing his book as nonfiction."

Good point, given the author's carefully documented Munchausen tendencies. But Tanenhaus insisted that the memoir has always been on slippery ground when it comes to verifiable truth. "We begin with the presumption that a memoir is artificial. It's very much a contrived form," he argued, enlisting that notorious fibber St. Augustine to prove his point. And if we're to believe his argument, the distinction is getting blurrier by the day. "What used to be the novel has migrated into the memoir," he said, and essentially suggested that we throw in the towel on this puppy. "If we didn't pretend that the factual value of a memoir is so great, then we wouldn't have this confusion in the first place." (He did add that the Book Review would "look more deeply into an author's history" if the book was billed as a "confessional memoir"--but aren't they all?--and cited Tony Hendra's controversial Father Joe as an example.)

Now Kathryn Harrison addressed herself more specifically to the Frey Affair, and had some hard words for Oprah's favorite whipping boy. "He himself described the book as self-mythologizing," she recalled. "But real memoir seeks to demythologize the subject. Rather than sustaining the author's narcissism, it's supposed to disrupt that beautiful image in the water."

And how did the whole mess look to Betsy Lerner, a literary agent who is herself a former memoirist and book editor? She drew a fairly sharp line between art and commerce, while conceding that she's danced around it throughout her career: "When I was an editor, I felt that I was on the side of the angels. But once I crossed over to the dark side...well, publishing books is a business, and people buy them, and we all have to pay our rent." But did she ever handle an author whose memoir seemed to cry out for third-party substantiation? "I've worked with some great embroiderers in my day," she allowed.

Lerner also invoked a litmus test that the other participants endorsed, at least in principle: the "ring of truth" you can sense in an authentic text. Putting aside the sheer subjectivity of the whole thing--what sounds like Big Ben to me might register for you as the weenie tintinnabulation of a cheap travel clock--this seems to suggest that facts don't matter in the least. Perhaps that's why Miller now attempted to firm up the rules a little bit. What about Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments, a 1995 concentration-camp memoir whose author turned out to have spent the war years in Switzerland? Wasn't that, as she suggested, "beyond the pale?"

At this point Vivian Gornick rode into battle on Wilkomirski's behalf. "A hybrid form is now coming into being," she said. And in this form--let's call it the Memoir Nouveau--the narrator is obliged to be reliable, but not factual. Hmm. She cited Thomas DeQuincey's Confessions of an Opium-Eater as a classic example: the patron saint of stoners relentlessly deviated from the facts, yet he is "telling a true story, getting to the bottom of an experience."

Harrison seconded Gornick's argument: "You can tell when a piece of writing is true, whether it's officially fiction or memoir." An apprentice epistemologist could have a field day with this statement--indeed, with the entire discussion, which is why it was so damn interesting--but now Tanenhaus made a broader cultural argument about the audience for memoirs like Frey's. "Non-readers give tremendous authority to the written word," he said, tracing his point back to Christopher Lasch, and suggested that they felt a correspondingly sharper sense of betrayal. Nor was it autobiographers alone who were now seen as fakers: "Some of the furor surrounding Frey's memoir is rooted in a pervasive suspicion of writers, reporters, and supposed tellers of the truth. There's a bigger issue kicking around--a perception that people in authority don't behave honestly."

Fight the power, Sam! But don't forget to stick it to the real villains here: the fact-checkers. "I think we now live in the age of the tyranny of the fact-checker," he noted. "There's a certain kind of writing you can't verify, though it makes very direct assertions about the culture." A figure like Dwight Macdonald--with tremendous intellectual antennae but little appetite for factual spadework--would be effectively shut out of our literary culture, Tanenhaus concluded.

Now the audience, which seemed a little restive at this auto-da-fe of factuality, began asking questions. And to nobody's surprise, the Frey Affair kept popping back up to the surface. One audience member asked whether the New York Times hadn't stoked the flames of the scandal by according it so much coverage. Tanenhaus replied: "I barely took an interest in this. I haven't read the book, and have no interest in reading it. I hardly even read our coverage of it."

But it was Harrison who drew the most memorable distinction between fiction and fact. Quizzed about the relationship between her autobiographical novel, Thicker Than Water, and The Kiss, a controversial memoir that came directly on its heels, she recalled: "I wrote the story of my family as a novel, and I did the best I could. But as soon as that novel was published, I felt that I had betrayed my material by saying, in effect, that incest didn't happen. I was propping up a societal lie. I was horrified." So she promptly produced a memoir telling the same story, minus the fictional trimmings and mussed trail that are every novelist's privilege. Here, at least, she seemed to be arguing that facts mattered a great deal after all--that the implicit contract between the memoirist and the reader was what gave The Kiss its revelatory firepower.

Not that Harrison's problems ended there. As another audience member pointed out, she was then pilloried for airing her family's dirty laundry without the face-saving mediation of fiction. "That's a testimony to the power of taboo," Harrison explained, with a trace of fatigue. "It's still alive and well out there."

UPDATE: William Logan won for The Undiscovered Country! As did E.L. Doctorow (The March), Svetlana Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl), Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (American Prometheus), Francine du Plessix Gray (Them), and Jack Gilbert (Refusing Heaven). Congratulations all around. For an extra soupcon of detail, you can read the AP dispatch here.

Seems like this was an interesting panel, although I share Harrison's fatigue with the issue. It's irreconcilable, ultimately, because good writing will always be good writing, and it will happily veto whatever rules panelists decide to enforce. That's why one comment Harrison made really stuck in my craw: "real memoir seeks to demythologize the subject." I recoil at any argument that depends on a claim to know the "real" nature of anything. As you pointed out earlier, James Frey's book was not well written. Not even close. Perhaps we could just agree on that & move on.
While I still have a satchel full of things to say about Frey's case...I'd like to use this paragraph to trumpet a glorious non sequitur instead: the announcement that today, Saturday, March 4, 2006, 11:38 a.m. C.E.T., my daughter LENA was born, sneering with forgiving bemusement at her hysterically grateful parents! You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming...
Many congratulations, Steve!
I just posted on this topic this morning ( and agree with Harrison and Brendan's fatigue, but this issue obviously isn't going away any time soon. Can't we just lump memoir into "creative nonfiction" and move on? Too simplistic?
And congratuations, Steve -- love the image of "hysterically grateful" parents. Great way to welcome her!
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