January 29, 2006

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>Why We Read and Write and Lie About the Misery Memoir
Tim Adams of The Observer was riding the subway in London and saw a woman reading the misery memoir entitled A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer. The book chronicles the “abuse, starvation, and tortured [the author suffered] at the hands of his mother.” Adams asks, “What is the attraction of reading endlessly about child torture?” In light of the Frey and JT LeRoy issue, few people have asked why we read these books, each seemingly attempting to outdo the other in terms of perdition and salvation.

Ron Hogan, editor for the blog Beatrice.com, asked John Falk to write about memoir writing. Falk’s publisher recently released his Hello to All That. He writes, “If you’re honest, you let the facts drive the story, even if it seems to be taking one off course.” That could be the advise for publishers as well. According to Timothy Noah for Slate, Nan Talese—the publisher of A Million Little Pieces and the wife of Gay Talese—had “reason to believe Frey hadn’t told the truth in his memoir well before” the Smoking Gun article appeared. Why? In 2003, Deborah Caulfield Rybak published a piece in the Minneapolis Star Turbine that noted the lies.

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January 29, 2006

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Retracing Toucqueville
It’s a bit arrogant. It’s a bit risky. Two characteristics frequently found in the French writer/philosopher/critic Bernard-Henri Levy. In what a New York Times review calls “spatter-paint prose,” Levy traveled around America at the request of Atlantic Monthly. He wrote American Vertigo: Travel America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. In Slate, Alan Wolfe writes a memo to Franklin Foer about Levy’s book—not once but twice.

The Frey Affair Continues
Yesterday Oprah expressed shock and dismal that James Frey lied in his memoir titled A Million Little Pieces. Finding her outrage genuine even in light of her defense of him, Frey claimed that rather than being introspective, he became trapped in some type of strong-guy image that blurred the truth. Scorned by the pretense of truth (oh my God as if the press was just reporting on the subject), Oprah tossed the strong-guy from her book club. Financially, a punishment. Literarily, a nothing. Then Jerry Stahl in LAWeekly trips along in his hyperpowered adjectival prose and defends lying as innovation: “Sure, James Frey could have stuck to the facts. It would have been easy. But an innovator doesn’t take the easy way. He innovates…we are a people grown fat on fabrication. The truth is just another artifical flavor, with JT and James just the latest in a long line of celebrity chefs.” Reading the essay, I wondered and wondered and wondered with each passing kinetic sentence if Stahl was mocking Frey or supporting him.

Frey and JT’s failings matter little in the grand scene. But to dis truth and veracity, as Stahl does—without any evident sarcasm? Borders on the mindless, trivializing the directions and strides writers—luminaries and dullards alike—have taken during the past century. Stahl then stumbles on his own shifting standards of logic and rhetoric. To support his points he feels so compelled to make, he incorporates vignettes from his sober life. Do I believe him? Why should I? He has already said that lying is a virtue if it elevates art—as if anything could elevate art. And if I don’t, his statement loses its rhetorical credibility and the logic of his presentation crumbles on the non-truth. Veracity is not a matter of virtue or morality in writing. Veracity is a matter of credibility with the reader—which is based on expectations of the reader. It’s damn simple logic.

Crap—if the memoirist can make up stuff for the pursuit of his insightful innovative approach to the narrative arch (BS), then why can’t the biographer or literary critic plagiarize, as noted by Scott McLemee in “Stolen Words” for insidehighered.com: “When you learn than most of Coleridge’s prose writings were also copied from other writers…then it seems that something very odd is going on. And the more you love his poetry, the harder it is to know what to think of his kleptomania. Shoud you be indignant? Or just perplexed?” Heck, why the hell did I bother with the twirling quotation marks? Why give credit to McLemee or the Web site? There’s a damn practical answer. With the lose of credit and possible fame, individuals would share the work less freely.

Like most moral objectives, veracity rests on more than simple right and wrong. Its righteousness stems from the benefits it provides the community in its entirety.

Grammar Freak in Denial
“The worst word. The worst noise. The screech of Flo-Jo’s fingernails down the biggest blackboard in the world…the cry of a baby when you’re hungover, is ‘beverage’,” writes Jeremy Clarkson about the universal word of the travel and hotel industries in The [London] Times.

B&N Starts New Reading Groups
Bookstore giant Barnes and Noble is starting a new series of reading groups, some lead by the books authors. For details go to this site.

January 29, 2006

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Public Space Coming to Your Newsstands/News from its “Forerunner”–Paris Review
You don’t go to newsstands any longer. Yeah. A new publication should send you returning: Public Space. Founded by a former editor with the Paris Review, which decided to cut back on fiction, Brigid Hughes wanted to “make fiction and poetry the stars of a new conversation.” In its forum called “If You See Something, Say Something,” writers sound off about current events. This month, Rick Moody writes “Inspired by a True Story: Rick Moody on James Frey and J.T. Leroy.” Public Space recognizes that the electronic age is upon the writing field, providing readers or wanna-to-be readers with email announcements and access to some of the issue’s work. Review teases the reader with portions of articles, such as an interview with Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. The interview forms a piece of the expanding “Art of Fiction” series that the publication has run for years. A reader can download in a PDF format interviews with such writers as Robert Penn Warren.

News about James Frey and A Million Little Pieces
Who gives a damn at this point? Everyone has an opinion, everyone ignores the simplicity of rhetoric’s rules, behaving like schoolchildren. The episode is like watching puss grow on an open wound. If you must continue to watch this brouhaha unfold, read Edward Wyatt’s New York Times piece that answers the question: What of Frey’s literary agent and the book’s editor?

The Drama in Drama
Howard Brenton scandalized British theater a quarter of a century ago with the staging of The Roman in Britain. Producers are reviving the play, and in The Guardian, Brenton writes about the Eighties, imperialism, and Mary Whitehouse.

Across the pond (a rather boring cliché) in New York, the New York Times (Sunday edition) reports that director Edward Einhorn is suing playwright Nancy McClernan and producer Jonathan Flagg. Einhorn is not suing because McClernan and Flagg fired him as director of Tam Lin. He is suing because they are using his “copyrighted” directorial intellectual property. In an article of the same edition, written by Dave Itzkoff, award-winning screenwriter and playwright David Mamet, a graduate of my alma mater, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, sounds off about working on a television show.

He Writes without Writing
The renowned philosopher—some say the greatest philosopher in several generations—Saul Kripke does not write per se. He reads, he thinks, then he lectures. Someone records his lectures, he edits them, and he edits them. Should you want to become verdant with envy, see Charles McGarth’s New York Times article “Philosopher, 65, Lectures Not about ‘What Am I?’ but ‘What is I?’