February 12, 2006

Technorati Profile

BlogLogo4.jpgBackground about
the Muhammad Cartoon

In today’s New York Times, several writers analyze the different dimensions surrounding the vitriol reactions to the 12 Muhammad cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten this past September: Dan Bilefsky writes about the Danish identity crisis; Michael Slackman reviews the rage smoldering in Arab nations against their own leaders; Emran Qureshi analyzes the Islam drowned out by the riots; Stanley Fish discusses the Western liberal tradition in regards to freedom of expression; and Martin Burcharth confesses to the rise of Danish xenophobia. (You can read an update in the Beirut’s The Daily Star or The Nation.)

Regardless of the growing xenophobia and racism in Europe (against any non-native in various countries) and the bile of extremist imams, freedom of expression is the central issue. We need to ensure that we safeguard the rights not of those with whom we agree but of those with whom we think are the most spiteful individuals on Earth. It takes no courage or conviction to allow those with whom we agree to speak. The true test of democracy and freedom of expression comes when we allow the acrimonious to speak—hoping that their words will reveal them as the fools they are.

Memoir Versus Memoir;
Memoir Versus Fiction

Aside from discussing Stephen King in yesterday’s “TBR: Inside the List,” Dwight Garner notes that the New York Times is still listing James Frey’s Million Little Pieces on the non-fiction column of the paperback best-seller list. For all the controversy that the book caused, one might presume that sales for Pieces would have declined. Not so. It’s number two behind Eli Wiesel’s Night. Having gained a reputation for writing a non-memoir memoir, one might guess that his second memoir tagged with the same caveat that he gave Pieces would flop. It sits at number four on the hardcover best-sellers list. It does give a writer cause to wonder about readers.

On the Times Op-Ed page, novelist Julia Glass wondered: “Why do readers suddenly seem to prefer the so-called truth to fiction? It’s a foregone conclusion that memoirs now sell better than novels, that magazines are giving short stories the shaft. Has fiction become a dirty word?”

I hate stupid questions. Non-fiction, especially non-fiction told in a dramatic fashion, has always outsold fiction. The preference is not sudden. For the last three decades of the 19th century, hacks cranked out Westerns that supposedly reported about the advertures of the men and, more rarely, the women blazing the trails of the American West. It was the dime novel industry.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that “magazines are giving short stories the shaft.” They gave short stories the shaft decades ago. Publications such as Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, and Harpers had at least two short stories an issue when I was a boy. Most women’s publications had at least one short story. Today Harpers none, Atlantic one, and Esquire maybe one. The women’s magazines—zippo. Even the revered Paris Review is cutting back on fiction. Why? The hey-day of short stories started with the magazine—a late 19th century invention—before the television. It was an inexpensive source of news and entertainment. Long ago, television replaced that role, which explains why most magazines resort to how-to articles about everything from finances to sexuality.

The final question: Has fiction become a dirty word? For some, yes, and it is not new. Laurence Sterne starts The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy as if it a factual accounting. I believe that the attraction of non-fiction lies in practicality: I can learn a fact when I read this particular type of book. The reader can learn from fiction but it requires effort and the lesson usually comes more painfully to the character and the reader, giving it purity or clarity that a writer cannot achieved when he/she recounts, analyzes, fudges, makes composites, and inevitably rationalizes the behavior of his/her life to create a memoir, which is told in the more unreliable of voice–first person.


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