Sunday, March 09, 2008

Truth, Lies and Fiction

Poor communications deter theft;
good communications promote theft;
perfect communications stop theft.


This aphorism appears at the head of the short story "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons", by Cordwainer Smith. If you haven't read it, get thee to Amazon and buy this book.

Smith attributes the aphorism to "Van Braam". Who was Van Braam? Perhaps he was a communications theorist with whose work Smith, in his non-authorial persona as communications and psychological warfare expert Paul Linebarger, was familiar. Or is the idea original with Smith-- in which case the name Van Braam is probably a multidimensional trilingual pun immediately obvious to someone who's read, well, everything. Smith readers may find the latter more likely. If anyone has any info on Van Braam, please let me know.

I bring it up in relation to the recent spate of news stories concerning autobiographies that have been revealed-- after publication-- to be mostly or entirely fictional. If you haven't been following this development, here are some of the high points:

James Frey, A Million Little Pieces: memoir of his recovery from drug/alcohol addiction. Outed by The Smoking Gun several years post-publication as follows (in part): "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw "wanted in three states."... demonstrably fabricated key parts of the book" Publisher Doubleday continued to print A Million Little Pieces, but with a disclaimer from them and a 3-page disclaimer from the author. A cash settlement was eventually offered to readers who felt they'd been defrauded.

Misha Defonseca (Monique de Wael), Misha: a Memoir of the Holocaust Years: in which the author claims to be Jewish, to have lost her parents in the Holocaust, and to have been sheltered from Nazis by a pack of wolves. This book was published in 1997; a number of early readers apparently called attention to factual errors and to the implausibility of the wolf scenario, but the fraud only became public knowledge a couple of weeks ago. Bizarrely enough the investigation that revealed the deception was instigated by the publisher, who was being sued by the author.

Margaret B. Jones (Margaret Seltzer), Love and Consequences: author claims to be half Native American and to have been raised in a Los Angeles slum among gang-bangers. Outed by her sister (I hate to think what the next Seltzer family Thanksgiving is going to be like) as a middle-class white girl from well-to-do Sherman Oaks. Publisher Riverhead (a Penguin subsidiary) is recalling the book.

What's this got to do with theft and commuincations? Well, it seems to me that the aphorism quoted above applies particularly well to fraud.

I've been reading an interesting biography titled The Last Alchemist, by Ian McCalman; it's about Count Cagliostro (one of the many names by which he called himself). Cagliostro was apparently one of the last of a decidedly peculiar breed: the Renaissance adventurer. Simply put, these folks (men and women; Cagliostro's wife Serafina was his partner in most of his schemes) were scammers. Often of peasant or urban-poor origins, they traveled Europe posing as members of whatever social class they deemed appropriate. They posed as religious pilgrims to attract charity and take advantage of free lodgings. They posed as members of the rising middle-class to run various financial swindles. They posed as impoverished scions of noble houses to carry out schemes related to inheritances-- the original 409 scam.

One of the things that made their success possible was the state of communications in Europe (including England) at that time. Communications were good enough that a person could reasonably claim to have knowledge of recent but distant events (such as the death of a wealthy relative, the discovery of a fabulous silver mine, etc. etc.), but poor enough that the mark couldn't reasonably seek independent verification. Also, travel was easy enough that these wandering swindlers could easily escape the consequences when they were found out, but diffcult enough that it wasn't usually worth the victim's trouble to try to have them apprehended and returned to the scene of the crime.

But communications were steadily improving all over Europe, and this turned out to be crucial in Cagliostro's life. Eventually his past caught up with him. He died in prison in 1795, after suffering a series of devastating revelations about his history at the hands of a French journalist living in London. (I recommend this book. The section about Marie Antoinette and the diamond necklace alone is worth the cover price.)

Consider: In an era before mass-market publishing, it wouldn't have been worth the effort to publish a fabricated memoir such as the above, because there would have been no money in it (although Cagliostro and his ilk certainly constructed autobiographies at need. One feels they would have regarded contemporary attempts as rather amateurish). Currently, there is at least potential money in such a piece of fraud (especially if it constitutes what's known in the trade as a "misery memoir"), but the risk of exposure seems to be on the rise. More and more, the facts with which to discredit a faked autobiography are no further away than Google.

Frey's exposure relied heavily on public-record sources. Had Seltzer managed to muzzle her sister (really, if you were going to publish completely nonfactual accounts of your early life, wouldn't you at least discuss it with your living siblings?), she still might have had to face challenges over easily checkable aspects of her story-- like, school or employment records showing her ethnicity, or the fact that she didn't graduate from the University of Oregon as she claimed. De Wael's account, located in wartime Europe, proved more difficult to fact-check, but ultimately a genealogical researcher discovered, again, public records that gave the lie to her account.

In the wake of the Frey affair, there was a certain amount of apologia around the difficulty of writing "accurate" autobiography. When all's said and done, autobiography relies on the author's memory and memory is notoriously inconsistent and unreliable. One online essay states: "...there is an improper assumption running through almost all the essays. That assumption is that you can get it more or less right the first time around. These essays err because they think that your first attempt at telling your life's story can actually say not only what you want to say but something that actually is true about your life." (emphasis original)

Yes, truthfulness in autobiography can't be absolute. It's a matter of degree. But saying that does not imply that all degrees are equally OK. If anything, the reverse: Saying "it's a matter of degree" calls on us to exercise critical judgment, to create some sort of scale or criteria by which we can evaluate the relative truthfulness of narratives. Misremembered the exact wording of a conversation? No biggie. Picked the interpretation you thought was more favorable to you and your position? We've all done that. Made up a conversation that more or less recapitulates something you remember happening, but that showcases an eloquence you never really possessed? Starting to damage your credibility.

The fake autobiographies above are way, way out beyond all that.

From what I've seen online, Frey's may actually be the most truthful of the three. That is to say, there are bits of truth mixed in with the lies. There really was an accident that killed two high-school girls in his home town, though he had nothing to do with it. He did go to jail, but only for two hours versus the 87-day stay detailed in his book. A woman he'd broken up with did commit suicide, although he lied about the method-- and probably the reasons, in so far as anyone can know what they were. It seems likely that he did rehab at the Hazelden rehab center, but the details of his time there are apparently completely false. (They can't confirm or deny that he was there, for reasons of confidentiality.) Frey also is the only one of the three who doesn't pretend to an ethnic identity that isn't his.

The sad thing, of course, is that these books could have been marketed as fiction. Or could they?

By most accounts, Love and Consequences is a gripping read. It's easy to imagine it as a novel "based on real events". It could have stood as a literary indictment of gang culture and the indifference of civic authority-- or something like that. Of course, one can question the ability and the right of someone from a well-off white family, who's done some work with anti-gang-violence groups, to represent the experience of someone raised among the LA Bloods. I dunno. I have a hard enough time representing the experiences of people I make up.

Misha is equally troublesome. It sounds like it has all the elements of a terrific fantasy novel somewhat in the vein of Pan's Labyrinth: an orphan girl on an epic journey of survival and escape, confronting forces of good, evil, and nature... oh, yeah. But. Is it OK for a non-Jewish author to write fiction about being a Holocaust survivor? In the presence of so many narratives, both fictional and autobiographical, by actual survivors? Well... what if she'd made the main character not Jewish? The moral authority of an innocent isn't limited to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, after all. De Wael's real story-- her parents were executed as members of the Belgian Resistance-- would have made a perfectly good launching pad for a novel.

I'm guessing Frey's book wouldn't have made it as fiction. (Reportedly it was rejected-- as fiction-- by a couple of publishers before Frey sold it as a memoir.) It's hard to get a clear opinion of its readability through the cloud of (well-deserved) condemnation that arose after The Smoking Gun's expose and Frey's on-air drubbing by Oprah (say this for her, she didn't flinch at admitting she'd been wrong). But it's pretty clear that the appeal of the book rested mostly on the fact that people believed it was true. As memoir, the recovery story is powerful because it gives people hope: if Frey could climb back from the blood-vomiting twitching wreck he claims to have been, then it should be possible for anyone. As fiction, is it fun to read? No? Circular file.

The essential transaction of fiction is an agreement between storyteller and audience that what follows will be a story, that it will probably not be true in any factual sense. (Not that the line is always completely clear-- fictionalized autobiography and "mockumentaries" are among the more pernicious line-crossers of the modern age.)

or so I wrote about a year and a half ago, before I had any notions of becoming a fiction writer myself. (This was part of a longer essay on poetry and creative writing.)

Fake autobiographies are not true. That does not make them fiction. The agreement isn't there; Frey, Seltzer and de Wael did not have the courtesy to inform us, their readers, that what they had written was a story. Good story, bad story, doesn't matter. They lied to us.

Fiction is composed of things that are not true, yet are not lies. The days are past when a storyteller would announce the approach of a story with a ritual phrase such as "Once upon a time..." or "Hadithi, hadithi!" (Swahili: "Story, story!" eliciting the traditional response from the audience "Hadithi, njoo!" "Story, come!") Nowadays you have to rely on publishers and bookstores to get things in the right place. I hope someday you'll find my novel on the sci-fi/fantasy shelf at Powell's, where you will not pick it up with the expectation of reading true facts about my life. But if by some terrible miscommunication it gets shelved in the wrong place (travelogue? anthropology? history?) I will have lied to you through no fault of my own.

Collection available! Knocking from Inside

1 comment:

Gladys said...

What a shame that the Rosenblats lied about their story. I wish Oprah would publicize only checked-out true stories from now on forward.

I read about a genuine Holocaust love story in the NY Times recently and it's better than the Rosenblats anyway. Stan Lee and Neal Adams the famous comic book artists were publicizing the story of Dina Gottliebova Babbitt. I checked and I'm surprised there's no book on this yet. It's a great story! It also appears to be all true, thankfully.

Dina Gottliebova Babbitt who was a 19 year old art student at Auschwitz. There she painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the wall of the children's barracks to cheer them up. Dina's art became her salvation and helped her find true love!

Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death, found out about the mural Dina painted and called for her. She thought she was going to be gassed, but she bravely stood up to Mengele and he decided to make her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

After the war, Dina interviewed for a job as an animator based on the art she did in Auschwitz and the person interviewing her turned out to be the man who created Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs for the movie. They fell in love and got married. Show White saved Dina's life twice! I love this story!