Tuesday, March 11, 2008

And then he put a gun into my mouth and I

My new novel, Bleeding Kansas, purports to be set in the part of Kansas where I grew up. I've provided photographs of"my childhood home"and of me with my "brothers." The truth is, I was raised by space aliens, who assumed human form only during the day; at night they committed such bizarre and unusual acts that even fiction, let alone the memoir could not do them justice. I thought it would be more credible to create a middle-America background.

The fake memoir is not new, but it is a compelling part of the contemporary cultural landscape. The most recent to be unmasked: Margaret Jones, who traded her affluent LA upbringing in for a childhood spent among the gangs in South Central LA (Love and Consequences, Riverhead). Kakutani herself reviewed it glowingly in the Times two weeks ago, although she said "...some of the scenes she has recreated from her youth (which are told in colorful, streetwise argot) can feel self-consciously novelistic at times." Turns out, because they were a novel. (the review was so glowing that Jones's real-life sister outed her. Talk about sibling rivalry. Fortunately my birth family are still on the planet Zorg, no danger there.)

And then there's the Belgian, Misha Defonseca, whose harrowing memoir of the Shoah includes being raised by wolves in the French forest--translated into 18 languages, made into a French film.

James Frey seems pretty benign compared to Defonseca's abrogation of one of the most dehumanizing, suffocating episodes in human history.

I used to think writing was the process of turning emotional experience into stories so that you could make sense of it, and perhaps help others to make sense of their own lives. But it almost seems as though we are so remote now from real experience that we prefer the ersatz, we need it to be shocking--let there be lots of rape, crack, prison guards, let's get down into it with both hands and cover ourselves in it. And then walk away to the next faux thrill. I'm not putting this very well; it isn't quite clear to me. But what happened to traveling much in Concord?

21 comments:

spyscribbler said...

If I understand you correctly, then I would respond by saying that it's not so much that we need faux thrills. It's that we're desensitized.

A couple hundred years ago, "A" was tuned to 415 vibrations per second. When audience's ears were adjusted to that, performers would adjust their tuning to just a few notches above that to get a brighter, more brilliant and exciting sound.

But then pretty soon, that got to be normal, so performers would adjust again. Over the years, A kept moving up, and now it's standardized at 440.

Now that we're accustomed to that, some orchestras and choirs aim for 442 - 446 to get that sweeter, brighter, and more brilliant edge.

My theory is, that fiction is the same way. What got our interest a few years ago is standard now. Now we're accustomed to every book opening with a gun. So now, in order to stand out, we need to take it up a notch, add in more gore, more shock, bigger everything in order to get that more brilliant edge for the audience and reader.

I don't know what that means for the future, but before things were set at 415, they'd gotten out of control (up in the 600s, even!). The Classical period was all about scaling back, at first. Maybe, after we go wild, we're heading into a Classical period in fiction. Within the next hundred years, I mean. :-)

Wilfred the Author said...

Good points Spyscribbler. I equate that to our fascination with extreme sports. Always setting the bar higher.

I used to play gof to take my mind off of work (day job stuff). That doesn't work anymore. In order to get my mind off work, I have to be standing on a mountain with a pair of skies strapped to my feet or submerged in the ocean with scuba gear strapped on. When those two activities don't do it for me, then, I guess I'll be jumping from airplanes.

I travel to China often and even though I say I've seen everything, there is always something on my trips that has me shaking my head in disbelief.

In the memoir era, it takes more shocking stories to catch our attention. Therefore it set up an environment on embellishment.

Pete said...

I haven't read Defonseca's book, but couldn't help noticing the repeated online "raised by wolves" references. Has anybody read the book? Did the writer REALLY claim to have been raised by wolves? If so, shouldn't this have been the mother of all red flags to the editors that maybe, just maybe, some thorough fact-checking needed to be done? At least Frey's whoppers mostly involved being drunk and stoned and resisting arrest - believable stuff, none of it remarkably different than what you'd find in the typical rockstar memoir. But raised by wolves? The fact that no editor called the writer on this premise is almost as unbelievable as the premise itself.

R.J. Mangahas said...

Sara,
when I blogged about this, the comment I got back was from someone who had lost their son to gang violence. The boy was only nine and was caught in a gang cross fire. Obviously this person was upset with Jones's/Seltzer's faux memoir simply because of the fact that her only experience with gangs was volunteer work for an anti-gang outreach.

As Pete pointed out, at least with James Frey, it was isolated to his own life. According to one article, Seltzer got a lot of her material from some of people involved in the anti gang outreach and used them as her own. Which is clearly why the parent who told me about their son was so upset with Seltzer's book.

Spysribbler,
not only have we as a society become desensitized when it comes to fiction, but more so in real life. When you look at a lot the reality shows, some are just bad by premise alone, but there are others that are seemingly designed to humiliate people publicly.

spyscribbler said...

Good point, R.J. I can't bear to watch those. Actually, I could sooner watch guts and gore than watch public humiliation. I don't know why.

Sara Paretsky said...

Thanks for all the comments. I think you're right that we've gotten desensitized and are looking for every greater sensations--but I also think t here's some way in w hich we've removed ourselves from sensation--it's all a game--it's all on the screen-. I was meeting with a Lebanese woman last fall and she was expressing some of the horror of living through war--hoping to persuade me that we s houldn't widen the war in teh middle east by attacking Iran, which if it were in my power of course we wouldn't--but all the time she was recounting the horrors she'd experienced we both were sipping away at some lovely French burgundy. Shocking. sip, sip. It somehow highlighted the point I'm trying to make.

But the other point is R J's==it's one thing to take the horror and try to weave story around it. Maybe you're a bit of a vampire on someone else's experience, but you're not pretending to steal it from them. But to claim that horror--if I pretended to be a Lebanese survivor of Israeli and Syrian invasions and Hamas bombs--it reifies the person who actually had to endure the reality. That's why I agree that Frey was venial--a good con artist--but people like Jones and Defonseca are committing mortal sins.

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