Monday, October 23, 2006

Failure of the Imagination

Lately I've been thinking off and on about literary scandals. This past year or so, there have been several. James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" was revealed to be highly fictionalized, though marketed as memoir. JT LeRoy's mysterious identity was unveiled to be a complete and utter lie altogether--"he" was a "she" and the woman who made public appearances as LeRoy wasn't even the woman who was actually writing the books under LeRoy's name. Then there was the upset over Kaavya Viswanathan's first novel, "How Opal Metha Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life" when it was discovered to have a great many passages of plagiarized material from other authors' novels making up parts of the book. There was a backlash on the authors and their publishers for all of these novels, and perhaps that backlash was deserved. I don't know for sure if it was, and really I don't think it's something I feel a need to judge. What I do sometimes feel about these events, beyond a "How Stupid Could You Be?" reaction to the authors and publishers who knew what they were doing was a straight up con job, is a deep disappointment also in the public readership, a readership that places so much emphasis on the importance of "real life" stories that it has affected the world of, for lack of a better word at the moment, commercial narratives in such a way that publishers and authors are fictionalizing identities to present to those readers in order to sell books.

Now of course you can take the noble road and choose not to go this way at all. Practice humble, honest representation and hope your book sells even if your private life isn't as interesting as the books you write. Really it should be about the books and not the author, but in a world where "Reality TV" has spread a viral need among consumers to believe what they are viewing or reading is "real", how can we be surprised when authors spend more time inventing themselves than their books? Even though representations of anything cannot truly be "real"--are forged in some way through the process of the imagination and an individual creator's shaping intelligence, changing any story in the process--whether the story occurred in the public world or in the private realm of the imagination alone, audiences clamor for authenticity, and that demand has created an interesting sphere in the world of books where an author's identity has taken a place of importance over the work they've created. There are plenty of examples of this that have occurred in the past--Hemingway is the author who most easily comes to mind--but never with such a scathing reprimand by the public for giving them what they want in the first place: someone whose story is larger than life. And when the illusion is discovered, you're now scourged publicly by Oprah on an international television show. It all feels a bit...oh, I don't know, carnivalesque.

I feel what happened in the case of Viswanathan's novel was more reprehensible than what took place in the LeRoy and Frey cases. In Viswanathan's case, it feels more like a failure of the imagination for her to have written a book and taken shortcuts through other author's language and character and plots rather than developing her own. There's been some speculation that she might have been influenced by individuals in her publishing company and guided, in some ways, to do this, and if that's the case, it's even sadder, because a young person who might have had a career doing something she wants to do was taken advantage of. I don't know what happened to cause her to make the choice to plagiarize, so that ends my take on her.

In the LeRoy and Frey cases, though, I wonder if the failure of the imagination isn't with the general reading populace. (I'm not saying *everybody*, of course, just a general trend sort of assessment). Here you have two authors who created alter egos under which their work was presented in order to sell their books. And it worked for a good amount of time, particularly in the case of LeRoy, who stayed out of the limelight as much as possible and made reclusivity part of his/her identity. Frey, on the other hand, was boastful and arrogant, which is always a sort of challenge that others will pick up in order to humble a braggart or poser. Despite how or why their alternate identities were defrauded, there still remains a question in my mind concerning the audience, the reading public. Weren't their books loved and adored by many before they were discovered to be fictionalized accounts? Why, afterwards, were they so publicly shamed for delivering stories that people enjoyed, whose lives in some cases were changed by their invented lives? Have we lost the ability to learn from our imaginations? When did fiction become substandard to "reality" books? Or should we call it "Reality Fiction" and at least put an acknowledgement of what's really occuring in the non-fiction section of the bookstore in more books than those by these authors? Why can't we admit that we seek a suspense of disbelief in every story we read? Why must those stories have "actually occurred" in the public world in order to have any credence? Aren't the lives we live in our imaginations as important? Don't those affect us just as well, and as powerfully? If a book like Frey's can change the lives of drug abusers and alcoholics, whether it's fiction or not shouldn't matter. If JT LeRoy is a person invented by American culture's mythologies, why can't he serve as a functional symbol as any "real" person might? People responded to these figures in the first place. Aren't we cutting ourselves off, then, if we retract any of the responses we had to them before we knew they'd been invented? That is the crux of the problem for me. Not whether or not I was lied to. I pick books up, both fiction and non-fiction, expecting to be lied to. Hopefully in a way that will be both entertaining and insightful, thought provoking at the very least. Why is the imagination considered substandard to the life that exists in front of our eyes every day?

I can't say I have any answers to what I'm thinking about here. I'm still thinking. But I do worry sometimes that the human imagination is atrophying in a particular way, that we have become "reality consumers" because we have no reality to our own lives anymore. Because perhaps just maybe the most human thing about us originally was our ability to imagine, to have an inner life that not only was affected by our outer lives but also aided us in shaping our outer lives. I consider that a characteristic that is perhaps more pragmatic than any other aspect of being human. If we can no longer acknowledge the reality and importance of the imagined, how will we eventually come to live in this world, which in the end is created by all of us, our cultures and social structures and even the daily routines of our small lives dictated and limited only by what we're able to conceive in our imaginations?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The biggest problem I had with Frey before he was revealed as a fraud was his insistence that addiction could be overcome by pure, individual willpower - that nothing else was necessary. It's something people want to believe and Frey presented himself as living evidence that it was possible. Only by being true could the book have that kind of power. Is there any recorded case of someone coming of drugs and alcohol and staying off because of Frey?

Years ago we talked about the anachronisms in JT LeRoy's stories, about how they seemed so old-fashioned for something supposedly written by a kid raised in truck stops in the Ozarks. I don't suppose much harm was done by the LeRoy hoax. I am surprised more critics didn't find ask more questions.


9:09 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I'm not sure how Frey was representing himself in public interviews as that--haven't come across them on my own, though it sounds like his style. And I haven't read the book itself, but I do have a student in one of my freshman writing classes who was a self-admitted addict, and after reading the book last summer entered into a rehabilitation program and is doing well and is a freshman in college now. However Frey himself presented coming off drugs under his own willpower, I think there will be people who can take the book simply as a testament to getting off of them period and do what they have to in order to change their own lives afterwards, like in the case of my student, who used the book's energy for what he needed to do.

Yes, the LeRoy hoax seems mostly harmless, but yeah, the anachronisms were really odd in that book, and I'm certainly surprised more critics didn't raise more questions either.

9:25 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Interesting take, Karen. In many ways what everyone is hooked on *is* the fiction of these characters who are posed as "real", which isn't necessarily contradicting what I'm saying, though. The main thing I'm discouraged by is that it has to be framed as "real" to begin with, and that anything otherwise isn't as valuable to us.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Fish Monkey said...

Let's not forget that Frey also plagiarized much better books by someone who knew about addiction better than Frey (Eddie Little). So Frey is more reprehensible that the rest (and the bits he did make up reveal a stunning failure of imagination.)

5:23 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I hadn't heard Frey also plagiarized. What is wrong with these people?! And yes, personally I don't find the narrative Frey related to be anything particularly stunning or even interesting on a basic level. I do worry over the public concern with authenticity though. Plagiarized material is easily understandable as being reprehensible, as I said in the case of Viswanathan (which I did know about obviously). But other than that, this almost frantic desire for authentic narrative (and here "authentic" meaning non-fiction basically) is just really a curious thing to me.

7:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leroy's books were fiction and always labeled/marketed as fiction.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Yes, those books were always labeled fiction, but were publicized as extremely closely related to his own life story. It was the persona people were caught up in more than the books for a long time really.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but the difference between Leroy and Frey remains important because of Leroy's stuff being fiction. The former is a hoax (and was a delicious if neurotic one) aimed primarily at various celebrity parasites and the publishing industry, the latter a tedious fraud aimed at the mass of readers.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I don't disagree, Nick. There is definitely that distinction between the two. I still think there's an element of "give me your life, not your fiction" when it comes to LeRoy, though. A sort of tailoring of personal identity to back up the fiction, so to speak.

actually, the woman who wrote the books was recently interviewed in the Paris Review and sounds like she should have just let her own identity be there, because she's in her own way just as fascinating in similar ways as LeRoy.

8:12 PM  
Blogger A.R.Yngve said...

Maybe the problem for most writers (and celebrities and other "Reality TV" participants) is that their REAL lifes aren't all that exciting.

What if you gave them your reality and everybody got bored? "I got up, got to work, then went home, ate dinner and wrote..." Yawn. Better spice that tale up with some sordid drugs, sex and rock'n-roll... ;-)

I tend to avoid "Reality TV" because it bores me and is so obviously not reality. But I can understand the craving to "live vicariously" -- after all, that's what much of entertainment is about.

I don't know if people have "imaginary inner lives" anymore -- it's a very personal thing to ask anyone, and it's no business of mine, anyway. But I hope they do. It has to be better than Reality TV...

7:31 AM  

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