26 February 2014

history's fools

I haven't had a good rant on the blog in a while. This one is going to be a little weirder than usual, because it's centred on a book I've only ever read the first five pages of.

As you may recall, when James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was released, there was a bit of a shitstorm over it. Oprah's Bookclub first endorsed it, then reversed and demanded an apology (although it seems there is still an OBC version around). What happened was that it eventually came out that it was not, as originally publicised, a non-fiction memoir, but a novel told as a memoir.

There was a brief period where some people were saying it was fiction, while others were still maintaining it was non-fiction (and Frey was trying to keep mum as to the real answer). A friend of mine bought the book, started reading it, and by the end of Chapter 1 was passionately telling anyone within earshot that the story had to be true. She mentioned she'd heard people criticising Frey for his weird use of grammar and word capitalisation, but she said that if you actually read the book, it was clear he was using his own, authentic voice, and anyone who thought otherwise was just hung up on conventions.

That's when I decided to take a look. I read the first five or so pages of my friend's copy, closed the book, and said, "It's definitely fiction."

"You're just prejudiced from the controversy and from what Oprah said..." my friend started to say.

"Nyuh uh," I said. "I know it's fiction because he's ripping off Daniel Defoe."

And it's always been pretty clear to me that's exactly what was going on. That "authentic voice" my friend fell in love with followed eighteenth-century conventions — that's why so many of the common nouns were capitalised. Defoe, of course, was a master of making an immediate first-person narrative read like a personal account, when really it was fiction shored up with a bit of research. After all, Defoe was a journalist as well as a novelist.

And the marketing? Defoe did the same thing, using pseudonyms and subterfuges to make his books appear to be non-fiction when they weren't, and then letting word-of-mouth do the rest. A Journal of the Plague Year was hailed as an authentic eyewitness account. Same thing with Moll Flanders. And yes, Defoe too had to endure uproars when it was revealed he'd gulled the reading classes yet again, but they kept reading him anyhow. Perhaps people in the eighteenth century were more cynical than we are, and didn't mind having the wool pulled over their eyes if they got some fun out of it.

Now, understand I'm no expert in eighteenth-century literature. I have a BA Hon in English Literature, no MA, certainly no PhD. I just happened to wind up taking both a full-credit course and a one-semester seminar in works from the eighteenth century, because I had to fulfil degree requirements and had run out of available options. To be totally honest, I wasn't expecting to enjoy either course, but I lucked out with excellent professors who presented great reading lists.

And that's why this bothers me so much. Yeah, I have a post-secondary education, but it's not a remarkable one. If I could figure out Frey's work was riffing on Defoe in five pages, at least one of Oprah's book evaluation people should have been able to. Maybe they did and just thought enough other people would as well (people with a strong voice about books, like book reviewers, journalists, and book club moderators). It really boggles me that so few supposedly well-read people were able to spot the reference. Go and Google, and you'll find a few mentions of the Defoe connection (I'm hardly the only person in the world to spot it), but it's swamped by the outrage. And the outrage has more authority than the style analysis.

I don't know if there's a direct connection, but it seems to me that after A Million Little Pieces is when publishers started tagging "a novel" on the cover of every fictional book. I hate that. It assumes the reader is gullible and stupid, yet somehow has the reading level to handle the language in the book. It assumes the reader is too proud to take a risk on a text.

There's a similar controversy brewing right now. I read on The Passive Voice blog that the creator of the @GSElevator Twitter account landed a book deal. The book is based on their supposed observations at Goldman Sachs, but now it's said that he's never actually worked there. Interestingly, even though this revelation is coming out in advance of the book's release this time, the publisher says they are going to go through with publishing the book. I'd like to think it's a sign we're ready to re-embrace what was taken for granted in the eighteenth century, but I suspect that the reasoning is closer to "any publicity is good publicity".

There were similar reactions when JK Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling was revealed to be by her and not the Robert Galbraith pen name (with accompanying fictional biography) she'd used. In that case, I even read several calls to charge Rowling with fraud. To me that's patently absurd. Even if you bought the Galbraith back story, the book was presented as a novel — not to be believed word-for-word.

Maybe it's time to remind people that the saying, "Don't believe what you read" was coined for a reason. Anything written, anything recorded in any fashion, is always filtered and distorted by the act of recording. This is not in itself a bad thing, but I believe a lack of awareness of the process — especially in the face of all this history — could be in itself dangerous.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff here. I wasn't aware of any controversy around this novel/fictional memoir, but haven't read it myself.

    The part about Oprah's evaluators is a good point. Lots of people will default to "I know this, everybody knows it" without stopping to consider education or (shall we say) the slant of one's favorite news site.

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    1. News slant is a great example of this. One of the previous publishers of the Toronto Star was notorious for stating that there was no such thing as journalistic objectivity (at a time when striving towards that was the norm) -- instead, he said that journalists and by extension newspapers should be up-front about their subjectivity.

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