Saturday, January 21, 2006

One More Word About James Frey

One of the more tiresome journalistic forms is the diatribe that uses some current controversy as "proof" that the world is going to hell in a you-know-what. (By the way, what exactly is a "handbasket"? Is the word ever used in any other context? And why is it considered the ideal conveyance in which to transport a world to the nether regions? Just asking.)

The biggest problem I have with this type of story is that it seems to require practitioners to pretend that whatever is annoying them was invented at most fifteen minutes ago. The implication is that, when "we" were young (whenever that was) everything was just fine and the evils that beset us today were unheard-of. This is almost always false.

In connection with the James Frey mini-scandal, this piece from the Times illustrates the genre perfectly. Michiku Kakutani blames Frey's factual misstatements on Oprah Winfrey, reality television, the Me Generation, the culture of narcissism, deconstructionism, the New Journalism, Bill Clinton, and about a dozen other trends of the last twenty years. As a result of the undermining of objectivity by all of these deplorable cultural forces, the lines between fiction and non-fiction and between reality and unreality have been blurred as never before.

This kind of thing is so darned easy to write. But its logic falls apart as soon as you raise your eyes beyond the narrowest of time horizons. Is it really true that writers prior to 1980 were scrupulous about distinguishing fact from fiction? What about Daniel Defoe, whose Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was a fictional account published in the guise of an actual diary? What about Henry D. Thoreau, whose masterpiece Walden (1854) takes events that actually occurred over two years, conflates them into a single year, and introduces all sorts of factual distortions (such as pretending that the author was a solitary hermit when in fact he spent much of his time socializing with friends like Hawthone and the Alcotts)? What about practically any of the authors of classic autobiographies, from Henry Adams to Malcolm X, all of whom have kept generations of scholars hard at work trying to sort out historical fact from (often self-serving) fiction?

You can go back through the history of literature as far as you like without finding any starting point for the phenomenon of authors promiscuously mingling reality with fantasy. I don't recommend you try to learn Greek history from Homer or English history from Shakespeare--not if you care about factual accuracy. Throughout history authors have happily intermixed fact and fiction without ever having heard of postmodernism or seeing a single Oliver Stone movie.

(I was about to add, "If there is anything distinctive about the contemporary moment, it may be the opposite of Kakutani's point: We are obsessed with authenticity, which is what pushes a writer like Frey to sell his book on the basis of its factual accuracy rather than its literary qualities." But a fascination with the allegedly authentic isn't unique to our era, either. After all, Defoe dressed up his fictions--not only A Journal of the Plague Year but also Robinson Crusoe--in the appearance of non-fiction precisely because he figured it would boost sales. So even in that respect there are plenty of precedents for the Frey phenomenon.)

I suppose people generally write these hell-in-a-handbasket diatribes out of mental laziness. (I've probably done it myself.) But a funny sort of vanity is also a factor. As Robert Frost remarked, "It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God." The fact is that, ninety-eight percent of the time, the problems of today are far from unique--and far from unprecedented.

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