Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Inspiring Story of My Miserable Life

One of the more pathetic bits of fallout from the James Frey brouhaha was a viewer email I spotted on one of the cable news shows (Anderson Cooper I think). It read something like this:

The real tragedy of the Frey scandal is that publishers will be discouraged from publishing honest memoirs by people with truly important stories to tell. My son is a recovering drug addict and he has written . . .

I lost my focus at that point. As anyone who has ever spent a couple of hours scanning the "slush pile" (unsolicited submissions) of a publishing house can tell you, there is no end to the number of people who have written / are writing / plan to write / dream of writing their stories of recovery from drug addiction / child abuse / alcoholism / bankruptcy / marital violence / schizophrenia / nymphomania / uncontrolled gambling . . . As you might guess, 99.4 percent of the resulting manuscripts are semi-literate, cliche-ridden, boring, and (I suspect) not fully truthful. They get the amount of attention they deserve from the unfortunate editorial underlings whose job it is to wade through the flood of over-the-transom proposals--namely, about ten seconds apiece. (Well, the ones about nymphomania probably get a couple of minutes more.)

I guess James Frey has done all these people a favor. They (and their mothers) can now go to their graves convinced that their unpublished manuscripts would have been best-sellers that changed the lives of millions if only that S.O.B. Frey hadn't soured the publishers on memoirs. It's yet another way in which an unfeeling world has screwed them! (Based on the cover letters I've read, half of them believe that their story has been suppressed because of pressure from the CIA, the American Psychiatric Association, or the Catholic Church.)

I don't mean to make fun of these would-be authors. (Well, just a little.) Writing one's life story is probably a natural human instinct and certainly one of the most harmless pastimes imaginable. Their friends and families might even find the books that result interesting and inspiring. So more power to them.

If the phenomenon of the spill-your-guts memoir is of any interest, it's primarily because of the things it tells us about America today:

1. The idea that being mentally disturbed or a criminal is something to be ashamed of and hidden is in rapid retreat, thanks (I imagine) to Oprah and her lesser compatriots. This must be a good thing--not necessarily for the world of literature, but for people's psychological and emotional health. I imagine that talking about your problems increases the chances you'll get the help you need.

2. Those who still regard their disordered lives as a stigma ought to disabuse themselves of the suspicion that every other family is as happy and "normal" as they appear. They're not. Both life experience and the testimony of the slush pile make it clear that every family has experienced trauma and tragedy--suicide, addiction, violence, crime, etc. etc. So if you've been going around feeling embarrassed and guilty about some family secret, give it up already and join the rest of us who have accepted the fact that practically everybody is either seriously screwed up or loves someone who is.

3. Most discouragingly for book publishers: The number of people who want to write books is probably greater than the number who actually read books. We're largely a nation of Pete Rose wannabes. (After Rose's second ghost-written autobiography was published, a sportswriter quipped, "Pete has written more books than he's read.") Which is one reason why some publishers don't even look at unsolicited manuscripts or proposals any longer (unless submitted through a recognized literary agent).

I think there's an idea for a reality TV show here: Slush Pile, featuring a panel of editors sifting hundreds of wretched proposals in search of one with a glimmer of craft and originality. Obviously we'll need a Simon Cowell-type who can come up with fresh and witty ways to eviscerate (and generate audience sympathy for) the poor hopefuls whose efforts fall short. It's a clever concept and I'd submit it to one of the networks if not for the fact that their slush piles are even deeper and more hopeless than the ones at the book publishers.

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