Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bohemian Like You

I've been working on a heartbreaking post of staggering genius for about a week now, and while I hope to finish it soon, I hate neglecting this thing with some of the shorter ideas I've been having. I've abandoned a couple of topics (why all networks should explore the shows-on-demand option, and how disappointed I was that I didn't like Brokeback Mountain, even though I was so excited about the idea of it) because I felt like I didn't have enough of quality to say, or that after the moment was gone I wasn't fired up enough to pour the requisite amount of passion into the essay to make it interesting. Throw that mix into the general busy-ness of life, and you wind up neglecting things.

I'm also worried I'm in slightly blocked due to the nervousness tied to my upcoming reading, March 5 at Barbes. Whenever I'm about to put my work on display like that, I'm always filled with the looming dread that THIS will truly be the moment I discover that I'm really not all that good. Paranoia strikes deep, I suppose.

And the only way to combat it is by writing, even about things of minor importance. I pass by a branch of the upscale stationary store Papyrus whenever I exit the subway, and I noticed this morning that they had a display for their new "Bohemian Collection." By this, they were not referring to the region of what is now the Czech Republic, but the hazy idea of, as defined it, "A person with artistic or literary interests who disregards conventional standards of behavior." Now, what a person who disregards conventional standards of behavior would be doing in a stationary store is beyond me, but perhaps their rejection of what makes a bohemian a bohemian to others is what truly makes them a bohemian (if one wanted to be rather Gertrude Stein about it, anyway). The woman in their advert was dressed in a peasant top,paisley head scarf and a lot of jewelry, representing their idea of what sort of Bohemian would want to buy their wrapping paper (attention: Urban Outfitters shoppers!). Even though I liked the patterns and bright colors they used, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at this.

When I was in Albany, I was lucky enough to take a great class (Eng 350 if you're playing the home game) with Steve North (one of my 4 favorite professors at U of A, a lauded group that includes William Rainbolt, Judy Barlow and of course, the incomprable Jill Hanifan) in which we studied the nature of the writer in the world. I know it sounds rather navel-gazing, but it was actually interesting to pay attention to how various types of media come together to create this representation of what most people consider to be an 'average' writer, however truthful it may or may not be. I found it utterly fascinating, but since then I've gotten rather itchy about certain generalizations having to do with us creative types. We're not all bouncing about in billowing shirts with pan flutes and drums, some of us have normal jobs, eat meat and like watching tv.

Somewhere along the way it became an accepted belief to view a writer as hermit with a cat who wears baggy sweaters and does nothing but write (or complain about how they can't write) all day. I wish I could spend my days writing, but as I have no trust fund or other source of independent wealth, and need to work. I love cats (but am allergic), and I have a rather active social life. And what kills me, is that ouside of Emily Dickenson, most writers throughout history have as well. In the 1920s, writers (especially poets) were like rock stars - partying, drinking, smoking, sleeping around (ah, those were the days!) I'm not sure how it went from Jazz Age glamour to the modern frump, but I'd prefer the former if I can get it.

What I object to the most is the idea of being a creative, free spirit is being packaged and marketed, particularly to those fascinated by the idea of being an artistic person but have no real ability to do so. Sure, there's nothing wrong with being creative, but at some point you have to have a converstaion with yourself about how far you think this is going to go - and how much of what you produce should be shared with (or inflicted upon) others. If you have a story to tell, or a painting to paint, or picture to take, go for it, I'm not telling people that they shouldn't express themselves. What bothers me is when the bored take up my passion as a hobby or a means to get-rich-quick (because clearly every big publisher in the world is standing on 5th avenue handing out 6-figure book deals.) It cheapens what I and others do because we're passionate about it, and have that fire inside of us that really is only tamed by writing something, even if it is just a blog entry.

My friend Tracey (an unpublished novelist in her own right, and a good one) helped me put my finger on this recently. The rather unique personal style that she took such care and pride in crafting had become trendy, and while she was partially excited to see her look in fashion, she was annoyed at how all these Janey-come-latelys could walk into a Forever 21 and put together an outfit in ten minutes similar to ones that it had taken her years to build. I know some of you don't give a rat's ass about clothing, but I got how she felt. She'd busted her ass to create something out of the air, something that represented who she was, only to be copied by a brain dead mallrat following whatever Seventeen told her to do that week. All of her creative efforts were lost to the trend, albeit temporarily. Still, she found a silver lining - it was easy for Tracey to find all of her favorite things once the trendies had moved on, and her look went on sale, and happily back to obscurity.

I know marketing is seldom about truth, but it feels like they're not even trying anymore. Everything is so referential it's as though we as a creative society are not trying to come up with new ideas and words to describe things. And as someone who values words above everything, that's bothersome.

The thing that amuses me the most about both this stationary collection and my little tirade is that I may actually be a Bohemian. My paternal grandmother's family is from the Czech Republic. We're not exactly sure where the village was, but it could have very well been in the Bohemia range. I wonder if that means I get a discount?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Such a Lonely Word

A Million Little Pieces, the formerly Oprah-endorsed bestseller and literary scandal du jour, seems to have divided the interested parties into two camps: those who are shouting for James Frey’s head on a platter and those who are making excuses for him. I realize that this subject has been beaten to death by now, and while the brouhaha was cresting I mostly buried my head into the wonderful book of intentional fiction that I was reading at the time and pretty much ignored things (save a snarky, schadenfreudic snippet on Gawker). I almost pitied Frey, the way you pity anyone caught in a major lie and was now watching their carefully constructed world crash down around their ears. It’s similar to the cringe of watching someone mouth off and then get kicked in the face for it – while we acknowledge that the kick had to hurt, the loudmouth did kind of ask for it.

Frey has been getting kicked in the face a lot lately, as has his editor at Random House, Nan Talese. Everyone is looking to pass the blame off on someone else. Fingers are being shaken at the decision to publish the book as a memoir rather than fiction; hands are being wrung over the lies (the lies!) that were told; and everyone agrees that something is very wrong indeed (even though that no one can quite decide what).

As I said before, I haven’t read A Million Little Pieces. After hearing a brief summation of its general plotline I discovered I really wasn’t all that interested. I had a long backlog of books I was more excited about reading, and never saw fit to pick that one up. I don’t feel annoyed that my time was wasted by Frey, who was trying to tell his story and get people to pay attention to it, same as any writer wants to do. He’s not the first to claim a book or story that he wrote as truth and then have others reveal it to be otherwise, and I sincerely doubt that he’ll be the last. What’s bothering me more than the fact that Frey made up significant parts of his supposedly true-life story is the fact that there are those who are standing behind him and saying that it’s all completely okay, most notably in this editorial by Publisher’s Weekly’s Sara Nelson. I don’t think it is. Ms. Nelson takes the position that what Frey has done falls under the umbrella of creative nonfiction, and that it was necessary for him to fudge a few details in order to make the book more exciting. She wonders if those duped by Frey would have bought an “earnest, footnoted academic treatise on alcoholism,” and doubts that it should really matter to anyone who was moved or helped by Frey’s supposedly true story whether the author had been incarcerated for three months or three years – he was still in jail, right? She writes: “[Frey] didn't write front-page newspaper profiles of people he'd never talked to—and he never claimed that Pieces was supposed to be All the Presidents' Men.” In other words, Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair should be blamed for claiming false things to be the truth, but not James Frey. I suppose that in Ms. Nelson’s eyes, nonfiction books have a lower integrity threshold than newspaper articles, or that simply adding the caveat that his memoir (which is defined as an account of the experiences of the author) was merely based on a true story, rather than actually being a true story would make everything just fine. Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of a personal account? Sure, I could understand saying you saw one movie when you’d really gone to see another, or remembering someone as wearing red when they were really in blue – that’s not the issue here. The issue is whether or not Frey should be held accountable for trying to pass this off as total truth, and I believe that he should be.

I was in the Journalism program at my college. I loved it. There’s very little about journalistic writing that can’t be applied to fictional writing; the five W’s and the H will get you far if you apply them correctly to what you’re doing. Further, the other classes I took about more in-depth writing helped me to develop a narrative style and find ways to build interviews and research into a something someone would want to read. I took what I did seriously, and enjoyed myself. Junior year, however, I had a class in this so-called ‘Creative Nonfiction’ that left me at best bothered. I consistently locked horns with my professor (who was an adjunct who also worked at a local paper). The professor told us that while we shouldn’t really make things up, it was okay to fudge certain details to make things more interesting. I was appalled. Life doesn’t need fudging, in my opinion. There’s plenty of detail in every situation that can be used, you just have to be attentive to it. Even if you use a tape recorder, it’s possible to jot down scenery and clothing on a notepad. The emphasis was not on getting it right, but making it interesting. I was never under the impression that the two had to be mutually exclusive, but it did color my opinion of so-called creative nonfiction.

This instructor was fond of group work, and making us critique one another. I always saw these peer-led groups as laziness. As students, we’re there to learn from the one with so-called experience, not others as inexperienced as ourselves, but I digress. One of my classmates in this group had written a story of a friend from his hometown of Staten Island. It was about a girl, once a hair-twirling, club hopping mall rat, who chucked away most of her possessions and became a globe-trotting hippie. The story talked about how she slept in airports, met people from far-off lands with strange names, and could contain all of her worldly possessions in a single backpack. He had quotes from her friends, who expressed confusion over her change. Her parents were equally confused and dismayed by her action, but the girl in his story couldn’t have been happier or more content. I was enthralled. I had a million questions for him about her, when he saw her to do the interview, how well he knew her, where she was traveling that week, and so on. He regarded me sheepishly for a moment before finally laughing and telling me he had made it all up. I was angry for two reasons. Firstly, because I had actually gone through the trouble of finding someone to interview and busting my ass to get this profile finished on time. Mostly, though, the story changed when it was no longer true.

I’ve long suspected that the reason non-fiction allegedly sells better than fiction is because of the connection we make to true stories. Fiction is entirely the property of its author – the characters live in the Author’s head and that Author is their God. Whatever happens to them, we praise or curse the Author for it. Non-fiction is different. If a story is true, if it wasn’t simply the fancy of the storyteller, it somehow gains a certain kind of legitimacy, and our viewpoint shifts knowing that this is a person walking the Earth rather than someone who could be. Replacing possibility with certainty opens us up to a different, and possibly even a more intense variety of wonder. And if you connect deeply enough, the wonder becomes whether or not what this person is experiencing could happen to you. The discovery that what we connected to was false causes a more emotional reaction as a result.

PT Barnum once claimed that a sucker is born every minute, but I’m pretty sure that no one enjoys being cast among these newborns. I sympathized with those who felt enraged and betrayed. They connected and invested themselves into the work a certain way because it was presented to them a certain way, and were denied the ability to frame the story in the appropriate light. I also understand the more legitimate memoirist and non-fiction writers out there who feel as though their credibility has been damaged by Frey’s decision to play fast and loose with facts that were easy enough to correct when it came time to publish the book. What did Frey have to lose by being honest from the start? Perhaps he wouldn’t have had the runaway success that he’s had, but at least he’d have his integrity. Whatever it was, it's certainly would not have been as much as he's lost presently. It doesn’t matter how many pages out of the 300 or so he wrote were inaccurate, even 1 intentionally inaccurate paragraph was too many. The issue wasn’t that he had gotten things wrong because of his ‘messed up’ state, the issue is that he willfully and knowingly decided to alter the truth to make things more interesting. And by doing so, he’s done a disservice to writers of all kinds, particularly memoirists. As Koren Zalickas, author of the similarly-themed memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood said in a recent Gothamist interview, “Three million readers bought A Million Little Pieces. That’s three million people who probably never knew what a memoir was before Oprah selected the book for her book club. That’s three million people who could have been a new audience for the genre. But now, they’re not only not going to fully understand the genre, they’re not going to trust it.”