Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Tale of Two Authors

I love books.

I learned to read, courtesy of my older sister, before I entered the first grade. As a 10-year-old, I surreptitiously tucked novels into my textbooks and set off on adventures in foreign lands while the rest of my classmates studied their multiplication tables. I am the rare child who’s been reprimanded for reading in school.

But I am not a fan of the Memoir.

Much ink has been spilled over James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces.” This short-lived king of the publishing world was brought down to peasant class when fabrications were discovered in his work. What Oprah giveth, she can also taketh away.

I do not defend Frey’s actions. But I place at least a small portion of blame on the reading public’s obsession with the Memoir, which has created a culture of “toppers” among its practitioners. You know, the sort of people who, when you say you’ve hiked the Grand Canyon respond with, “Ah yes, I remember hallucinating about the Grand Canyon during my solo trek across the Gobi Desert. Marauders stole my food and water the first day. I survived by drinking my own sweat.”

Witness some recent releases in the category:

  • Money, A Memoir, Liz Perle: Ms. Perle arrives in Singapore, where her businessman husband has been transferred, only to be told at the Arrivals Gate that the marriage is off. She’s shipped back to the States with a mere $1,500 to her name.

  • I Am Not Myself These Days, Josh Kilmer-Purcell: Let’s see, do we have all the requisite memoir ingredients—Manhattan ad agency setting, drag queens, crack addicts, S&M, escape from Midwestern roots. Yep.

  • The Bill from My Father, Bernard Cooper: The author’s father estimates it has cost him $2 million to raise his son—and he wants the money back. The son spends 10+ years trying to figure out What’s Up with Dad, for the purpose of wringing out content for this memoir.

  • Without You, Anthony Rapp: Actor rides the highs of a successful Tony Award-winning play (“Rent”) and the lows of his mother’s death from cancer.

How was Frey’s been-there, done-that story of one man’s road to sobriety ever going to compete without throwing in a little jail time?

What I find most disturbing about the Memoir, apart from it causing perfectly decent people to rue their perfectly functional upbringing and passage into adulthood (damn you, Mom & Dad, for being good parents), is the same thing that annoys me about Britney Spears. Brit dances with a snake, wears the minimal amount of clothing required to be considered “dressed,” dates a guy whose girlfriend is pregnant, sells tons of records and makes an assload of money. Meanwhile, people who can actually sing work as waiters, alongside writers who can’t get anyone to publish their novels because editors are too busy looking for this week’s Biggest Hedonist with Crappiest Childhood.


Last night I went to the Newberry Library for a reading by Julian Barnes, who is touring the States in support of his latest book, “Arthur & George.”

Perhaps 150 of us attended the event. Waiting for the author to take the podium, I mulled the turn out for Barnes vs. the Oprah-sized audience for Frey’s coming out party and the respective sales figures for Frey vs. Barnes. In both instances, the response is most decidedly in direct disproportion to the talent involved.

Barnes is one of the "big boys of undead EngLit," his peers generally considered to be Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. He’s been shortlisted three times for Britain’s highest literary prize; his work pursues the themes of love, history, reality and truth. (insert link to other guardian article)

Though a work of fiction, “Arthur & George” recounts actual events: In the early years of the 20th Century, George Edalji is wrong convicted of a crime. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, works to clear the man’s name. Barnes meticulously researched the facts of the Edalji case, as well as the lives of his main protagonists. He obtained a copy of George’s death certificate to make sure that an imagined scene at the end of the book could actually have taken place. Because that’s the sort of thing professional writers do. Even when dealing with worlds of their own creation, novelists strive for authenticity.

“Arthur & George” rewards with a page-turning mystery, finely nuanced characters and terrifically good writing. When the jury pronounces the verdict of “guilty,” Barnes needs just two words to convey George’s horror and the reaction any of us might have in the same situation, “Unsay it.” But the book is more than a whodunit or “CSI: Victorian England.” George Edalji is half-Indian. Barnes explores the subtleties of racism, and what we might term “profiling,” placing an individual under suspicion simply because of the color of his skin or nationality. Issues very much of the moment. For good measure, we also have a cover up by the establishment and a coordinated effort to concoct evidence to support a foregone conclusion. (WMDs, anyone?)

Personally, I would much rather spend my time with a work of fiction that feels true than a true story that feels like fiction.


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