A few days ago a friend of mine in Toronto sent me an email linking to this story about yet another writer who’s been caught faking his memoirs. When the James Frey story broke, I followed it with interest, even though I didn’t know who Frey was. (I know I’d seen his name and the titles of his books around, but I hadn’t retained them.) At the same time, I thought it was a lot of fuss over nothing much. I remember having the feeling that it had been a long time coming. I also suspected that this sort of exposure was going to be a lot more common.
I wondered what people would have made of Bruce Chatwin if he were an emerging writer today, or if people had had Google back in the 80s. He was both a celebrated and a notorious teller of tall tales; some people who knew him speculated that he couldn’t always tell the difference between what was true and what he’d made up. More than once he denied that there was any division between fiction and nonfiction in his work, and was amused that The Songlines had been nominated for both fiction and nonfiction prizes. He defended the blurring of the border between the two by pointing to Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary was made up of so much research that, according to Chatwin, “very little is invented”.
What is interesting about this is that it shows what value they placed on fiction in those days, that they would try to disguise the truth as something made up. Today, the trend has been reversed.
Anyone who is interested in what’s going on in the publishing world today will be well aware of how much nonfiction outsells fiction. A lot of people don’t see the point of reading something that’s not true. I’ve met a great many people who feel this way. A former colleague of mine often told me that what he wanted from books — even works of fiction — was the opportunity to extract from them some kind, perhaps even any kind, of knowledge, and ideas. At first glance this seems noble enough, but I find the notion that literature must be useful rather philistine. (How do we measure its usefulness? That was a very good book: I learned many more facts than I usually do.) And I think people are deluded if they think anything they learn from a book (with the exception of textbooks about technical subjects, etc.) ends up making any difference their lives. These people seem to distrust pleasure as something not serious enough.
According to this former colleague’s line of reasoning, a good book is one that teaches you something you didn’t know. Follow this to its logical conclusion, and a book’s value depends on its reader’s ignorance.
I knew a writer back in Toronto who was desperate to get published and would come up with gimmicks and theories about what good writing had to be. For a long time, he insisted that it had to be, if not entirely, then mostly, autobiographical. (If he had said writing had to be self-absorbed and boring, the result would have been the same.) I tried to argue that whether a work was based on the writer’s life or imagination was extra-literary and irrelevant: only the quality mattered. He refused to accept this. He astounded me during one of our discussions by saying that he had originally admired “The Dead” by James Joyce and had thought it a great work of art, but then found his respect for it diminished when he learned that it was not as autobiographical as he’d first thought it was.
My parents don’t read, but they approach the films they watch on television in the same way. I used to walk past the livingroom while my mother was watching television and she would say, “Come and see this: it’s a true story!” My sister and I have been joking about this for years. When we talk on the phone about films we’ve seen, I’ll tell her, “You should rent it for the parents: it’s a true story.” They’ll sit and watch the worst crap imaginable as long as it’s a true story.
A few years ago, while my parents were visiting me here, I put on a DVD of Fargo and told my mother, “Come and see this — you won’t believe it, and it’s a true story.” It’s not, although the Coen brothers say it is at the beginning of the film. My mother was gripped by it, from beginning to end. And that’s no surprise: it’s a great story.
And this is why I wasn’t surprised, and was even a little pleased, when the Frey story broke. People need a good story, regardless of whether they think it’s true or not when they’re reading it. The telling of tales is one of our oldest traditions, and one that unites all peoples. It’s what Homer called saying false things that were like the truth. The scorn some of us have now for fantasy, for the imagination, for that faculty which has become shamefully underdeveloped, is a sign of our cultural decline, of our innocence lost. We are losing the sense that art and culture are rooted in games. We are like a people who do not remember how to laugh. We are losing the ability to open a book, or our ears, or our mind, and say, “Let’s play.”