Friday, January 27, 2006

The Cult of Personality

Sure, it's easy to be glib and cynical and feel all superior and smug and pooh-pooh anyone who got suckered in by this Frey creep.

But fiction should be labelled "fiction."

Memoirs, biographies and autobiographies are "non-fiction." Saying we should expect them to be full of lies is saying that honesty doesn't matter. And that's just a reprehensible attitude, both morally and intellectually.

And forget this crap that all autobiographies are fiction. There's a world of difference between lies of omission and lies of commission, and any writer who presents a lie as the truth, as Frey did, is beneath contempt. And anybody who knowingly helped him perpetuate this fraud -- or makes excuses for him -- is just as much of a scumbag.

As for this JT Leroy brouhaha? Who cares if the novelist's public peresona is a hoax, or that it's a pen name? Would Hammett's books be any less of a joy were it revealed he was never a Pinkerton agent? Would Hemingway's works be any different were it revealed he used to wet the bed or liked to dress in his mother's clothes? Would I, THE JURY lose its impact were it revealed that Mickey Spillane and Sara Paretsky are the same person?

JT Leroy wrote FICTION. He never claimed to be writing a memoir -- even if his schtick helped sell those novels.

It would be different if he had billed his books as non-fiction. Were that the case, then the author should be horsewhipped. But they were billed as fiction, so those crying foul should be horsewhipped.

I mean, what part of "fiction" don't they understand?

And the whole "misappropriation of voice" is complete and utter bullshit. If a white suburban male wants to write a novel about being a black lesbian junkie hooker working the streets of some big city slum, or some black lesbian writer wants to write about an Italian-Jewish buffalo skinner in Manitoba in the 1880s, well, gee, it's fiction, people. Nobody, and certainly no community, "owns" a voice.

The only real sin would be getting a "voice' wrong. Which is why a novelist's personal experience isn't enough. You need research and empathy and imagination -- all of which trump mere "experience" anyday.

Sure, writing what you know is good -- if pointless -- advice, as far as it goes, but it's just a start. I don't wanna read what people know, because a lot of people don't know shit. Hammett's books are good because he was a good writer -- not because he worked for a while for the Pinks. I love Joe Gores' stuff, for example, and his years as a repo man give his DKA stories a veracity that adds considerable depth to them. But, were it to be revealed tomorrow that he never repossessed a car in his life, and that he'd found it all out through research, those stories would still kick ass.

Chandler and Macdonald were never P.I.s -- and their books aren't too shabby either (and for my money, I find Chandler, the former oil company executive, generally more believable than much of Hammett's work, whose plots occasionally read like hard-boiled cozies.

Write what you know, but even more than that, write what you think and feel and can imagine. And trust the art, not the artist, when it comes to fiction. Let's stop the author fetish now.

Who or what the author is shouldn't matter. It would be like not liking an actor's work because of the latest tabloid scandal or their politics. I mean, how shallow can you get? Does the fact Lennon was a cad and a jerk or McCartney a pretentious egomaniac change how good (or bad) their songs were? Let's pull the plug on the cult of personality.

Non-fiction is a different story. You're supposedly telling -- and selling -- the truth. If it's all based on a lie, then the hell with you. You wanna lie for a living, write fiction. Or run for political office.

And the hell with Oprah and the rest of the media for shamelessly playing along even after it was discovered Frey's book was bullshit. Frey should be shunned like the scumbag he is; not invited back to sit on talk show couches everywhere and weasel away. It's not news at this point-- it's merely cynical and shameless greed: promotion for the book and the selling of advertising space.

Truth matters. Life is not just dirt.


Blogger Diana Killian said...

Personally I think comparing actors with artists or writers or musicians is sort of apples and oranges. Actors--even the very best actors--are essentially playing high level make believe. I just don't think it's on the same level as writing a piece of music or painting a picture. Very often actors seem to be "playing themselves," which is why their political opinions seem more distracting and harder to separate from the work. JMHO. So...what are you fixing me for dinner, Mr. Wise Man?

5:03 PM, January 29, 2006  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Hmmmm... it could be argued that musicians, at least when performing, are closer to actors than artists. Certainly, performers in the popular genres (rock, folk, pop, hip-hop, blues, etc.) rely quite heavily on image to sell a song. Which is why Paul Anka probably won't be growing a Mohawk, U2 won't be wearing tuxes at their next gig and the Browne Sisters won't show up in bondage gear (at least on stage) for a St. Patrick's day concert.

But should what a musician wears make you think differently about the quality of the performance or the material? That is, as they say, the rub...

10:36 AM, January 30, 2006  

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