"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, January 13, 2006

NPR, James Frey, and the Memoir

Listening to NPR this morning, I heard their segment
on James Frey, whose "memoir" (something about a million little pieces - I'll admit I must have missed that publishing phenomenon) has been shown by the Smoking Gun to be either an entire fabrication or extreme exaggeration. (Example: Frey apparently claims he rear-ended a police vehicle when in fact he just ran one wheel of his car up onto a curb. Almost the same thing). This made the news because the book made it to Oprah, who loved it and made it in turn a national bestseller. (Again, I'll admit I never heard of the book until I read about the controversy). His defense? Well, "memoir" isn't really the same thing as, say, "history" since we all know our memories are faulty. The NPR reporter, Lynn Neary, guts the excuse with some well-put quotes from another publisher who more or less accuses Frey and his publisher of being willing to flat-out lie in the pursuit of an emotional hit and the big bucks. Good for NPR.

It's worth noting as an aside that the sort of subjectivism and emotivism on display in this incident is a perfect picture of the postmodernist mindset. What matters is not whether something happened or not, but rather our interpretations of things and how that makes us "feel." And it's also worth noting - and this certainly is not an original insight - that this kind of subjectivism is a perfect match for the sort of consumerist, no-limits market capitalism that the Left is always decrying. Talk about being hoisted on your own petard...

3 comments:

Jay D. Homnick said...

I strongly recommend reading the thorough unpacking job done by The Smoking Gun (in an uncredited piece; I was astounded by that level of humility in pursuit of truth).

Also, I suggest you read the investigative piece in New York Magazine exposing author J. T. LeRoy as a publishing hoax created by a writer named Laura Albert and played at publishing parties by a paid actress.

And shame on Oprah for calling the exposure of Frey's cupidity and mendacity "much ado about nothing".

James Elliott said...

The LeRoy sham job was a much more complex con than Frey's. It's really astonishing to see this level of mendacity. Shades of Jason Blair.

My first university level course ever was to fulfill my fine arts requirement. It was a class on postmodernist performance art and literature. We read Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter -- which I thoroughly failed to understand -- and then I got to learn about a Frenchman named Stelarc who puts hooks through his body and hangs himself naked from telephone wires in major urban areas as a statement about... something. I resolved then and there that 99.9% of postmodern art was crap. I am put in mind of a glorious quote from The Onion: "Dada revolution dies. 'Victory!' cry Dadaists."

But I must take some slight umbrage here: "It's worth noting as an aside that the sort of subjectivism and emotivism on display in this incident is a perfect picture of the postmodernist mindset. What matters is not whether something happened or not, but rather our interpretations of things and how that makes us "feel.""

I think most people who've spent any time studying postmodern art (as opposed to philosophy, though the two lines of thinking are related) would agree, though most serious artists and writers would similarly decry passing your fictitious work as fact - the "memoir" crap being just so much dissembling.

I also don't see how you logically leap to this: "...this kind of subjectivism is a perfect match for the sort of consumerist, no-limits market capitalism that the Left is always decrying." There is much wrong with our consumerist society, not the least of which is that it demonstrably contributes to much of the family breakdown and childhood problems you and Hunter have devoted several posts to decrying. I fail to see how "this kind of subjectivism" - that it matters what I feel, not that I'm truthful - goes hand in hand. Are you saying that postmodern art is to blame for avarice and therefore capitalism?

Heh. You said "petard."

Jay D. Homnick said...

James, I think you're right that postmodern art is mostly just about getting outside of society but without a roadmap of where you're heading.

As far as Dada goes, it's very fascinating to read Ben Hecht's memoirs about hanging out with the early Dada guys in Berlin when the Chicago Daily News sent him there as a correspondent in the 20s.

He covers it in his main autobio, A Child of the Century, and also in a few of his other collections of nostalgic pieces (I think one of them is named Gaily, Gaily). They are all well worth reading for other reasons as well.