I’m recovering from knee surgery, so maybe that is the reason I’m sporting a surlier view of things. Bear with me here, I’ll be ambulatory and more optimistically inclined soon enough. But until then…
Much has been written over the last week about the latest scandal regarding yet another faux memoir exposed. It is easy to view this trend (which, let’s face it, it does seem to resemble) with cynicism and blame the usual culprits–greed, mendacity, inauthenciticy, a desperate need for attention. A much more in depth and provocative response appeared this morning in the New York Times Op Ed column, Stolen Suffering, by Daniel Mendelsohn, author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a sample:
In an era obsessed with “identity,” it’s useful to remember that identity is precisely that quality in a person, or group, that cannot be appropriated by others; in a world in which theme-park-like simulacra of other places and experiences are increasingly available to anyone with the price of a ticket, the line dividing the authentic from the ersatz needs to be stressed, rather than blurred. As, indeed, Ms. De Wael has so clearly blurred it, for reasons that she has suggested were pitiably psychological. “The story is mine,” she announced. “It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.”
“My reality,” as opposed to “actual reality,” is, of course, one sign of psychosis, and given her real suffering during the war, you’re tempted to sympathize — until you read that her decision to write her memoir came at a time when her husband was out of work, or (we real Jews call this chutzpah) that she successfully sued the publisher for more than $20 million for professional malfeasance. Or until you learn about her galling manipulations of the people who believed her…
“My reality” raises even more far-reaching and dire questions about the state of our culture, one in which the very concept of “reality” seems to be in danger. Think of “reality” entertainments, which so unnervingly parallel the faux-memoirists’ appropriation of others’ authentic emotional experience: in them, real people are forced to endure painful or humiliating or extreme situations, their real emotional reactions becoming the source of the viewers’ idle gratification. Think of the Internet: an unimaginably powerful tool for education but also a Wild West of random self-expression in which anyone can say anything about anything (or anyone) and have it “published,” and which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic identities, reality and fantasy.
That pervasive blurriness, the casualness about reality that results when you can turn off entire worlds simply by unsubscribing, changing a screen name, or closing your laptop, is what ups the cultural ante just now. It’s not that frauds haven’t been perpetrated before; what’s worrisome is that, maybe for the first time, the question people are raising isn’t whether the amazing story is true, but whether it matters if it’s true. Perhaps the most dismaying response to the James Frey scandal was the feeling on the part of many readers that, true or false, his book had given them the feel-good, “redemptive” experience they’d hoped for when they bought his novel — er, memoir.
But then, we all like a good story. The cruelty of the fraudulent ones is that they will inevitably make us distrustful of the true ones.
Strong stuff. And sobering.