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False Memory Syndrome

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Okay, Thanksgiving worked out okay, and I’m up to early in the morning because I am.  On the other hand, this is a non-workin week-end, which means–to answer Mary F’s question from a few days ago–I get to have Bach (Handel’s Messiah today, I think, actually) on a day other than Sunday.

It’s n ot that there’s some secret law that only allows me to listen to music on  Sunday.   It’s just that Sunday is usually the only day of the week when I don’t have to be up and out of here very early.  It’s the only morning I have when I’m not constantly thinking about what I  have to do next.

Except that I have that today, too, because it’s a vacation. So there’s that.

Right now,  I’m on a kind of tangent, brought on by discussions of what is and is not good writing.   These sorts of things happen to me.

To backtrack a little:  when I was very young and feeling very trapped in my Fairfield County home town,  I had a yearly ritual.  It was a ritual that lasted well into my twenties.  I would read, every year without fail, three books:   Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, W. Somerset Maugham’s The  Razor’s Edge, and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

I take it back.  It lasted well into my thirties, because I can remember talking about those books, and the fact that I still read them every year, to a young woman who had come in to help out just after Matt was born.  And that year I was thirty-six.

It’s A Moveable Feast that got to me where I am right this minute, but I might as well say, before I  start this, that I know what it was about those three books that held my attention so strongly, and that made me want to read them again and again.

It was that sense of place I talked about earlier–that feeling that I was being set down in some part of the world where I would much rather be.  Part of that was landscape, of course.  That’s why I was so fond of Mary Stewart in my adolescence. But part of it was people–of knowing that a group of people existed out there somewhere who would like the kinds of books I liked, want to talk about the kinds of things I wanted to talk about, and never, ever make fun of me for caring about the things I cared about.

The fact that the habit lasted well into my thirties is telling, I think.  I was luckier than a lot of people get.  I actually got to go off and visit my landscapes, and I will say that they were mostly disappointing.   I loved being at  Vassar, but it was not the kind of all-enveloping monastary of the mind that I was hoping for.  Part of that was the Sixties, where everybody was busy denying that art and literature and music really mattered, just like the people who made me crazy every year I was forced to go to my aunt’s house for Easter.

Part of it, though, was just reality–in the real world, there are no monastaries of the mind.  No matter how smart a young woman is, if she’s “built” (as they used to say in my day), that’s what boys, men and even professors notice first, and there are lots of ways to pay homage to looks and money while pretending that you’re doing something else.

Okay, that was cryptic.  But it’s a different subject for a different time.

I think the landscape that most disappointed me when I finally got a chance to visit it was, far and away, Paris.  I grew up dreaming about living in Paris the way other girls grow up dreaming about living in the perfect house with the perfect husband. 

In my mind, Paris was a place where Everything Was  Different–a world where everybody talked about books all the time, and wrote them, and tried to publish them; a world where nobody ever watched television or asked you if you were really going to read “that whole book.” 

I’ve said several times on this blog that I think most of American politics can be explained by the extent–and the ways–in which the baby boomers were all traumatized by junior high school, and I get more evidence of that by the day.  I’ll have to get back to that later.

Paris, however, or my vision of it, was built up from the work of Ernest Hemingway, from The Sun Also Rises and the short stories, but especially from A Moveable Feast.

For those of you unfamiliar with Hemingway, A Moveable Feast was his memoir of life in Paris between the world wars, in the expatriate community made up mostly of British and American writers and painters, or people who were trying to be writers and painters. 

I have no way of knowing if the Paris of the time was the way this book made it appear to be.  Long after I’d lived in Paris and been ravingly disappointed by what I found there, I finally read the works of Gertrude Stein, and from what I can tell, her take on the general atmosphere was very similar to Hemingway’s.  

I’ve come to very much like Stein’s work, although I think the feminist-inspired movement to declare it “major” was misplaced.  I think I can say with some assurance of accuracy that Stein lived the life in Paris that I hoped to find, and didn’t.

But I can say something else now, too, and that is that A Moveable Feast, although labeled a memoir, probably isn’t one, strictly speaking.   Heminway was a man who told stoies, and if the incident at hand didn’t live up to his standards, he fudged a little.  Or a lot. 

It was an interesting trait, because from all reports, he wasn’t a liar.  In the day to day things, he made nearly a fetish of telling the truth.  Get him started on his latest trip deep sea fishing, though, or what happened when he had that fight with Harold Loeb in the Dome, and what you got was the story he was writing in his head.

A Moveable Feast is a wonderful book.  The prose is Hemingway at his best in that incredibly clean, totally idiosyncratic style that makes anybody else who tries it sound like an idiot.  Edmund Wilson hated the way Hemingway wrote, and everything Hemingway wrote about, and that usually had an effect.  Wilson was all that public knew of “intellectuals” in the Thirties and Forties, the face of The High Art Tradition and Literature, but they bought Hemingway’s books anyway.  In cartloads.

What caught my attention this morning, though, was that now casually accepted fact, that a lot of the book is written more than it is remembered.  And that started me remembering James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, and the dozen or so other recent “memoirs” that have turned out to be largely fabricated.  It started me thinking, in fact, about memoirs. 

Let me start out by saying tht there is nothing to indicate that Hemingway did what Frey did.  There’s nothing to indicate that anything in A Moveable Feast is outright fabricated.  Hemingway made mundane stories better.  Frey and his cousins in the faked-memoir brigade invented things out of whole cloth.

But that brings me up short again–in Hemingway’s day, Frey would have written what he did in fact write, but he’d have honestly labeled in “fiction” and readers would have brought and read it as fiction.

The reason he labeled hat he wrote a “memoir” and claimed it as fact has a lot to do with the resistance of the public to reading fiction.  Frey had to call his book a memoir, because if he’d written exactly the same thing and called it a novel, practically nobody would have been interested in reading it.

What, exactly, is going on here?  My mother is the first person I ever knew who was like this about fiction.  She insisted that fiction was “just made up” and that she wanted to read “what was real.”

But like Frey’s readers, that wasn’t what she wanted, either.  Reality disturbed the hell out of her, and she spent a great deal of her life refusing to accept it.  What she wanted was to read stories that confirmed her prejudices about the way life worked, and for these to be “what was real.”

I have absolutely no idea if I’m being clear here. 

I’m not trying to beat up my mother–or Frey’s readers–for seeking out books that confirm their prejudices.  To an extent, we all do that.  What confuses me is why they won’t accept having those prejudices confirmed in fiction.

Previous generations of readers did not have this prejudice.  In fact, they actively sought out stories for precisely the purpose of confirming their views on life and living, and they were more than happy to use such stories as evidence that what they believed was true. 

Previous generations of readers referred to the characters in fiction as if they were more, not less, real than the real.  They referenced Fagin and Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary to explain the behavior of the people around them and to provide a template for their own behavior, and for what was likely to happen if they took one life path instead of another.

When did we get to the point where fiction was not enough, where readers had to be lied to twice in order to get the same effect their grandmothers got out of reading Lloyd C. Douglas? 

Granted that man is a narrative animal, andthat human beings are most intensely interested in other human beings, and that even the greatest literature has an element in it of being (not my phrase) The Higher Gossip–when did we get to the point where The Higher Gossip had to be actual gossip in order to be worth reading at all?

Frey’s problem is not that he’s a liar.  Frey’s problem is a that he’s a novelist in a world that thinks it’s uninterested in reading novels.

Written by janeh

November 27th, 2009 at 8:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'False Memory Syndrome'

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  1. I read only one of the three books you mention – Rebecca – and although I re-read novels, there aren’t any I’ve re-read that religiously. I liked the sense of place – still do – and I passionately longed to get out of my small home town, although I don’t think I ever really expected to find somewhere someone would share all my thoughts. Not laugh at me – well, not everyone did that in my hometown, so I didn’t need to go elsewhere to find that. I wanted something different. I knew from the books that there were other worlds out there and I wanted to see some of them. I wasn’t looking for someplace to belong; I was looking for something to experience. I think that’s different from what you describe.

    I did, and possibly still do to some extent, have the need to distinguish between fiction and reality, although at this point in my life, I can say that authors can illuminate or illustrate reality and real people. I don’t think I have any particular difficult with accepting reality, although like most people I no doubt have my blind spots. But there’s something in me that refuses to allow me to call fiction ‘real’. It’s just a representation of reality. Maybe a good one, maybe a useful one, but a representation still. As confirmation for my prejudices, fiction is useless. It’s imaginary; one person’s dream or vision. At the best, it’s something I can recognise – someone else sees reality a bit like me, and knows people a bit like me.

    Maybe all this has something to do with the enlightenment and the succeeding generations who argued strongly for only one way of knowing – scientific, rational, logical, based on physical reality. Maybe, as some say, we are now almost incapable of understanding through myth and story and symbolism like we once did.

    Cheryl

    27 Nov 09 at 1:55 pm

  2. Could it be that people of small imagination cannot encompass that someone else’s imagination might be rich, full and revelatory of human nature? They think they want “reality” but they don’t, really, because often reality is banal, boring and not worth living once, let alone twice. They want a reality that is *more* than real, they want the way reality would be if someone wrote it, paradoxically.

    They want gripping true stories, all dramatic, and with the grosser bits trimmed. Like Reader’s Digest. A miracle in real life! My most wonderful character! If you asked them if they wanted to read about what it feels like to do the dishes for the 12,593rd time in life, they’d say no. There’s nothing much more real than a sink full of dirty dishes, but that isn’t what they’re seeking.

    So…reality with a good editor, basically. They don’t trust themselves to be able to tell a good story, so why should they trust anyone else? But if it’s taken from reality, then okay. Something else becomes the story-teller, and the writer merely a selector-of-facts. And those facts selected should quite clearly, validate the reader’s view of the world. Or they’re not the right facts.

    Jane’s mother and those like her who won’t read fiction are just fooling themselves. They don’t really want to read reality either. They want an echo of the narrative inside their heads, only, you know, interesting.

    Lymaree

    27 Nov 09 at 2:42 pm

  3. Most of my favorite places couldn’t be found on a map. This spared me a great deal of disillusionment later on.

    But as for peddling fiction as true, this is not a new thing,and I’d follow Friar William here. The simplest explanation is that Chummy thinks he can unload more copies of a memoir than of a novel equally badly written. This may always have been true. I’d blame the public only for being credulous enough to continue to trust publishers, many of whom have a long track record of never checking “true stories” lest the results be inconvenient.

    robert_piepenbrink

    27 Nov 09 at 4:46 pm

  4. I read Mary Stewart throughout my adolescence too, and I just bought Rebecca for my granddaughter – I hope she falls in love with it. I’ve read most of Hemingway’s short works but not A Movable Feast. Having recently spent time in Paris, I’ll have to do some reading.

    Gail

    28 Nov 09 at 1:26 am

  5. ELizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels had a character in one of her earlier books say something along the lines of ‘My mother only reads romances, and I think that if she can believe in romance after a life that included war and so many assorted tragedies, more power to her.’

    Some people aren’t looking for reality when they read.

    Cheryl

    28 Nov 09 at 8:05 am

  6. Gail, do look for A Movable Feast. I haven’t re-read it the way Jane has, but when I read it in my (rather restless) youth its strong sense of place made me fall in love with Paris – though it’s a Paris that I’ll never see.

    I tend to love books with a strong sense of place. It’s not the only thing that makes a book good – but it is what makes me want to re-read them.

    Jane, I do see what you mean about Bach. Or Handel – it’s not as though you can listen to that kind of music in three-minute bits while you’re driving, though I’ve been thinking lately about getting a second mp3 player for it.

    MaryF

    28 Nov 09 at 12:14 pm

  7. To some readers, apparently, the appeal of books like Frey’s centers on that peeping into the window to view another world scene that’s portrayed so masterfully somewhere in D.H. Lawrence’s work. A great many of us, fortunately, I think, don’t live in circumstances like Frey’s or Augusten Burroughs’ or Frank McCourt’s or all the other authors of what are sometimes referred to as mis-mem’s–miserable memoirs. The outing of James Frey and his subsequent lashing on Oprah and the discovery that works by various journalists weren’t totally based on fact–Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass– led to near paranoia by publishers that a nonfiction work should be just that. Good thing this didn’t happen earlier. Capote’s In Cold Blood, Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, or Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might have never made it to print as nonfiction. Jeanette Walls’ new book Half Broke Horses–about her grandmother–was released as a true life novel because, I expect, publishers didn’t want to have to do a retraction. As I wrote before I find much more truth in fiction. At work I had to listen to a totally obnoxious guy who does public records training for various municipalities so that retention and organization of all local government documents can meet the standards of Florida’s very stringent Sunshine Laws. Anyway, he remarked that he never read fiction. My response was how did he ever learn anything. Referencing fictional characters to explain behaviour of oneself and others and talking about fictional characters as though they were real is not out of practice. I do it all the time.

    jem

    28 Nov 09 at 9:55 pm

  8. I think part of the answer may be in differing expectations on the part of those readers who like biography as opposed to those who prefer fiction. I know a lot of readers who will only read biography, or maybe biography and other non-fiction. And a lot more who only read fiction. Many of the people who read biography will read the type of memoir Frey wrote–gritty & depressing, from the sound of it (I haven’t read it.) But they seriously expect the author to be honest, and for the things he writes about to be true (although possibly tweaked to make a better story), and I can understand their feelings of betrayal. Not many of us appreciate being lied to.

    Readers picking up a novel know from the beginning that it is not literally true, no matter how real it may feel, and so anything goes as long as it’s interesting or entertaining. Fiction which is gritty & depressing is not currently popular. There is some published, but it mostly disappears without a trace. If you want to get on the best-seller list right now (as I presume Frey did), your best bet is writing a thriller. These days, Lloyd C. Douglas would be ghettoized in the “Christian fiction” genre, and his sales would never get him onto the list.

    There are still plenty of people who read fiction. I don’t have any statistics at home with me, but I’m pretty sure we loan far more fiction than non-fiction & biography. I read all of the above, but that seems to be fairly unusual. Many people seem to stick with one or the other.

    Lee B

    29 Nov 09 at 12:39 am

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