Feel-Good Nonfiction

January 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Our friend The Ethical Exhibitionist comments provocatively and wisely on Lee Gutkind’s response to Herman Rosenblat (see entry below if you missed the set up):

It seems to me that Lee Gutkind absolutely nails it in his observation that these fraudulent memoirs couldn’t be marketed as fiction.  The one thing that James Frey, Margaret Seltzer, and Herman Rosenblat all have in common (aside from the fact that they’re frauds) is that their stories are all “affirming,” in the sense that they tell the reader, “Hey, what you want to believe is true actually IS true.”  Jamey Frey showed us that addicts can overcome their sickness through willpower alone; Margaret Seltzer showed us that even a career gangbanger can escape the streets if she really wants to; Herman Rosenblat– most nauseatingly of all– reassured us that we can find joy even in genocide, if we know where to look.  These writers comfort their readership through, to use Joan Didion’s language, “the imposition of a narrative line” that insists that there’s something reassuringly  noble about humanity, that the types of simplified endings that the world of fiction would dismiss as “contrived” or “trite” actually do happen.

That’s why, I think, defenders of these memwahists like to say “But it doesn’t matter– it’s still a good story.”  For them, “good story” doesn’t indicate aesthetic merit (because, of course, these stories are about as well-written as your typical LIFETIME ORIGINAL MOVIE or any number of Very Special Episodes of MR. BELVEDERE), but, rather, that the story made them feel good by insisting that their own intuitive optimism about complicated issues is somehow “right” in the “real world.”

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