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.”


You Talking to Me?

April 17, 2008 § 1 Comment


Indeed, Frey’s invitation to leave him a message [See previous blog post Give Big Jim a Piece of Your Mind] is a curious move on his part, and one that deserves some consideration. Specifically, I’m interested in how this new “forum” (to speak to Frey directly) differs from, say, an invitation to blog about him. Yes, it has a ring of, “You got something to say, say it to my face” (I think it’s reasonable to acknowledge this tension is present, even to a small degree, no matter how much Frey prostrates before us). But more than that, it’s an interesting rhetorical tactic, garnering more positive reaction than not. (Raising another question: Why does support find its way to Frey’s voice mail, and the criticism, in blogs and classroom conversations? I confess, I don’t have any plans to call Frey up after I’m done typing this… Does my criticism carry any agency, then?)

Once again, Frey has subverted our expectations of the author. It’s maddening, yes. But is it not also a little exciting from a critical perspective? The author is NOT dead–not in popular literature, anyway (no matter how much we’d like to kill him). He is very much alive and taking our calls. All of this is to say, instead of criticizing Frey and, in turn, our culture, I think it’s more interesting (productive?) to critique the meaning of this subversion and, especially, our reactions to it. What better fodder for the essay?

– Rachael

Give Big Jim a Piece of Your Mind

April 14, 2008 § 5 Comments

I’m not sure if this is sign of mental instability or pure genius, but our friend James Frey (author of the memoirs A Million Little Totally Made-Up Pieces and Leonard: My Inspirational Best Friend from Jail Though I Wasn’t Really in Jail) has a blog and voicemail, and he is urging you to leave him a message:

Just call (917) 720-7510
(Be cool Be Nasty Say whatever you want)

Yes, he is inviting abuse, and if you wish you can even listen to what everyone says: http://bigjimindustries.com/saynow2.php

But the disturbing part is that most people are calling in to say nice things like “you are the literary voice of this century” and “despite the critics, your books rock.”

Of course, all of this underway to create a groundswell of interest in his first new third novel:

**** BUY IT HERE ****

So, What Exactly Are They Smoking in Eugene, Oregon?

March 26, 2008 § 10 Comments

Or, Why You Should Never, Ever Send Your Children to School in Oregon.


While commentators elsewhere in the country were condemning [Peggy] Seltzer [and her fraudulent memoir, Love and Consequences,] for deceit and betrayal, the intellectuals of Eugene have been circling their academic wagons around her. So far, a professor of English and one of philosophy at the University of Oregon have put their prestige on the line with spirited public defenses of Seltzer’s moral right to lie. A teacher of memoir writing at Lane Community College has also been very sympathetic.

Linda S. Clare, the LCC memoir teacher, admits in a March 13 guest viewpoint that she herself advises her students to “embroider” their dull life stories with untruths.  [SEE BELOW FOR UPDATE, Dec. 2009]

Seltzer, she says, simply went too far. (Perhaps it should be noted here that Seltzer, who is white and was raised in middle class comfort, somehow passed herself off as a half-Native American, who was brought up by black foster parents in South Central Los Angeles where she ran drugs for the Bloods.)

“In my mind,” says Clare, “that doesn’t make the writing any less complex or beautiful. What I don’t know is what to call it.” While commentators elsewhere had no trouble in knowing what to call Seltzer’s book, Clare reluctantly concludes only that: “ ‘Love and Consequences’ probably can’t be a memoir.”

But Gordon Sayre, a professor of English at the UO, has no such ambivalence. Seltzer’s book, in his estimation, is a fine example of a memoir in the great American tradition.

“Since the early days of American literature,” writes Sayre in a March 9 guest viewpoint, “the boundaries between novel and autobiography have been indistinct, and readers have eagerly confounded them.”

Sayre’s point is that readers like to be duped by fantastic true life tales, and so what if they do? Who’s hurt by it, anyway?

Certainly not Sayre, whose Native American literature students at UO included Seltzer. The professor feels no resentment that his prized student fooled him with her memoir and snookered him with a class paper in which she fabricated a childhood on an Indian reservation.


REPLY:  In December 2009, Linda Clare responded to the blog with a comment, which we reprint here in its entirety, because fair is fair.  Though we at Brevity would still disagree with her limited definition of embroidery — even adding decorative details which the writer knew to be false would be dishonest under our definition — it does seem as if the  Eugene newspaper expanded some on Ms. Clare’s ideas.

Linda S. Clare
URL    : http://www.godsonggrace.blogspot.com

I only just today came across the blog entry and the comments about Peggy Seltzer. For the record, I do not ever encourage my students or anyone else to “embroider with untruths.” My essay in fact, stated, “So I tell them (students) that in dramatizing a story, it’s sometimes necessary to embroider.”  The author’s embellishment of the word embroider certainly changed my intent, which was to say that one may “misremember,” details as a comment remarked, but to fabricate the event itself or change the intent of the story is not what a memoir should be.  I’m sorry if my remarks were misinterpreted.  In my mind, embroidery is the addition of details to the story.  An untruth is simply a lie.

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