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Winter 2006

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Fall 2005

 

Truth & Consequences
Victor D. Infante

It should surprise no one that, as a writer and editor, I think a lot about what goes on inside a reader's head. I try not to let it influence artistic decisions too much, because frankly, that way lies madness, but every now and then I'll sit at my desk, slumped back into my swivel chair in a position that does nothing for my posture, and try to put myself in the shoes of the person trying to make sense of the piece of poetry or prose in front of me.

It's not so much a matter of "will they like it," but rather "does this resonate with anyone but me?" I find it a useful exercise to stop and step outside myself, to ponder what someone with a different background, a different gender or race, or in a different geography would see. Imagination works both ways - it can let you visualize new worlds, but it can also let you see those same worlds from different perspectives - at least a little bit.

Perhaps that's part of the reason why I remain slightly ambivalent about the oh-so earth-shattering revelation that writer James Frey falsified parts of his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." (The other part being I haven't read it. I'd avoid the subject all together, except that more people have felt the need to strike up conversations with me about it recently than they have the impending confirmation of Sam Alito to the Supreme Court. I find this disturbing.) Perhaps it's cynical, but I have a knee-jerk incredulity at anything anyone writes about him or herself. At the very least, it's not like they're unbiased.

Frey is being held to the fire for perhaps not being as much of a drug-addicted loser as he made himself out to be, whereas the myriad political memoirs and autobiographies that come out as election days near are widely taken at face value, or at least only scrutinized closely by the most committed of wonks. So, too, are Frey's colleagues in alleged fabrication - including JT LeRoy, whose tales of being a former drug addict and male prostitute may have been penned by a middle-aged woman, and Nasdijj, the Native American writer whom, it turns out, is really white gay erotica writer Tim Barrus.

And yet, somehow, we can't get a straight answer from George W. Bush about meetings with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the Downing Street Memo or whether he did cocaine as a younger man. I'm not saying that just because one is worse the other isn't wrong too. I'm just questioning priorities.

There is a level where the reader is more fascinated by the idea of the writer than the writing itself. There's something captivating about the idea that someone can escape a life of degradation and emerge triumphant. It's hard not to see why that resonates. Indeed, as one looks at the furor, it's hard not escape the idea that the real betrayal is that the narrative was disrupted for the reader. They wanted those particular visions of overcoming lives addled by drugs, abuse and violence to be true, so much so that someone went ahead and invented it. I'm not sure which bit I find more disturbing - the fact that writers were willing to exploit the struggles of others for their own sales, or the fact that the fantasy of drug addiction and abuse was there to be exploited at all.

The fact remains, the American consumer of literature and media has a very tenuous relationship with reality in the first place. On the one hand, we have reality TV shows, which are obviously scripted, edited and manipulated to fit a storyline, so much so that Hollywood writer unions are chomping to include reality TV producers in their ranks. On the other side, we have a war in Iraq which has had nearly all of its initial pretenses for happening kicked out from under it, yet still enjoys support from a sizable chunk of the population.

And I think, on a very basic level, people know that the world around them isn't what they're told it is. Our fictional stories even tell us this: In "The Matrix," we learn that what we think is reality is an illusion. In "Harry Potter" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," normal people walk through life oblivious to the monsters and magic surrounding them. In the noirish TV show "Veronica Mars," the fiction of a squeaky-clean affluent town is revealed to have an obscured, seedy underbelly. Our popular culture seems in lockstep in the message: all is not as it appears.

They used to say to "trust the story, not the storyteller," which is probably still good advice, but is it any wonder - amid the dizzying cascade of stories and spin-doctored news - that the desperate reader would want to cling to one inspirational, seemingly-true story? Disillusioning them of those fantasies seems almost cruel. And maybe that cruelty was necessary, because there is a fundamental difference between finding universal truths in fiction, and in mistaking fiction for reality - the one is a means of communication, of exploring large concepts in a context for which they make sense; the other is a means of obfuscation, distracting attention from the very real issues of the day.

And perhaps that's why these literary hoaxes claw at me: because they present a finished, Cinderella ending without making the reader really look at the very real problems of drug addiction, sexual abuse and domestic violence that exist, just as listening to Donald Rumsfeld telling us that all is well in Iraq is merely distraction from the mounting evidence of problems the U.S. faces there. So long as the convenient fiction is in place, one need not acknowledge there are any problems at all.

It is, after all, just a story.