Saturday, April 23, 2011

A View from the Crowd

How vain the ardour of the Crowd,
How low, how little are the Proud,
How indigent the Great!

-- from Gray's "Ode to Spring"

True story. I was never one for spelling. Never aced a spelling test or lasted beyond the second round in a Bee. Never had a paper in "Composition" come back to me but the page was bloodied with red and the grade pruned "for spelling errors." When I took to keeping a dictionary with me later on, while it addressed the immediate need, it also set my pace well behind the average whenever an "essay" was called in class. "Please finish your thought," was a phrase I came to expect across the top of all such spontaneous efforts, but how could I, when there was "either" to look up, yet again? Had I been born just a little later, or in an community more educationally advanced, this problem might have been addressed clinically, or at least given a comforting diagnosis, but no. Later still and it would hardly have mattered, as technology beyond the paperback dictionary has now largely solved it. "Spellcheck," when it came, came as a liberator.

It was not entirely a forgetfulness of the rules of English that muddled me. One of the frustrations of anyone, native or not, in infancy or after, learning this particular language is the appalling democracy of it. The very little Latin I learned I liked because it was rigid; every verb had its indicative, every noun its declension -- or was it the other way round? English is exceptional, damn it, and even when it isn't, it can be damned hard work.

Two small words that made much mischief for me were "full" and "like." Of themselves, I could spell 'em, even understand their definitions, but when they mated, for me sometime around the fifth grade, I could not get them right. Why was it that a beautiful or a bountiful noun, being admittedly full of bounty or beauty, even to the point of squeezing the "y" to just an "i", had not the little space left for that last, slim "l"? Surely, this was still a matter of measure, like a "spoon full" or a "full heart"? And whenever "like" -- admittedly that most sluttish word in the language -- took up with some new word, Mother Tongue proved to be pretty arbitrary when it came to chaperoning; allowing "like" to lead "wise" by the left hand and then crowd right up against defenseless little "a", or "child", but insisting she keep a respectable distance from much the rest.

That last conundrum -- more of manners than meaning -- has been now largely abandoned in popular usage, as nearly everyone in America now seems to accept "like" wandering into whatever company she will. As a child in Western Pennsylvania coal country, still then populated largely by descendants of the Scots/Irish, I had to break myself of using the word to punctuate thoughts as indefinite, as my grandmothers still did, as in, "Don't be late, like."

My spelling, as I've said, has been seen to by technological oversight. I type even the briefest note, when I can. I check everything. Yet, even as a long-time reader of reference books, I'm nevertheless still a little hazy on all the rules of punctuation, grammar and composition. My clauses proliferate. Commas, my oldest, dearest, friends, stutter along -- while dashes dash --and semicolons are a constant temptation; as evidenced everywhere here. I can not seem to write but in thickets. My sentences tend to end, when they can be seen to end at all, in the wrong place, or begin again when they ought to have stopped, long since. My writing rambles, though not like the rose, and too often I seem to end in the weeds.

And yet, one rule I try always to keep: whatever I write here, I try to make true. Exaggeration is as natural to me as overstatement, and both are my birthright, both by descent and sexual orientation -- peasants and perverts will neither of them ever tell a story straight -- and so I must be careful, watchful, and keep as near to honesty as I can, without being so exacting as to be thought dull. Neither scholar nor reporter, I don't feel the need to offer corroboration, when all I really write about is usually just myself. Yet I check my own memory, when I can, against the record and I am as careful as I can be of dates, and of other people. My memory is a sorry thing, and so, for instance, I am careful of quotes. I have to watch that I do not say what I do not mean, or that I do not make others to say what they never said. In short, to the best of my ability, I do not lie. I think we most of us would agree that that, admittedly as defined in the negative, is as near to telling the truth as we may get.

As a bookseller, I must admit to a certain weariness that this seemingly simple standard is not applied more rigorously in the writing and publishing of contemporary memoirs:

A little boy is repeatedly raped and tortured by his parents, and eventually rescued by a foster mother, who discovers that the child has AIDS. He survives to tell the tale.

... except that the boy, Anthony Godby Johnson, was really a middle-aged woman who called herself Vicki Johnson, though her real name was Joanne Vicki Fraginals. And the boy? An invention, start to finish. When exposed, both disappeared -- though in real life, we now know that "Vicki" married a quack psychologist, who was only recently acquitted of molesting little boys. Happy ending, I suppose, though the psychologist is now sadly dead, and poor "Vicki" now a widow.

A young junkie wakes up on an airplane, not knowing where he's going or how he even got there. He's been jailed multiple times, is still wanted by the police in at least three states, and his girlfriend has killed herself. When the plane lands, his parents put him into rehab. he survives to tell the tale.

... except that he wasn't, he hadn't been, and she didn't, if she ever existed at all. Yet, he and his publisher, Nan Talese, were shocked by the rude questions Oprah asked them, after the smoking gun website, among other sources, exposed tough guy James Frey as just a pimply novelist manqué with a police record that would make Paris Hilton giggle.

A little Jewish girl escapes the Warsaw ghetto and is adopted by wolves who protect her from the Nazis. She kills a German soldier in self-defence. She walks across Europe in search of her deported parents. She survives to tell the tale.

... except that the author, Misha Defonseca, while she "always felt Jewish," wasn't. Instead, she was raised comfortably by her grandparents in Brussels.

An orphan boy is raised by his Cherokee grandparents, who run moonshine, and teach the child respect for nature. Eventually, the boy is forced into a Residential School, where he is subjected to all manner of racism and prejudice, before being rescued by a Native American friend, named Willow John. Willow John and Grandpa die, and Granma willingly follows them. The orphan goes west, and survives to tell the tale.

... except that the author was not named Forrest Carter, let alone "Little Tree," but rather Asa Earl Carter, a member of the KKK, and the racist shill that wrote the infamous "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" inaugural speech in 1963 for Gov'nr George Wallace. In retirement from active race-bating and terrorism, ol' Asa took to writtin', pulp westerns mostly, until he wrote him a bestsellin' memoir, that weren't really anythin' much like.

In the Jewish ghetto of Riga, Latvia, a little boy's first memory is of his father's murder. After hiding in a farmhouse with his brother, the boy is deported to a concentration camp, where he sees his mother for the last time. He survives to tell the tale.

... except that the guy was actually just a Swiss clarinetist, named Binjamin Wilkomirski, who got no nearer a concentration camp than a tour bus.

Yet another victim of the Nazis never forgets the sweet little girl who passes him food through the fence at Buchenwald. He survives to tell the tale. Moreover, years later, on a blind date at Coney Island, they meet again, fall in love and marry.

... except that Herman Rosenblat invented the whole story to get on Oprah, write a book and pay off his IRS debt.

A half-breed Native-American girl grows up as a foster child South-Central Los Angeles, running drugs for the Bloods. She survives to tell the tale.

... except that "Margaret B. Jones" was really Margaret Seltzer; just some spoiled white chick from Sherman Oaks, who went to a snotty Episcopalian private school and who maybe kept a poster of Tupac on her bedroom wall.

The adolescent son of a prostitute working the truck-stops, is himself pimped out as a cross-dressing whore, after being abused and beaten for years. He dreams of a better life. He survives to tell the tale.

... except, and this one is my favorite, again, the whole shebang is a fraud, but this time with the added twist of a girl hired to play the imaginary boy -- most unconvincingly -- in public appearances while the woman who invented the whole story gives phone-interviews as both herself and as her made-up self, J. T. LeRoy.

Sadly, I could go on, and must. There is the Jordanian con who invented a best friend and then invented a forbidden love affair with an invented Christian for her, which got her invented throat slit by an invented Muslim father. Then there is the real mobster's son who exposed the real mobster's fake grandson, the fake Navajo with fake adopted kids with first Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and then fake AIDS, the German wunderkind who invented an autobiography to go with the stories she plagiarized, and the novelist who may or may not have A) been Native American, even a little, and B) adopted those Native American kids so that he might or might not abuse and or exploit them for copy, before he killed himself. And so on and on.

What all these stories have in common, other than a willingness to exploit the genuine tragedies and suffering of others, and a reliance on the most gruesome details thereof, mixed with outlandish invention, is the happy, or at least heroic ending. Hope, if not of redemption and reform, then at least of celebrity and cash, is required to make a success of this sort of thing. Nobody likes the defeated soul, or wants to read in book club about the survivor who despairs of God, and goes over the balcony. It is spiritual uplift that floats these books onto the nonfiction bestsellers lists. (Let's set aside the spiritual awakenings of various craven tourists, for they, like the poor, are always with us. From the tips of Gurdjieff's waxed moustaches to the seclusion of "Don Juan", we've always liked a bit o' showmanship & mystery in our spiritual guides, and can forgive them, it seems, their expansion beyond the verifiable, even when, like the American lady down under who was barely off the bus long enough to have glimpsed, let alone meet her Aboriginal "teacher", they admit their fibs. Religious charlatans are a class unto themselves, bless 'em, and not the subject here.) What's required in the successful fake memoir, beyond the lie, is triumph. We may have a morbid curiosity for violence, exploitation and the suffering of innocents, but it is the personal triumph over outrageous adversity, in the first person, that makes for blind editorial enthusiasm, big advances, book club selection, television talk show and lecture bookings, and yes, as we now know, even private jets billed to charity, but used to fly to sign books at Barnes & Nobles across the country.

I began by describing some of my own difficulties with rules, you may remember, but to this one, if nothing else, I think anyone who writes for even so small a public as this must be held: however near the truth one intends to get, and by whatever means, there's nothing like. A thing is true or it is false in the telling. David Copperfield is true, though fiction, not because the reader would have it so, or because the novelist intended us to accept the events described as having happened, but because the belief in their reality, in the cruelty of the Murdstones, and the kindness of Pegotty, in the long walk to Dover of a poor, ragged boy, etc., is necessary to our understanding of suffering, and hopefully then to the increase of human sympathy. That is the truth in Dickens. The reality of Mr. Dick and his kites, and of the donkeys on the green, may be taken as a condition of our enjoyment, just as David's final happiness may be taken as a condition of our satisfaction with the whole, and it is in the whole that a great novel may be taken as true. The delicacy of Charles Lamb may disguise his sister Mary as his "Cousin Bridget," and his crochets and whimsies be better expressed under the name "Elia," without making Lamb's essays in any way less than true. Such may be the necessary affectations of the individual artist. Such is not the privilege of those who would purport to tell the truth rather than express it. The difference between a fiction and a fraud is, so far as I'm concerned, in the means employed and not in the moral intended. One may tell a fable to illustrate a point, but not to claim credit as a witness to the events described, unless one is telling a story to very small children. The perpetrators of these fake memoirs would have us all back in the nursery, and their acceptance by publishers as nonfiction, and by the public as fact, without so much as an eyebrow being cocked when a boy may be played by a girl in a blond wig, hired by a childless woman old enough to be the mother of either, to play an author no one has ever met, for example, suggests that the publishers and the reading public deserve no more credit for maturity than the creator of "J. T. LeRoy" vouchsafed in the lot of us.

Likewise, the truthfulness of a minor, and all but unacknowledged contributor to two previously published but little read books: one the published papers of an obscure conference, and the other a perky little sop to middle class guilt about our lack of charity, published as a helpful calendar of things to be done each day, "none requiring a cash donation,"ironically enough as things have turned out, need never have been questioned. That is, until he claimed to have stumbled down lost in a tiny mountain village and there saved by the honest, illiterate peasants, fed back to health on Yak butter, and promising a little girl to return one day to build her a school. That he built just such a school, and many others, though never so many as he has claimed, nor all the ones built ever funded, nor some of them now used as anything but storage sheds, would seem to all be facts subject to some verification, surely. Likewise his harrowing tale of being held hostage by the Taliban. Likewise the bookkeeping of the charity he founded.

Again, as a bookseller, I despair not so much of the admittedly minor part independent bookstores may have played in the making of these frauds upon the public, but of the sickening sentimentality with which I find so many of us, yet again, defending these mountebank memoirists, even as their lies are exposed and their credibility vanishes from under them. How many times have I been told, by perfectly honest, respectable, well-intentioned business people in the book trade, that "the message" of The Education of Little Tree matters more than fact that the book was a perfectly cynical fraud executed for money, by an unrepentant racist? What, exactly, is the message of that? How well I remember a dear friend in the business who defended James Frey, for the good he may have inadvertently done addicts, by lying to them about his own, pathetically exaggerated experience of addiction and the all too common criminality that so often is a consequence of such a disease. How, exactly, does that aid the addict to be honest?

We are not alone. I've read critics and reviewers, at some risk to their reputations, not as arbiters of literature, but as possessors of plain common sense and any capacity for embarrassment, having been caught out by the facts as no less gullible than the rest of us, who are not so well paid to consider carefully what we would recommend to others, defend the artist value of the most duplicitous nonsense, rather than admit their mistake. Whose reputation, exactly, should suffer more by the evidence of such a malleable standard of value? Publishers and editors of national reputation, caught dining out on a swindler's bill, rather than push back from the table, complain of the bad manners of anyone so presumptuous as to suggest that they might be more careful of the company they keep and the character and competence of the people they employ, and bellow like babies if, in consequence of their carelessness with the check, anyone should denying them their desserts. How many invitations, how many meals has Nan Talese missed for never checking one "fact" in the whole of A Million Little Pieces?

Reading the responses of my fellow booksellers to this latest expose of the verifiable lies, alleged thievery, and at minimum the bloated self-aggrandizement of the author of the much admired and highly profitable Three Cups of Tea, I was at first touched by willingness of so many to give the beleaguered Greg Mortenson the benefit of the doubt, even now. It speaks well of a business that attracts such loyal partners in the promotion not only of books but of worthy causes, like literacy, the building of schools in remote places, and the education of underprivileged children half a world away. It also might be said, less flatteringly, to suggest a fundamental timidity, even among the independents, to challenge the public's taste for tripe. What good are we to those good souls still loyal to us for our superior service and selection, if we never challenge them when they express an unknowing or uneducated preference for the ersatz? How many of us who might know better, will now suggest a customer curious to understand the realities of life under the Taliban read Ahmed Rashid rather than the mix of real tragedy and personal myth that would seem to constitute the collected works of Mr. Mortenson?

If my experience to date is any guide, the truthfulness of the bookseller, myself included, will be no more reliable, when it comes to making a sale, than that of the publishers, editors, reviewers, and critics, likewise caught selling the public a bill of goods rather than the truth. All of us in the business of books are alike in this, that the business, not just the book, is too often what we give the customer, with nothing but the receipt and our thanks. At least when we know better, might we not try to give them something better? Otherwise, what real service have we done them?

But I may be wrong about this. Should anyone tell me that it is not my job to tell a customer that a particular book is, shall we say, mis-shelved as "nonfiction," I would be hard pressed to justify arguing anyone out of the sale. If I can sell David Ickes or Bill O'Reilly-- though never quite with a straight face -- I can still sell any of this sorry lot of liars, cheats and fakes without injury to my oh, so delicate conscience, can't I?

If nothing else, I do think we booksellers might be a little more skeptical by now, so that when the rep next comes in crowing about the latest memoir in which an abused and neglected child survives _____ at the hands of ______, at the very least when she does so after being adopted by a pack of wolves, we might request some little proof.

I don't know now but that I wasn't on to something, back there in the Fifth Grade, when I insisted that to be truthful, for instance, out to be the same thing as full of truth, like.

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