Confession in a late age. Part 2

To continue from the last post with Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay (which is actually a book review, but the book doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as Mendelsohn himself):

A decade and a half ago, the distinguished critic William Glass fulminated against the whole genre [of memoir] in a scathing Harper’s essay, in which he asked, rhetorically, whether there were ‘any motives for the enterprise that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification? To halo a sinner’s head? To puff an ego already inflated past safety?’ The outburst came at a moment when a swelling stream of autobiographical writing that had begun in the late eighties was becoming a flood. By the end of the nineties, a New York Observer review of one writer’s first book, a memoir, could open with an uncontroversial reference to ‘this confessional age, in which memoirs and personal revelations tumble out in an unprecedented abundance.’

Unfortunately, some of our most touted recent memoirs have turned out to be phonies: e.g. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, supposedly a memoir about drug addiction, created a scandal until his sponsor Oprah Winfrey withdrew her support and Frey apologized on national television for lying. If a memoir isn’t based literally and blow-by-blow on someone’s life, if the suffering isn’t real, how can the redemption be real?

Which brings us to the subject of “reality.” Says Mendelsohn, “Reality itself is a term that is rapidly being devalued.” The most obvious reference is to reality TV where the impoverished homes where ‘real people’ live are turned into mansions, where the real people themselves are abandoned (with a host of TV cameras) on desert islands, sent out on unlikely dates, made to eat disgusting insects, or to relate in excruciating detail their most personal struggles. In every instance, however debased it may be, there’s the same narrative of suffering and redemption.

Poster and wall. NYC. Late 20th century.

Our hunger for ‘real’ stories of  ‘real people’ may only be exceeded by our need to tell our own.

And this is where one of several dilemmas lies. Anyone who has tried to write down details from her past, in fact, anyone who has tried to remember, knows how unreliable memory is. The truth of any memoir can only be a relative truth. And still, we all intend, and pretend, to tell the truth. Today, especially with the Internet, personal narratives are legion. To be online can be like getting lost in a place full of tumult and shouting. From all sides, in the news, on entertainment shows – there’s little difference between them now – the stories come at us – unproofed, unedited, unevaluated. And we, bewildered, but thirsting for the real and the true, we comb through them, entangled in the wild growth of them and with no machete at hand.

Jungle scene. Photo by Mess of Pottage. Creative Commons license.

In our aesthetic life, as in our political life, reality and truth are more and more difficult to distinguish, or to define.

Mendelsohn suggests that the thirst for confessional narrative presents a serious problem for fiction. “If you can watch a real lonely woman yearning after young hunks on a reality dating show, why bother with Emma Bovary?” Memoirs, like nonfiction, are about the details of  life, its objective truth. A novel, on the other hand, represents a “truth” about life itself. A novel is apparently what Frey really wanted to write.

However, I feel myself treading – to continue with my overwrought metaphors of overland travel – on uneven ground. Maybe the next post.

I’m only adding a single page from Sally Levy’s Roonbook of Wild Stuffs this time. I’ve been too verbose. I think this page may describe something of how it feels to think about all this.

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