Tuesday, January 10, 2006

"Autobiographies"

From Salon: . 10, 2006 | Not much business got done in the world of publishing on Monday. Editors and writers all over New York spent the morning poring over the Smoking Gun's lengthy, meticulous exposé of the fabrications and exaggerations in James Frey's bestselling addiction memoir "A Million Little Pieces." The afternoon they devoted to e-mailing and phoning friends and colleagues to discuss all the gory details./

Because I've ghosted a couple of "memoirs" myself, I'm cynical about virtually all of them. On both books I was asked to come up with a hook that could translate into radio and tv interviews. "Dog shoots three then takes own life." That's enough to get you on the Today show.

In the 70s Norman Mailer wrote The Armies of The Night, his contribution to the so-called "non-fiction" novel. In the 60s, God was dead. In the 70s, the novel was dead. Mailer's book is for me one of the great American reading experiences however you choose to label it. But given Mailer'ss love of mischief and melodrama, you can bet some if not many of his encounters on the bloody hippie streets of 1968 were hyped. Hype is what writers do, especially fiction writers who turn to memoir. Hell, Lillian Hemman's An Unfinished Woman was 99.5% bullshit. Never happened. But for years it was extolled for a truthful and shacking lot it took at Fascist Europe just before the war.

Back to the hook idea. Publicists need hooks. Now I'm going to say something that most of you will argue with me about. I spent four years researching my novel The Marilyn Tapes. The premise (and it turned out to be true) was that both J. Edgar Hoover and the Kennedys buggd Monroe's bedroom and that both teams had to get to those tapes first so they could (Hoover) blackmail Kennedy) and Kennedy (avoid being blackmailed by Hoover). In my book I give both teams 36 hours to get in and get out of her house. The notorious private eye and fixer Fred Otash claimed that he'd bugged Monroe's bedroom an got in and out witin eight hour of her death. I tend to believe him. He was a sleazy guy but I don't think he was a liar.

But the story about J. Edgar Hoover being a cross-dresser? Bullshit. I don't believe that for a second. I read three long books about Hoover. Nothing in those hyper-critical books suggested anything like that. But when the creep who wrote the cross-dresser book came out, he'd given the publicity department the hook of all hooks. Hoover was a cross-dresser. (The writer has done several books where the hook is dubious at best.)

Or how about the despicable (and inadvertently hilarious) Charles Higham. Earl Flynn a gay Nazi spy? Who in God's name would entrust him with vital secrets? He was known to drink a little more than two fifths of scotch and/or vodka a day. This is a guy you'd hire as a spy? Either he'd forget the secrets because he was so soused or because he was so soused he'd tell EVERYBODY. As for gay...when would he have had the time between all the fifteen year old girls he was pumping? But there you had another brilliant if prepostorous hook. Guaranteed slots on both big time tv and big time radio.

I haven't read Frey's book but when I read the review in the NY Times I remember wondering how much of it was true. I'm an alcoholic (thirty two years dry) and a former drug user (last use 1976) and so I have some sense of being down and out. And I know that some human beings can endure astonishing damage to their bodies. But this dude sounded super-human to me. It wasn't necessarily untrue but it sure pushed at the borders of reality. I'm not kidding when that given all he ingested and lived though would have put me in my grave before chapter five. And it's a long book.

I'm not shocked. If I'd bought the book I wouldn't ask for my money back. And I'm sure there's enough powerful truth in it to make it a good cleansing read for me and a true purgation for James Frey. But as for strict truth...publisher's still prefer half-truths and great hooks to strict truth. I SLEPT WITH MOTHER THERESA! ("I always thought she was a slut!") It's publishing, folks, get over it. We're no longer in the arts (major or minor take your choice) we're in show-biz ad that's a whole different task master.

1 Comments:

Blogger Ron Franscell said...

From author/blogger Ron Franscell at http://underthenews.blogspot.com ...

American literature -- considered an oxymoron in the rest of the world -- has gone downhill fast since New York surrendered America's storytelling standards to Hollywood, where illusion -- EVEN IN TRUE STORIES -- is exactly the point. Today, the "perfect" story is determined by its film-worthiness more than its literary quality. In the name of creating Californicated literature, New York editors have blurred the line until even they don't know what's true. "It's a good story," they'll say, "so who cares if it's an utter and ballsy lie?"

I care. Capote admitted on the bookjacket that "In Cold Blood" was fictionalized in some part. Coleridge's definition of fiction was "the willing suspension of disbelief." What if it's not willing? That's the difference between making love and rape, albeit without either the exhilaration or violence. If you thought you were reading a true story, you were conned. What if we found out next week that the famous Zapruder film was, in fact, a Hollywood dramatization passed off as a real eyewitness home-movie and, oh, isn't it funny how we fooled you??

4:05 PM  

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