Matthew John Phillips
Issue date: 4/1/08 Section: Opinion
As a creative writer, I have always been somewhat averse to the idea of truth in fiction. It seems somewhat contradictory to me - incorporating too much of oneself or one's life invalidates the fictional world being created. It seems narcissistic, as if my life or your life could be important enough for the creative plane.
And in the past few years, the opposite situation has become a problem - too much fiction in what is expected to be truth. The name James Frey comes to mind. What about the Holocaust memoir by Misha Defonseca that was recently revealed to have been completely fictionalized? To imagine - she did not really escape the atrocities of the Holocaust to be raised by wolves in the European wilderness. It just all seemed so plausible.
And then there is the desperate attempt to hide the truth. The Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe recently won a lawsuit brought against him by two ex-World War II Japanese soldiers. Oe, in his book, Okinawa Notes, details the lengths to which the Japanese government and Japanese soldiers persuaded - often harassed - residents of Okinawa and other southern Japanese islands to commit suicide rather than give in to invading U.S. forces. While not directly filed by the Japanese government, the lawsuit was heavily supported by a conservative movement led by the prime minister to "soften" the accounts of Japanese-motivated atrocities. In every sense, the truth is apparently too hard to handle. Yet hiding it only reveals the extent to which we have never healed from - perhaps, learned from - our past.
In my narrative nonfiction class, ENGL 398R: Topics in Professional Writing: Writing Non-Fictional Narratives, we talked briefly about this recent trend of fictionalizing memoirs, yet few people seemed concerned by the thought of authors capitalizing on the stories of their lives. While James Frey is, perhaps, a poor example, as his "memoir" was indeed inspired by the lives and situations of people he encountered during his brief rehab stint, there is still a bit of a stigma whenever anyone decides to write a memoir or autobiography.
This inundation of falsification is more than just a symptom of the technology age and its speed-of-light fact-checking process. Despite the sophistication of the media, people still pounce on the sensational. Why else would the story of Margaret Seltzer (published as Margaret B. Jones) sell so well? Who can resist the story of a young, white girl - and Bloods gang member - who grew up on the mean streets of Los Angeles? Not I - especially when it was actually written by a 34-year-old native of Sherman Oaks, Calif.
The reason these books keep selling before fact-checking can be completed is because the general public wants them so much. We (or rather, you) love a good, scandalous novel. Truth be damned - who needs it when you have love, sex and gang violence?
Rather than blaming the authors, we should blame the readers. The general anti-intellectual movement at this university and the collective whole is producing a nation of stimulation-driven readers. Car chases, explosions and pop culture trivialization do not automatically transfer to literature, but readers are clamoring for these things.
In a February essay for Harper's Magazine, Ursula K. Le Guin addressed the decline of reading and the death of the publishing industry. According to the article, a 2004 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts stated that 43 percent of Americans had not read a single book all year long. So much of this extends from the general apathy and quasi-ADD interests of most Americans.
Yet, all of this isn't any sort of insult, just a general critique. Because, as both an English major and future publisher, I want to ensure that the art of writing never truly fades away. Because I do not believe we can afford to ignore or trivialize literature. Because the truth of literature informs the truth of ourselves, and we need that truth, whether fictionalized or not. I wouldn't lie to you about that.
Matthew John Phillips is a junior English major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.