Now that the dust is settling on the whole James Frey Million Little Pieces fiasco I’m beginning to think that we owe this guy a debt of gratitude. Maybe with the way this whole thing has blown up in the publishing industry’s face we’ll finally see an end to peoples’ desire to tell us all about their misery.
If there’s one thing I’ve hated more and more in the past few years is the way the word “share” has been used. All somebody has to do is tell me they want to “share” something with me and I start looking for an exit.
It used to be such a nice word you know, implying consideration and generosity. Somebody would offer to share their good fortune, their cookies, or some other treat; it was one of the virtues we were all taught about as children. Sharing stuff with your best friend meant you would give them a chunk of you candy, not dump on them.
Now when someone offers to share something with you it’s some sort of personal experience that they feel compelled to tell you about. Wasn’t sharing supposed to be something you did which had no strings attached that showed your appreciation of the other person? It was about giving something away to make somebody else feel special.
Instead they now pour forth some tale of woe, or courage, or perseverance and we’re supposed to be uplifted and inspired by their fortitude and heroism. Of course they also just happen to become the center of attention, but that’s just incidental, isn’t it? Now who’s making who feel like they’re someone special?
Have you ever watched one of these people being interviewed on any one of daytime talk shows? The cameras cut between the teary eyed guest on the couch talking to their confessor of the moment and a concerned face in the audience. The audience reactions have become Pavlovian to the point of ridiculous. They respond to their cues better than most actors gracing the small screen these days.
What’s even better is when the host of whichever show it is offers to share the story with their audience. Excuse me — you’re going to share someone else’s misery with us? My how generous of you. Who is it this week, a rape victim? Boy, the milk of human kindness must just flow through your veins letting everybody out there in television land hear all about somebody’s worst nightmare.
The audience is there for the same reason people like to stop and look at accident scenes: they want to see blood and bodies. It’s a chance to show how compassionate they are, by saying, “Oh isn’t that horrible” but without having to do anything about it. It’s like writing a check for a charity to feed the starving; it relieves your conscience without forcing you to have to do anything about the problem.
For the people who are the subject of these shows there’s the obvious attraction of being the center of attention. But something I’ve noticed in people I’ve known who have been the victims of some sort of abuse, including myself, is that at some point early in their recovery, they have a bizarre compulsion to tell almost everybody they meet what’s happened to them. This is just an extreme instance of the same need.
I don’t know whether it’s searching for sympathy or testing people to see what their reactions will be. In some instances it’s also a way of fighting back against the abuser who may have forced you to be silent for years. Any time you tell somebody it’s another blow for freedom.
But there’s nothing selfless in the act of telling other people. I remember too well the faces of people I used to spring it on. The only sharing that’s going on is of the horrors of the experience and that’s not exactly what I’d call generous. “Oh wow what a treat, today I got to hear all about how Sally was gang raped by her brothers when she was nine.” That’s just not the same thing as being given half a chocolate bar at recess by your best friend.
Sure, if a friend feels safe and comfortable enough with me to be able to tell me of some horror from their past, I’m honoured that they have that confidence in me. Although that’s still not the same thing as sharing as far as I’m concerned; it’s a whole lot better than these public confessionals that we’re subjected to now in the form of memoirs and talk shows.
This has been a huge industry that first started to see the light of day with the old Donahue show back in the seventies. But even at the height of his popularity I doubt he would have believed the influence these shows would eventually have on popular culture.
Appearances on Oprah, and to a lesser extent any of the other shows, lend an author instant credibility, if not bestseller status. Through these shows’ focus on “human interest” type material a market was created for a genre of book that had not really existed before. The tell all, baring of the soul, memoir whose purported purpose is to provide an example of how to change one’s life around.
For quite a period of time these stories have been taken at face value and nobody has questioned their accuracy. Audiences and readers have lapped them up to the tune of millions of copies sold and publishers have been riding the wave to the bank. They’re not going to care one way or another if the author plays a little fast and loose with the truth, all that matters is it’s place on the best seller list.
But now it looks like they’ve killed, or at least severely wounded, their cash cow. First it was James Frey being exposed, now it’s Nasdijj, a writer of supposed Navajo decent, come under fire. The publication LA Weekly has published an article offering proof that he is actually a white man named Timothy Barrus, a writer of gay and straight pornography.
He’s written three memoirs detailing a life of poverty and deprivation growing up as a poor half-breed Navajo whose mother died when he was seven. He claims to have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, adapted a son who suffers from the same problems, and recites a litany of woes, misdeeds, and hardships throughout his books. It’s interesting to note that both his publisher and his literary agent severed their relationship with him in 2004, but will only say it wasn’t because of issues to do with his background.
As of yet “Nasdijj” has not issued any response to these allegations. But a film producer who was interested in adapting his first book has dropped the project after learning of inconsistencies in the story and the author’s resistance to fact checking.
The doctoring of memoirs has a long and distinguished history and it’s always been for the same purpose: for the self-aggrandizement of the author. In the past it has taken the form of claiming to have witnessed historic events, or done heroic deeds but today’s false historians go in the opposite direction.
But thanks to Mr. Frey, these types of stories might start taking a hit in their popularity. Publishers are going to be a little more circumspect and take longer looks at manuscripts according to Ashbel Green, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knoff: “I think for a while, this will make people careful” she’s quoted as saying in the Globe and Mail.
Lets hope that this careful approach will also begin to extend to the public, and that people’s appetite for “shared” stories will begin to wane. Maybe then the bestseller lists will be able to list fiction as fiction and non-fiction as non-fiction and not have to worry about something that falls half way between the two.
I’m hopeful that Mr. Frey’s true legacy will be that he marked the beginning of the end of sharing oneself, and we can all go back to sharing chocolates and comics.