Monday, January 30, 2006

We all love Harper Lee

She speaks! To the New York Times! And there's even a photo!

To a purist, there's not really much of substance. She doesn't discuss To Kill a Mockingbird or her friendship with Truman Capote, but I say more power to her. She doesn't owe us a window into her life. I'm just ecstatic that she seems to be happy and healthy.

Monday, January 23, 2006


It's all colds at the Craig home. Yes, that's right, all four of us. I've never seen so much snot.

Pity us, and send us hot soup.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Oh, what could be

John Leonard on Rick Moody's latest novel The Diviners in the New York Review of Books.

Mr. Moody is a writer for whom I have held great hopes, and every once in a while, in a particular short story or turn of phrase, he seems to merit some of that hope. Still, I have had to plow through a lot of manure to find the saplings.

For all that, I still read him. I still have hope.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Things that have gone away that should not have gone away

At the very least, each of these should be available on DVD.

Yes, I said that Oats should be on DVD, and I stand behind it.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Last one, I promise

The New York Times reports on James Frey's appearance on Larry King Live last night where he said that he had embellished "less than 5 percent of [his] book's content."

That's it. I'm done. I've said all I have to say about Mr. Frey, and he will appear no more in my blog. (Unless he writes a really great novel, but I'm not holding my breath.)

Ed. note: all right I lied, but I'm only adding this because I think that Seth Mnookin on Slate got it exactly right. Mnookin seems to agree with my assessment that A Million Little Pieces is really just a poorly written novel that finally got published when it was repackaged as a memoir, but Mnookin's last two paragraphs really explain why Frey's embellishments are a problem.

But why should we care that Frey seems incapable of [owning up to the truth]? Beyond being slightly infuriating—Frey has made millions of dollars off of Pieces—what's the real-world impact of Frey's fakery? Oprah might feel a bit foolish, and presumably at least some of the 3 million-plus people who bought Frey's book will feel ripped off, but that in itself is not cause for any serious outcry.

Unfortunately, because A Million Little Pieces—one of the best-selling books about drug addiction ever written—has been trumpeted as an unflinching, real-life look into the world of a drug addict, it has helped to shape people's notions about drug abuse. Ironically, the very abundance of its clich├ęs has likely helped make it a runaway best seller: People, after all, like having their suspicions confirmed. For nonaddicts, Pieces reinforces the still dangerously prevalent notion that it's easy to spot a drug addict or an alcoholic—they're the ones bleeding from holes in their cheeks or getting beaten down by the police or doing hard time with killers and rapists. For those struggling with their own substance-abuse issues, Pieces sends the message that unless you've reached the depths Frey describes, you don't have anything to worry about—you're a Fraud. And if you do have a problem, you don't need to necessarily get treatment or look to others for support; all you need to do is "hold on." In building up a false bogeyman—the American recovery movement's supposed reliance on the notion of "victimhood"—Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior. In fact, it seems clear that Frey would have been well-served by taking the kind of unflinchingly honest look at his own life that most recovery programs demand.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

More Frey/Leroy talk

Ayelet Waldman (novelist and Michael Chabon's wife) discusses J. T. Leroy on Salon

Doubleday shrugs off questions about James Frey's truthfulness in the New York Times.

Today's entries into the fray (the Frey fray?) give me a good opportunity to clarify a point or two and make another point explicit.

First, as a fiction writer myself, and considering that one of the authors in question is a fiction writer, it's counterintuitive for me to argue that LeRoy and Frey are liars. Frey's publisher makes a good point about the difference between biography/autobiography (which is scholarly and should be held to certain standards of accuracy and objectivity) and memoir (which is not and cannot). Since Frey's books are supposed to be memoirs, there is a good deal of wiggle room for embellishment. There is some talk that Frey himself considered his book a semi-autobiographical novel in the tradition of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, and that it was his publisher that wanted to market the book as nonfiction.

The bigger issue in my mind, as Waldman points out (yes, Waldman talks about Frey in her LeRoy piece), is that Frey himself seems to have embraced that marketing, even going so far as to present his experiences and choices as an alternative to addiction treatment programs like AA. This becomes extremely problematic if the experiences that Frey presents turn out to have been fabricated. (There is a huge difference between writing a novel in which a character invents a religion and writing a book that describes a new religion, followed by an application for tax-exempt status.)

Likewise, it almost doesn't matter that J. T. Leroy may not exist. The only issue with a J. T. LeRoy novel written by a 40-year-old woman who likes to play dress-up instead of a 25-year-old gender ambiguous boy is that LeRoy's work is presented as confessional narrative. It may not be entirely nonfictional, but a claim is made that it is based upon the author's experiences. Again, there are a lot of people who have criticized the whole genre of confessional literature. Isn't LeRoy himself the best argument that one need not be a damaged teenage boy to write like one?

What it really comes down to, in my mind, is that in today's publishing climate the best way to jump out of the slush pile is to present a fantastic "true story," and as both Frey and LeRoy show, it works. Laura Albert may well have been a cult writer without J. T. LeRoy, but she wouldn't have had the home phone numbers of Julianne Moore and Winona Ryder. James Frey, novelist, may have been the next Chuck Palahniuk, but I have a feeling that he never would have been invited to Oprah.

The infuriating thing is that it shouldn't matter. The rage fueling much of the Frey/LeRoy backlash is that of writers who are doing similiar work and can't even place it in a literary magazine, much less party with Madonna in Rome or cash that big Oprah check. Frey and LeRoy were able to distinguish themselves from the pack and find a mass audience by appealing to the cult of authenticity. I think it's instructive that they had to lie to do it. If they are liars, it is at least in part because we wanted them to be.

Reality television, meet reality literature.

(Ed. note: a writer for The Daily Show adds to the discussion in the New York Times.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I told you so

Okay, I never posted on it, so I can't really prove it, but I totally knew it. Back in 2003 when the bookstore where I worked was trying to start a public reading group, the first book chosen was James Frey's recovery memoir A Million Little Pieces. Being a good employee, I picked up a copy of the book to read so that I could help with discussion. I couldn't finish it because it seemed clear to me that Frey was making things up. (It's been two years since I tried to read it, so I don't have a lot of good offhand examples of what exactly didn't ring true, except that I skipped ahead to the end and it sure seemed like all the charaters that Frey seemed to like turned out okay, and all the characters who gave him a hard time died embarrassing deaths.)

It turns out, I was right. (Thanks to The Smoking Salon also posts a piece today discussing Frey and J. T. LeRoy. The New York Times weighs in here.

I wonder how Oprah will handle this news. (Frey's book was selected recently for Oprah's book club, and marked a return to works by contemporary authors.) Perhaps Frey will join Jonathan Franzen as one of the men who killed Oprah's Book Club. It's more distinguished company than he deserves.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Because I like to be exactly like my friends

Andrew Hungerford has a list of books he read in 2005 posted on his livejournal, and since I keep such a list myself it seemed silly to not share it.

Before I start in, however, a few caveats: first, 2005 was a sloooooow reading year for me. I worked crazy shifts in a grocery store and a CD store while my wife and I shared a room with our infant daughter. Quiet reading time was at a premium. Second, you may remember that I ignored nonfiction in my post discussing the NYT Book Review's 2005 list of notable books. As you'll see from my list, I don't read nonfiction. (I do, however, read newspapers, journals, and book reviews which, on the whole, keep me reasonably informed.) Third, for the heck of it, I'll include 2004's list as well. (As you'll see, 2004's list is much longer, partly because I was writing book reviews and so I was reading on deadline.)

Books read in 2005

  • Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
  • Marianne Robinson, Gilead
  • Caleb Carr, The Alienist
  • J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • Rick Moody, The Diviners
  • Jane Austen, Sense & Sensibility
  • John Updike, Rabbit Run

Books read in 2004

  • Jonathan Lethem, This Shape We're In
  • Hannah Tinti, Animal Crackers
  • E. M. Forster, Arctic Summer
  • Erik Larsen, The Devil in the White City (for review)
  • Debra Weinstein, Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. (for review)
  • Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code
  • Lois Lowry, The Giver (for author profile)
  • Lois Lowry, Number the Stars (for author profile)
  • Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue (for author profile)
  • Lucy Ellmann, Dot In the Universe
  • Julie Orringer, How To Breathe Underwater
  • Maile Meloy, Half In Love
  • Valerie Martin, Property (for bookstore reading group)
  • Orson Scott Card, Shadow Puppets
  • David Leavitt, The Body of Jonah Boyd
  • Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
  • Nathan Englander, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
  • Edward Lewis Wallant, The Tenants of Moonbloom

And I've already finished Zadie Smith's On Beauty for 2006.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Pseudonyms and other lies

I don't know how many of you are familiar with J. T. LeRoy. He is the author of one novel and one collection of stories, each supposedly highly autobiographical, although the author himself chose to remain a bit of an enigma. The story was that he had spent time as a cross-dressing prostitute, with his mother acting as his pimp, until rescued by Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop. A gender-hopping, streetwise, media-savvy phantom, LeRoy became friends with several literary figures, including Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill, and Mary Karr, some of whom offered financial support when LeRoy declared that he was HIV positive even though none of them had ever actually met LeRoy face to face.

New York magazine published an article in October that asserted that LeRoy's works were in fact written by Laura Albert, who is herself a San Francisco musician and scenester with a history of inhabiting multiple public identities. A small hullabaloo ensued, in which the New York Times, which had published at least one travel piece by LeRoy, and had commisioned another piece on the HBO series Deadwood, ended its relationship with the author because it could not establish his identity. Tomorrow, the Times will publish a piece identifying J. T. LeRoy's publc face as Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Koop's half-sister.

I've never liked pseudonyms, but this would be a tempest in a teapot had not LeRoy's "history" been so publicly mined to lend credence and authenticity to his writing. Thomas Pynchon serves as an illustrative counterexample. Pynchon's reclusiveness has long been such that there has been a great deal of speculation that he doesn't exist at all. For Pynchon, however, it doesn't really matter. The work stands alone. So much of LeRoy's fame, however, seems to hinge on his audience's identification with LeRoy himself.

There will be enough indignation that I hardly need to add mine. The sad thing is that it need not have mattered. A pseudonym doesn't have to be a lie.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Breaking through the slush pile

I'm not normally a fan of "ambush journalism," but this report from today's New York Times really pulls it off: it both confirms a previously held belief that you never quite put into words, and it tells you how bad things have become. (Which are really the twin goals of all ambush journalism.)

In all truth, I think that the Times has it wrong. The natural conclusion is not that today's editors and agents couldn't tell a great writer if one landed in their laps. In all truth, the more natural conclusion would be that today's editors and agents are shockingly poorly read, (I would have expected at least a letter or two with stern warnings of the consequences of plagarism) but there is an even simpler explanation.

The slush pile isn't being read (or, more accurately, isn't being given more than a cursory glance). I think this is true here in the US, and I would expect it to be even more true in the UK (keep in mind that the London Sunday Times actually conducted the experiment in question), where common wisdom has been for ages that publishers will publish reams of crap from an established author before even looking at a new talent, no matter how promising.

The real lesson is that no aspiring writer should look at any publisher as their knight on a white horse. Whitman famously self-published (so, for that matter, did Tom Clancy), perhaps we should as well.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A simple, unqualified no

I find it truly dumbfounding that the initial shock over the revelations of abuse and torture in US-run Iraqi prisons, followed by allegations of similar torture in Guantanamo Bay, and that the US is using secret prisons in Europe, has settled to a level of acquiescence that borders on acceptance. I'm grateful to Peter Brooks on Slate for reminding us of Camus' reaction to similar practices by the French government in Algeria.

As for Camus, in an essay published in the newspaper Combat in 1946, he summed up the moral ground he was seeking in an arresting phrase: "Ni victimes ni bourreaux." In Dwight MacDonald's translation for the review Politics, Camus' phrase is "neither victims nor executioners." The word bourreau means torturer as well as executioner. "Neither victims nor torturers." From the one—from the legitimate American sense of victimization following 9/11—we have passed to the other. To the complicity with torture proposed by Bush and his rationalizers, there seems to me only one response: an absolute "no." As to Clamence's wily insinuations, so to our administration's renditions, secret prisons, and enhanced interrogations: no.

The one argument I hear again and again in favor of torture is the necessary intelligence in the face of a direct and immediate threat scenario: what if a prisoner knows the location of a nuclear weapon, and torture is the only way to get him to talk? The immediate follow-up to this question is that the situation described is precisely our situation. The enemy, so it is said, is real, and will use any means at his disposal to harm us.

Once again, the only word left to me to descibe such an argument is mendacity. Certainly, there are people who would like to harm American citizens, with whatever weapons they can get their hands on. This, however, does not give us carte blanche. Not every terrorist is carrying a nuclear weapon, and not every person suspected or detained is actually a terrorist.

Furthermore, even necessity does not give civil society the right to torture. The brave answer to the question is yes, if I were responsible for a suspect who knew the location of a nuclear weapon, I would torture him or her to find out the location. I would do it, and then I should go to prison for it. There are certain things that even when morally necessary can neither be ethical or legal.

Let us also keep in mind that there are dozens if not hundreds of detainees, and no credible evidence that there has ever been an actual nuclear threat. The threat of a nuclear terrorist strike and a meteor hitting the planet are both real. They are possibilities that we can never completely escape. We cannot, however, let the president or anyone else tell us that the sky is falling, and that we need a human sacrifice to hold it up.