Saturday, January 29, 2011

Post: "A Pack of Lies"

Post by Christina

A few months ago, I heard this interview with Georgann Eubanks, author of a pair of books about literary landmarks in North Carolina. At the very beginning of the interview, she tells an anecdote about the day she went to visit the real Cold Mountain.
Ms. Eubanks stopped in a gas station in Bethel, North Carolina, to ask which of these mountains was the actual Cold Mountain. The woman working behind the counter pointed it out to her, and Ms. Eubanks asked whether she had ever read the book. She hadn't, but another customer in the store had. When Ms. Eubanks asked what he thought of the novel, he said "Well, I thought it was pretty good! But you know, Inman's descendant Ted Darrell lives here, and he is really upset. He thinks it is a pack of lies." Ms. Eubanks said, "But it's fiction!" and the man replied, "See what I mean, it's a pack of lies!"
(Haha! You should really listen to the first minute or so of the interview. It's a much funnier story when she tells it.)

Then, a couple of days ago, I ran across something related in a David Foster Wallace story called "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." An instructor in a graduate writing seminar tells the students: "Basically what you're doing when you're writing fiction is telling a lie, ... and the psychology of reading dictates that we're willing to buy only what coheres, on some gut level, with what we already believe."

This is a subject that has interested me for a while: the relationship between fiction and the real world, and how readers' expectations fit into that relationship. What's the difference between fiction and a lie? I would say that a lie is a lie because it's being passed off as truth. That's why there was such a ruckus about James Frey's A Million Little Pieces a few years back. The book was published as nonfiction, a memoir, so when it came to light that a whole lot of it was false, people (rightly) felt they'd been lied to.

Contrast that whole situation with one of my favorite memoirs which is called Lying. Here the author, Lauren Slater, freely mixes fact and fiction. She refuses to give the reader any hints about which events actually happened and which events are more symbolic or metaphorical. We can't even be sure this book truly belongs in the Nonfiction category. It works beautifully; she can manipulate her story at will, and no one will accuse her of lying. Or, at least, not lying in the same sense that James Frey was.

Going back to Georgann Eubanks' experience in the gas station, we have another fiction/nonfiction conundrum altogether. Is historical fiction really pure fiction? Or does it belong somewhere in between? I haven't read Cold Mountain (though I'd like to) so I'm not sure exactly what Inman's descendant is so upset about. But apparently the story doesn't "cohere, on some gut level" with what he already believes about his ancestor. So to him, it doesn't matter whether you call it fiction or nonfiction- it's just not true.

I love books that explore (whether intentionally or not) the relationship between truth, fiction, and history. So I'm going to start a little list here, with a few different categories. Please comment with your recommendations, and I'll add them to the list! For starters...

Memoirs that Lie
A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
A Child Called "It", Dave Pelzer
Go Ask Alice, by "Anonymous" (Beatrice Sparks)

Memoirs Containing Fictional Elements
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Lauren Slater
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley

Fiction that is so closely based on actual events it's almost not fictional
The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay
The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien

Books about this topic
Language, Thought, and Falsehood, Nicholas Denyer