Friday, February 03, 2006

Arguing the truth

All of the attention to James Frey and his Million Little Pieces sent me back to the diaries of composer Ned Rorem. He published his first diary in the 1960s and it made him a literary darling of much renown. Gay, handsome and gossipy, Rorem made his diaries into highly readable chronicles of the glitterati of New York, Paris and beyond. Even as a teenager, I found his musings on the rich and talented every bit as entertaining--and probably more truthful--than Truman Capote's.

So the other day I happened upon a book I hadn't seen before: A Ned Rorem Reader, a sort of extended conversation by Rorem about the art of the diarist. Here's an excerpt that reminded me of the Frey debacle and added a new spin on the controversy about whether a memoir has to be fact-checkable:

My work is my truth. Insofar as that work is also art it is also true for you. That that art may lie makes it no less true. A symbol posing as the real thing betrays itself, yet the betrayal can't disqualify the symbol's status as symbol.

That painting there's not true to life, it's scarcely true to paint. That tune's not natural, not birdsong, not wind's sough, it's false to outdoors. It sounds like nothing else. It lies.

According to who's listening we all are liars. Artists' fables are worth attending. Lies of art ring true.

...Those who say, "Look out, he'll quote you in that diary," are the very ones I never notice. The others, they're safe, they can't win, I don't quote, I misquote. Lurking behind the exquisite monster, I'm capable of guidance--that is, of guiding him. The matriarch's mother.

Who most loathe the diary are those depicted within. What they most loathe is not precious archness, not opinions stated as facts nor the urbane reflections posing as pastorale pensees, but seeing their life reduced to anecdote, however crass or laudatory. Of course there's no such thing as THE truth, there is only ONE'S truth, and even that fluxes with each passing hour. ...It never occurred to me that friends would feel hurt from my passing verities.

A book's a book, not real life. Yet when offered for real, as a diary, the book must be arranged to seem real. the very arranging teaches an author artifices of life itself, outgrowths which in the telling become more natural than in their larval stage of mere being.Rorem goes on. He's worth reading on the topic if only to remind readers that words on a page represent ONE'S truth, not always THE truth. As he says, when Picasso paints a goat, what you see isn't an actual goat; it's the artist's version of a goat.

My blog is and always has been my version of the goat.


Blogger Koru's Daughter said...

Hi Prof,

The quote is not visible. Would you repost it? Thank you.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Morgaine said...

I think the whole thing is dumb. From what I can tell, he embellished the story, but the essence was true. So what if he took creative license? That's why it's called "writing" and not "stenography."

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Lauren said...

I don't even think the essence was true. A lot of his 'embellishments' were just blatantly made up- such as the 4-hour stint in jail that was transformed into a 3-month ordeal. It might be a good read, but it's fiction, not a memoir.

7:02 PM  
Blogger SuperHolmie said...

I'm with morgaine. I thought the point of reading was to learn, or to be entertained, or to appreciate the way David Sedaris and David Rakoff can turn a phrase. If the point of his book was to discuss his battle with drug addiction, and he did that, then what's the big deal? Is his message somehow mitigated because he was in jail a few hours instead of a few months, or because the girl slit her wrists instead of hung herself?

7:39 PM  
Anonymous raymond said...

But isn't society diminished when we can no longer distinguish fact from fiction? My understanding is that he originally tried to sell it as the later but couldn't get published, and simply re-brande it as a bio. While I empathize with his struggle to get published, society as a whole simply cannot tollerate this sort of thing.

We are seeing, in this debate, the result of decades of post-moderinst agitprop. If this sort of behavior goes without notice, we will soon lose any ability to discriminate truth from falsehood, fact from fiction, or sense from nonsense.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frey is a horrible writer. The essance of wrenching truth into prose (be fiction or non) is how well one represents the truth. Frey misrepresented the truth and what's more horribly.

A good writer can turn even the most boring moment seem riveting. Frey turned the most unpleasent times of his life fictionalized fury.

His book was originally submitted as fiction but refused because it all tied up too nicely and no one would buy it.

A good writer can take fact and turn it into compelling ficion. A great writer can take fact and turn it into masterful non-fiction. A peerless writer can take fact, write it down as fact, sit back and wait until she/he can finally incorporate said fact into a bigger fiction that says more about the whole than the original fact ever could.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having just finished the book (Lauren, have you read it -- or just the press??) -- the 3 months in jail wasn't a big part OF the book ... The story starts when he is on the way to treatment and ends when he gets out, the epilogue accounts for the time after....

It seems like this could easily have been the truth to him. At the time, he was a severely addicted person. Drug addicts aren't exactly known for their truthfulness and accuracy of memory.

6:03 AM  
Anonymous K. said...

Frey is a cushy upper-middle class white kid posing as a drug-addled idiot. All of his characters conveniently die before the book is published and most of them are so stock that they probably were never real in the first place (such as the whore with a heart of gold, very War and Peace).

I appreciate his attempt at delivering a compelling narrative - I think creative license can stretch very far - but if you parade your shit with the amount of grandiose machismo that he did, constantly asserting the EXACT and COMPLETE truth of everything you say knowing FULL WELL it was all a blown up fiction - someone is bound to catch on to you.

It's not that me lied - it's that he turned into such a whiney pussy when he got caught.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Red River said...

Does Frey remind anyone of another spoiled white kid - Vanilla Ice?

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Lauren said...

I've read both the book and the Smoking Gun report about it, and it seems to me that the differences were pretty substantial. The book is a good read, however- as fiction.

4:19 PM  
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