Monday, March 3, 2008

Also on Literal and Literary Truth

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

Did you read the story in the New York Times – “National Enquirer Article a Fabrication?” I can’t remember what the article being referred to was about, something to do with the founding of Rome I think. Still, I was astonished that a nationally distributed periodical would knowingly publish something containing falsehoods.

After that, when I read the story about Misha Defonseca admitting that her book, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, was made up I was not nearly as surprised as everyone else seems to have been. I have not had a chance to read the book but in it four year old Misha’s parents are taken to a concentration camp by the Nazis and she wanders for several years in the woods until she is adopted by a pack of wolves.

OK, I guess I can understand that the temptation to believe a story like that. A few internet searches do turn up modern day Moglis. From the girl found in Cambodia after, some claim, 10 years in the jungle to a boy raised by dogs in Russia, these stories appear often (there is actually a website devoted to such children). Unlike Mogli or Tarzan though, these people do not present as well adjusted mentally healthy individuals. They are, in fact, stunted and traumatized to the point where most can never function as a member of society.

Anyone with even a little bit of common sense reading Defonseca’s book must have known it was not literal truth; the question then is whether it is literary truth. In this case the real source of distrust probably arises from the fact that her parents were not taken to a concentration camp, but underground movement members caught and executed. Does that discredit every, or most, insights into the human condition that one can get reading the book?

When James Frey’s book went through a similar turn I read it with just that question in mind. The book fascinated me, not so much because of the rich, and fabricated, storyline, but more because of the disdain it showed for the AA five step program. I have always been struck by what I perceived as a lack of dissent on that program. Frey’s book provides that dissent, but is it legitimate?

The whole question of literal and literary truth has been, and continues to be, heavily debated among writers. An article in the November issue of Harper's,A Lie that Tells the Truth” by Joel Agee, looks at this, concluding that some license is reasonable. When you approach this question from the perspective of the reader, however, different issues are at play. First, and foremost, everybody lies. Be it a memoir, a textbook or a newspaper article expecting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth seems pretty naive.

Thus the question of legitimacy is not one for Frey, or Defonseca, or really any writer to answer, it is for the reader to decide. Literary, and most human, truths have to depend on a preponderance of evidence. In short that means you have to read more than one thing. If anyone ever tells you there is only one book you need to read on a topic, run the other way and read none, or plenty. A great writer should be loved, but never trusted. #

Related posts:

Disagreeing with Smart People
Decreasing Readership among the Corn-Fed


Lance said...

In my opinion, there is a clear, distinct and definitive point between telling a good story and lying outright to your audience.

No matter the feeling behind the story--whether to provide some dissent to the corporation that is AA or to bring light to the pain behind the Holocaust--the authors Frey and Defonseca delegitimized their stories instantly as soon as the line was crossed. The reason? Because while, yes...writers write to earn a living at their passion, the important part is that it is indeed that PASSION which drives them.

Frey and Defonseca's only goal was to snag publishers to make a quick buck and ensure tongues wagging about their "skills", with no regard whatsoever to the potential damage to the reputations and careers of the people who were advocates for them at these publishing houses, and who believed in them.

Tongues are wagging, all right...just not in the way either of these frauds might have liked.


Larry Mongoss said...


From a writers perspective I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments, and I also agree that such scandals make it hard on other writers. It is not, unfortunately, clear that such deceptions actually hurt the people who perpetrate them (the old all publicity is good publicity maxim).

Every writer has to make his or her own judgment about what is acceptable, and how to present it. I am not sure that one line fits all, but there are cases where it is very clear a work stands on the wrong side of it.

As a reader I will continue to look for the preponderance of evidence, and hope that more writers have your attitude.

Vanessa G said...

I wonder if the same anger exists if you reverse the situation?

If a piece of work hailed as pure fiction turns out to be based on fact, would everyone hop about berating the writer?

Chancelucky said...

Wasn't Frey's book marketed as a "memoir"...While there's some license there, it's not as broad as in "fiction".
Had either Frey or Defonseca said here's what I wrote, it's fiction ,and I won't comment about any basis in fact, I would have been fine.

The interesting thing about Defonseca is that it parallels the controversy around Kosinski's The Painted Bird almost exactly.

Some of the arguments about Anne Frank are also fascinating as were many of the concerns about Marco Polo. Basically, I don't think there's a clear line, but Frey and Defonseca both unquestionably crossed it.
I think a lot of fiction is very firmly rooted in fact. It wouldn't upset me at all to find out that the general events in a novel actually happened.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Lance, Vanessa, and Chancelucky, thanks for chipping in. (And Larry, thanks for the interesting angle of your post.)

In general terms of literary nonfiction, like Chancelucky I'm less firm than Lance about whether there exists a clear, distinct boundary between truthful story telling and lying. But when it comes to historical nonfiction, I agree that Defonseca has crossed an invisible line. Had she truthfully told the story of the deaths of her parents and her difficult childhood, I don't think it would be less interesting than the tall tale of living with wolfs. I tend to have a more strict attitude toward nonfiction that involves historical facts than personal. For this reason I can tolerant Frey a bit more.

Vanessa, people get angry about fact-based fiction all the time, which is kind of ridiculous. A recent case I know is that a Chinese author got sued, because her main character is based on a historical figure. The family of the historical figure accused the author of damaging his reputation, and the author lost the suit.

Eden Maxwell said...

Lying to deceive for questionable gain is not the same as embellishing a scene for some dramatic effect. After all, who was damaged by these writers of poor judgment?

Always consider the source.

"Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs."

--David ben Gurion

Xujun Eberlein said...

Good quote, Eden. And I agree with you in principle, but it is not always possible to distinguish a purposeful lie from an embellishment.

Sara said...

So sad that the Rosenblats lied about their story. Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was a great book and now movie, never pretended to be true. The Rosenblats, like Madoff, harming other Jews and it's terrible.

I read a New York Times article about Stan Lee and Neal Adams the comic book artists supporting another TRUE Holocaust love story. There was a beautiful young artist, Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. Dina's art became the reason she and her Mother survived Auschwitz.

Painting the mural for the children caused Dina to be taken in front of Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he decided to make her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber as long as she was doing painting for him.

Dina's story is true because some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. Also, the story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also a fact.

I wish Oprah would do a story about Dina and her art not about the Rosenblats who were pulling the wool over all our eyes.