Well, What Did You Expect?

Anne Applebaum’s ”A Cartoon Portrait of America” disappoints. She tells us “self-styled U.S. ‘conservatives’ blamed not cynical politicians and clerics but Newsweek for (accidentally) inciting violence in the Muslim world: ‘Newsweek lied, people died.’” She concludes her complaint against the right-wing blogosphere by telling us: “The moral is: We defend press freedom if it means Danish cartoonists’ right to caricature Muhammad; we don’t defend press freedom if it means the mainstream media’s right to investigate the U.S. government.” Well, right-wing blogs are right-wing; certainly we may be guilty of hyperbole & shuffling together in one group many individual opponents. And Applebaum (as repeatedly noted in right-wing blogdom) is one of the good guys – she knows in her gut the importance of proportions; the Gulag she studied was not Duranty’s Russia. Even here she criticizes what she sees as “Hypocrisy of the Cultural Left” as much as she criticizes the right. Her experience has defined her reactions, sure, but she is not a one-note speaker. And her openness is courageous: she engages with Captain Ed. Still her “moral” ignores Newsweek‘s implicit contract.

The blogosphere’s disappointment is with her confusion – and that is certainly what it seems to be – between an artist’s responsibility and that of a reporter, between a genre that honors objective truth and one that projects a subjective one. Nor does her exchange on Captain’s Quarters acknowledge this distinction. She alludes to her authority, but our respect heightens our disappointment. (See Austin Bay; Powerline.) Whether or not some people believe that Abu Ghraib should not have been reported is a red herring used too often to distract us any longer. Seeing criticism as censorship is a ploy that insults opponents & undermines dialogue.

Newsweek defines itself as an accurate source of news. Then it runs a dramatic charge with minimal (and not very credible) sourcing. That an intense investigation was begun is important; that it found Newsweek’s story not true is also important. Indeed, that it was the government & not the media that prized the truth enough to seek it out reinforces our sense that those abdicating their truth-telling responsibilities are less and less often the government and more and more often the media. To brand such observations as censorship is ingenuous at best.

The gap between expectation and fulfillment is likely to influence the audience’s sense of whether they’ve gotten a “good deal” or been snookered.

When a news magazine lends the weight of its genre to a fact, readers expect it to be the truth – or at least a near-fact arrived at with care and precision; reporters are human – mistakes will be made. Still, the genre leads the audience to expect factual truth. And it requires a certain humility & self-discipline: “substitute facts” or “near enough” facts don’t appear because a reporter thinks that, well, probably, something like that happened. And when those standards are lowered, we are angered, we feel duped. The article’s lie is a betrayal of the trust with which we entered into that implicit contract. The consequences of that lie might be similar to those of the truth, but the criticism would be quite different—and we see that difference in these arguments from the right.

The cartoons were solicited by editors asking for a subjective response to Islam’s prophet. (And yes, the request also arose from a desire to see how broad self-censorship was and to provoke – though they were hardly successful in the last, since it took four months & doctored examples.) Applebaum ignores our sense that what purports to be factual is held to one standard; another (neither higher nor lower but different) is applied to art (or satire or humor). We are not offended when Dave Barry spouts amusing nonsense about people blowing up; we are not offended when an AP story covers real people being blown up. Both may receive a Pulitzer. But if the latter were made up and the former objectively reported we would be mildly irritated, disappointed. We expect something different. The most basic expectation is of the kind of truth represented.

Cartoons, political caricatures, have more of an artist’s truth than an historian’s. The great prophet did not, for instance, have a bomb in his turban. But in 2006, the association of bombs with the faith of Islam illustrates a subjective truth – to the cartoonist and countless others for whom his image is hopelessly and thoroughly intertwined with memories of bombs on the subway, bombs on the bus, bombs in Bali, bombs in Madrid. That this coupling is hurtful to the faithful of Islam is another truth. That this coupling is not fair to the silent majority of Muslims may also be true. But the cartoonist’s coupling is not so much a bigoted response that lumps peoples together than the very reasonable one of a man who has listened to the bombers tell us their acts are done from a deep reverence for Allah and following Allah’s will. Certainly the responses (manipulated as they may be) do little to uncouple those images in our minds.

Of course art’s truths can be profound, deeply true, even though communicated through fictional characters moving through fictional worlds. But isn’t that the point – art is “true” because we see it making sense of facts – the truths we know through our own experience. Art’s truth is the thesis; our experiences & the facts we trust that others tell us – they are the rest. Aristotle argues that in a good speech, the thesis, the controlling thought, balances the “other”, the assembled data and reasoning. That is, it is only when we have a controlling thesis that orders (subordinates & connects) our data that we have an argument. The two quite unequal halves make the whole. So, we go to art as one of the many ways (the beliefs of our culture & our faith, the generalizations we’ve made ourselves are others) to find organizing theses; we support such a thesis with our own sense that the details within the art – the characters, the experience, the feelings, the thoughts – are “true” to the universal human. While art quite importantly teaches us about other people & places & values, it is no less important that it helps us recognize the old & universal truths, ones reinforced by our own experience. Yes, we say, we understand Othello for we, too, know jealousy; we understand Cassio because we, too, have been weak. And, indeed, they are like others we know. Shakespeare’s truth is no less than the Washington Post’s; indeed, it is much, much more. But we do not open Shakespeare to understand history, but man. After all, he had a Tudor audience and a Tudor queen. Richard is not “true” in one sense, though we may find it true in another, saying, ah, I understand such a villain because I am a bit like that, others I have known are, too.

The great I, responding to, looking out at the world in its own partial fashion was central to the way the mid-twentieth century looked at life, literature, journalism. At their best, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion gave us well-crafted art. But eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate. Our memories are not always trustworthy and, besides, we like to spin a charming narrative. Besides our pasts are likely to contain moments we’d just as soon not dwell on – nor want others to. Memoirs are always the writer’s truth – and if few fail to capture the real truth as spectacularly as Lilllian Hellman’s did, in even the most honest, memories prove untrustworthy. Mary McCarthy tried, we see her try & believe she tries, but her memories are sometimes different than her brothers – and often we realize her brothers were correct. A family reunion or two and we find the truths of which we were so certain are not always those of our siblings. But, well, it was our youth – and how we saw it shaped us.

A country so characterized by individualism has long honored personal narratives – whether their focus is on the spiritual (say Jonathan Edwards’) or the pragmatic (say Benjamin Franklin’s). Slave & captivity narratives more heavily depend upon sympathy for the narrator, evoked by our thoughts of their real trials. For all of them, but especially the more dramatic ones of torture & rescue, the writer’s honesty is important. Nor does this stop at our borders. We read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956 with a different intensity than Applebaum’s. We respect both, but our expectations are different.

Skeptics will always doubt & test an author’s authenticity: they know some interesting writers lead duller lives than they describe and some who lead interesting lives need help in coaxing that color from words. In the last weeks those questions have moved to the front burner, as they do periodically. One controversy concerns James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. The work was applauded by Oprah; he was “found out”, then interviewed by Larry King, and taken to task in a harsh second interview with Oprah when she found his experiences not those of his “autobiography.” King introduces him, saying, “Tonight, exclusive, the controversial book everyone is talking about, “A Million Little Pieces.” The biggest non-fiction seller of last year.” It was a best-seller thanks in large part to Oprah’s book list. The work, describing Frey’s “redemption,” is apparently not factually true. And the excuses the readers made for its style appear to be extorted by their belief in its factual truth. For instance, we find this early review on Amazon:

The rage-fueled memoir is kept in check by Frey’s cool, minimalist style. Like his steady mantra, “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal,” Frey’s use of repetition takes on a crisp, lyrical quality which lends itself to the surreal experience. The book could have benefited from being a bit leaner. Nearly 400 pages is a long time to spend under Frey’s influence, and the stylistic acrobatics (no quotation marks, random capitalization, left-aligned text, wild paragraph breaks) may seem too self-conscious for some readers, but beyond the literary fireworks lurks a fierce debut.

If the memoir was not, indeed, rage-fueled, then its minimalism is, what, the appearance of restraint when none was needed? Or is this less “too self-conscious” than just bad writing?

This was not the life he led. If we find the “truth” of the work less in its power as art and more in its power as testament, then Frey’s critics have every right to be angered. They feel gulled, because they believed Frey’s voice authentic– their sympathy drawn to his plight. But, some would ask, what is the difference? If the reader feels it is “true” doesn’t that invalidate our “harping” about detail? Doesn’t that indicate the writer achieved the other truth – the truth of the universal human experience? Well, maybe. Certainly, the created speaker of the tale can have as much validity as the real one. And, that can be applied to Newsweek as well, Applebaum implies: if the writers at Newsweek felt that a certain disrespect for the prisoners was true (she speaks of dogs & menstrual blood), then quibbling about a particular “fact” – the flushed Koran – is petty. But while we do not hold Newsweek to the great truths, we do hold it to the mundane ones. Sure, we don’t hold art – or even casual dinner table conversation – to that level of fact. Our expectations arise because it has chosen to represent itself to us as a news magazine.

A similar complex controversy has erupted in the last few weeks over the biographical truth of a writer who took the name “Nasdijj.” In many ways, the story of his life resembles that of the prolific Sherman Alexie, a member of the Spokane tribe, who has long argued that the man who presents himself as “Nasdijj”, the son of a Navajo mother and white father, is honest about neither parentage nor experiences. Alexie contends his art is then invalid. He is especially exercised because Nasdijj seems to have appropriated some of Alexie’s own experiences into his works, though charges of plagiarism seem quite strained.

His anger seems to arise from the similarity of the trajectories of their two careers. Both were first brought to national attention in Esquire: Alexie publishing “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” in 1993; Nasdijj “The Blood Runs like a River Through My Dreams” in 1999. Alexie was a finalist for a National Magazine Award; the story was turned into the film Smoke Signals, well received at the 1998 Sundance Festival. Nasdijj was also nominated for a National Magazine Award; his story was expanded into a memoir that became a finalist for a PEN/Martha Albrand Award; the production of his work into a movie went through early stages as well. But from whence came the power of each? The writing itself & the art’s truth – or from the biographical force indebted to the artist’s authenticity, his experience?

I haven’t read Nasdijj, but find Alexie’s short story wise about narrative and understanding of character. We are likely to view Alexie’s position with more sympathy as we begin to suspect that Timothy Patrick Barrus, who shares Nasdijj’s social security number and apparently his life, is not all that nice a person. Although he has his own claims to fame (apparently defining the important sub-genre of gay leather internet pornography was one of his triumphs), Matthew Fleischer‘s “Navahoax” in the L.A. Weekly finds Burras a bit crazy and more than a bit of a poseur. Threaded through accounts of the various lives he has assumed seems an obsessive hatred of publishers & a great desire to write. Fleischer notes many have been moved by Nasdijj’s work, especially his imaginative understanding of a father’s love for his son. On his journey through life, perhaps Burras has been honing his skill; we suspect his anger at publishers first arose when they didn’t appreciate him, the original & perhaps “real” Burras. (Even in high school, he excelled at drama.) Perhaps he has grown & now has an ability to capture the universals; perhaps there was always a talent beneath the mask. But he clearly thought he needed the costume & to play a part. He wasn’t, however, willing to respect the lives he pretended to represent sufficiently to learn their customs. His admirers soon realized he got it wrong in many ways – e.g., the matrilineal line of descent among the Navajo or the symptoms of a child born with fetal alcohol syndrome or the tribe’s eating choices. In the end, Fleischer shreds the author’s credibility; perhaps he can write but we wouldn’t be surprised to find Burras/Nasdijj hanging around a Kinko’s in Abilene.

In Time Alexie’s ”When the Story Stolen Is Your Own” argues:

So why should we be concerned about his lies? His lies matter because he has cynically co-opted as a literary style the very real suffering endured by generations of very real Indians because of very real injustices caused by very real American aggression that destroyed very real tribes.

But it is Alexie’s very argument that encourages Frey & Burras to, well, dupe us. He argues that the truth of his works is not that of literature but of politics. He takes as his subject not the universal but the personal. He expects to be accepted as an authentic voice; he isn’t asking that his work be gauged for its ability to capture art’s truth but rather his own authenticity, his ethnic truth. To Alexie, his identity is a commodity. He sees himself as part of a small cartel that has the rights to Indian lit. Personally, I don’t find this all that convincing. “Movement lit” devalues both the art of minorities and the role of art. But, of course, Alexie is right in a less politicized way; if the details are wrong, how much do we trust the essence? And we wonder: if the customs are wrong how much do we trust the psychology? But whatever I think of Alexie’s argument, I know each time I pick up a work of art the biography of the writer influences my reactions.

I was especially struck by the problems of expectations a few years ago, when Tim O’Brien, the accomplished writer who takes the Vietnam war as his subject, spoke here. He introduced himself then segued into a section from his work where his character, Tim O’Brien, shoots a Vietnamese soldier. At coffee afterwards, a friend who had been moved said something about that moment to his girl friend, who responded with a mild grimace: That didn’t happen to him, she said, don’t you know the difference between art & life?

I hadn’t been sure – had felt he left it quite ambiguous (at best). At first I was swept up, listening to him, feeling it was true in the sense that it had happened to him. But I’d hesitated, feeling it was too raw and the moment too charged to be a part of his frequent readings; I saw no indication he thought our audience special nor this moment different from his many book talks. And, well, surely such opening of the self, the projection of such vulnerability, couldn’t be a regular part of his shtick–or else he must have real problems. I doubted his authenticity but felt confused. I described this at a meeting of amateur writers in Houston; one paused and said, yes, I heard him at a local reading and believed it was his own experience he described. I don’t think we were naïve in reading nor in thinking. This was stagecraft, even (or perhaps more necessary) in an unpromising classroom crowded with students forced to listen to him for a grade. He intended to catch & move us with his words but he had a safety net – he counted on our respect for him as witness as much as writer.

His art would be no less, indeed his artistry might be greater, if he, like say Crane, born after but writing about the Civil War, gave a psychologically powerful description of something he only imaginatively understood. But O’Brien is clearly quite purposeful: he names a continuing character Tim O’Brien; his writing is self-referential and moves back & forth between the “real” O’Brien & the fictional one. Readers feel he often succeeds in giving us art’s truth. I am moved by what little work of his I’ve read. That should be enough, perhaps. But he cloaks himself in an authenticity that repels criticism. Perhaps it was earned by the general effect of the war on him. I am quite willing to leave his evaluation to the Viet Vets, many of whom love his work.

But even if his authenticity is fully earned, his audience is moved in a different way than they would otherwise have been: more likely to find the words artful, to want his signature on their book. The Things They Carried is subtitled “A Work of Fiction.” He chooses a quote from John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary as introduction:

This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concrning the ‘late war’ or any of its incident. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.

He implies experience is the only truth. All else is lie.

He may well speak to and for an audience that understands his truths, feels recognition rather than manipulation. And he may well reach the universals through his particulars. Looking over more of his work as I write this, I am struck by the power & clarity of his writing. (In this, as in much else, he reminds us of Hemingway.) But, feeling manipulated, I find myself less enthusiastic about entering the world he creates.

Barrus has not been stupid as he rages through life. Few books provide the stream of steady royalties of those assigned for large classes – and the authentic ethnic is pretty much required for those in diversity classes. Faced with a witness to truths such as his, we turn off certain receptors in our heads and tune up those in our hearts. Part of the “convincing” is already done – this must be true on at least that level. One suspects both Barrus & Alexie expected an overwhelmingly “white” audience bound by white man’s guilt: their readers enthralled in more than one sense. They would be seen as witnesses to experience (very real oppression in Alexie’s terms) as much as creators of art. And who were others to find fault? They were disqualified by their lack of experience. Indeed, implicit is the assumption with which O’Brien begins: if you don’t find it is truthful, then you must not be able to recognize an authentic experience. But, of course, Barrus now finds himself disqualified by those same standards. Whatever skills he has honed have been squandered – others can never respond to these works without thinking of the falsity of the life Barrus created.

Undiscovered, a poseur gets it both ways: If the writer is authentic, well then he gives the truth of the reporter; if it is art, its truth is the universal, the human. It also hedges bets: if it isn’t all that artistic, well, it has the power of experience. And if it isn’t all that accurate, then, well, didn’t he say it was art; doesn’t he then blend memories and characters, enlarge & minimize? Without that experience who are we to judge? Discovered, however, he loses all. We suspect the big truth if we can’t trust the little facts; then, we don’t cut the author slack.

We suspect Newsweek‘s “substitute fact” arose from subjective criteria: it substituted the writer’s sense of what “might as well have happened” for what did. In the end, like Barrus, the journal didn’t hold itself to the standards of the truth it purports to speak. Writers who don’t feel bound by the standards of their genre & expectations of their audience are likely to lose respect &, eventually, audience.

1 thought on “Well, What Did You Expect?”

  1. However one may consider news reportage by the illustrious press, I can equate some of their alleged coverage with that of a child running to his or her mother with a source of of damning evidence against a sibling. Needless, is it, to remind anyone of the wrath, ultimately, to be suffered. Tattlers take the top of the hill. The import of the information and the weight of the offense are seldom configured in the mind of a child. A mere subconscious point system is feathered, mostly. Such are the trials and tribulations of growing up in a competitive environment. Hence, the modern Press. Much the same, to my perception. A news urchin runs to his or her editor (read mother) with something to be said, something to be seen. There’s an alleged “offender” to be outed or a damning blasphemy to be published. Again, never mind the gravity and the import of what’s to be told. No matter the immeasurable damage to be done.

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