Monday, December 28, 2009
Faux or No?
My colleague was an atheist - staunch, loud, and pushy about it, too - but she could sure write poetry that was popular with devout religious people.
I always share this story with my writing classes as a point of discussion about distinguishing between the writer and the written, the truth and the creation. It generates much heated discussion. The question is about what exactly writers are selling - their authentic experience and beliefs or words on a page - and when and why it does and doesn't matter.
The answer depends on the genre and its traditions, which shape the expectations of reader and writer.
rightly fired for faking it. With news, including "soft" news, the facts are the focus. We often know little about the reporter, and sometimes have no byline at all. Notwithstanding theoretical discussions about truth or about bias, news traditionally is factual.
At the other end of the spectrum is fiction. Novels and short stories may tell us a truth about human existence; but no one expects them to be the literal truth, nor do we expect the writer to have experienced everything in the work, and we do not expect knowledge about the author.
Other genres are less clear cut and can create problems because of lack of knowledge of the tradition or because of readers' expectations, and in some cases, manipulation by writer and/or publisher - memoir, creative non-fiction, even poetry, in the case of my colleague.
I wrote previously about the fiasco over James Frey's book "A Million Little Pieces." My take on his book is that it is memoir and has a narrator who is different from the living, breathing author. That suggests a certain shifting ratio between fact and fiction, which is the tradition of memoir.
I also think that people were justly outraged because the living breathing author appeared on the Oprah show, claiming that he and his narrator were identical with identical experiences.
So, what about my fellow grad student's religious poetry? No one ever asked about her religious beliefs or about any religious affiliation. Everyone accepted the poetry she offered, the words on the page. Several bought her poetry more than once, saying that their readers had especially liked it. One publication asked her to submit more.