Monday, December 28, 2009

Faux or No?

When I was a grad student, one of my colleagues wrote spiritual/religious poetry. She sold much of it to the official publications of various denominations and to small magazines and newsletters of individual churches all over the English-speaking world. For at least a couple of years, she made about $2000 - $3000 a year, a very nice addition to her meager student income!

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.

In news, we expect the truth, and writers, editors, and producers can be 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.

I think that people made assumptions about her and about her beliefs and would not have published her poetry if they had known that she was an atheist. But they also proved a point about certain genres and expectations for fact and for knowledge about the writer. The poems she submitted said what they said; they were true as written expression of certain religious sentiment. They were not true expressions of her belief, and she never offered them as such.

Faux, or no? What do you think?


Cher Duncombe said...

That is so interesting. I could never write about anything I didn't know or believe in. I suppose that's why I have not attempted fiction. She must have been a good writer to pull the wool over people's eyes. Or...perhaps she secretly wanted to believe but couldn't quite integrate it at the time.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, she was a good writer. Who knows about the rest?

I don't think belief is required for fiction - Tolkien probably didn't believe in the Shire or in Orcs! So if that's all that's holding you back, you should try fiction!

Theresa111 said...

She had a right to create the poems, whether or not she believed in the topic. Since her religious beliefs were not demanded to be known, she was just doing a job. I understand what you are saying, and I agree wholeheartedly that many people would not have purchased her work. In this instance, it shouldn't matter because the message was what the public and companies were after, not the messenger.

Hels said...

"I think that people made assumptions about her and about her beliefs and would not have published her poetry if they had known..".

I have a small stuggle understanding when a person's real beliefs don't correspond to their expressed beliefs in their works. But as you said, that should not be a problem in fiction.

I have a much bigger struggle understanding when a person's real life behaviour is totally unacceptable, even though his/her published work is still of top quality.

An example you will be familiar with. Dickens divorced his wife and married her younger sister because his wife was floppy after giving birth to 10 of his children. The young sister was slim, trim and pert. Even worse, he forbade the 10 children from ever seeing their real mother. Dickens was an exploitative pig to the women in his life.

Another example was Paul Gauguin who married a Danish woman and had five children with her. He dumped the wife and children in Denmark, when he wanted a new life in Tahiti, and never saw or supported his children again.

In both cases, the men continued to produce work that was undoubtedly splendid. Therefore we have to decide to not worry about the author's real beliefs or real life behaviour; rather we have to focus just on his output.

If the churches who published your colleague's work discovered her true beliefs and were bitterly disappointed, would they think any less of her published work? Probably not.

lifeshighway said...

In this forum the lines are even more blurred. Identities are created, fact and fiction are blurred to the point of the fantastical. Some readers become emotional involved with a blogger without know the true identity of the writer all the time believing the fictitious character.

ChrisJ said...


Excellent way of putting it - it's the message, not the messenger.

Thank you for commenting.

ChrisJ said...


I agree about the actions vs. art. Woody Allen is another more recent example. Hitler, too - he did very lovely watercolours. I did a post on this in September or Oct.

ChrisJ said...


I hadn't thought of that aspect and it's a really important one. I'm sure people can get hurt as well. The whole internet, especially Web 2.0, allows more than ever for personas and avatars. Interaction makes the difference - no one interacted with the writer of the religious poem, just with the poem.

I'm glad you brought this up.

Trulyfool said...


Most readers, save folks like us perhaps, naively link whatever's written with the writer of it, not so?

It's almost a stamp of (commercial) approval for films to indicate 'based on a true story', and novels are often suspected -- or supposed -- to be reflections of a 'life lived' or roman a clef.

What gives us as writers a special status, if anything does, isn't the truth of experienced life events so much as imagined significance of (even the smallest of) life events.

Maybe that's the truth? That we've gotten (as 'honest' writers) some handle on a level of understanding 'above' the merely descriptive/closely-observed/scientific YET away from the ideologically-driven/traditionalist/dogmatic received discourse forming the myth of any given society in which we live?

Hey. I think I'm trying to parrot back what Northrup Frye -- a Canadian great if there ever was one? -- has said in a few places much more completely.

Love tapping into your website!

Happy New Year!

ChrisJ said...


I hadn't thought of Frye here, but, yes, of course.

You might say we write between the lines.

Pearl said...

An atheist friend who sells religious verse is an interesting scenario.

A skilled writer is a conduit. If you are a sports writer or horse race announcer, you aren't expected to actually care even if you use excitable language.

If appropriating a voice to misrepresent a group for propaganda, that's different from straight conveying for market.

ChrisJ said...


Agree about the appropriating, but she was only conveying.