Sunday, March 15, 2009

inauthentic authors

The sketch depicts a storyteller, a seanchai, in the Irish tradition, who unwinds his tale from the darkened corner of a smoky cottage (inspired by photo in "Rachel Giese: The Donegal Pictures). Though he remains partly obscured in the shadows as he tells his tale of 'long ago and far away,' the audience judges his appearance and words to decide for themselves whether he's an 'insider' or an 'outsider' to the people of the story. If he speaks intimately of the ways of the 'Tuatha de Danaan,' the faerie people, he may take care to validate how he comes by such knowledge. He might claim for himself a special relationship to the faeries, but in that case his audience might wonder why he has come to be wandering their countryside, hungry, and in want of shelter for the night. Whatever his claim, the storyteller needs to stand ready to defend it. If his story suggests an intimate, personal tale of the Tinkers, also known as the Travelers, a gypsy-like subset of the Irish population, the storyteller's own appearance, dress, and dialect may be key in winning over his audience.

In modern times, our written novel, with its acceptibility of author pseudonyms, a wider world of social and cultural complexities, and various degrees of removal between author and audience, may place the audience in a more vulnerable position to 'inauthentic' authors. Some cases discussed here will clearly involve 'inauthentic' authors, as in the case of an author of a memoir which did not in any way represent his own, personal experience. A lesser degree of inauthenticity might be ascribed to the author James Frey, who was shown to have allowed substantive amounts of fictional episodes to creep into his memoir. In such cases the storytelling might be more rigorously honest, and still compelling, as first-person fiction. Indeed, most 'memoirs' probably have at least some, if minor, amounts of fiction, which would not necessarily move the memoir into being thought inauthentic. The issue of inauthenticity is a lot less clear in other cases.

The subject has provided the media with a lively topic in recent years, wherein misrepresentations of a book have raised interesting issues for the reading public. In most if not all the cases the misrepresentation originated with the author, though occasionally the publisher seemed remiss in fact-checking. In a few books the representations were a hoax, with the writers presenting themselves as Holocaust survivors, or as survivors of drug addiction, or of urban violence, and their work is offered as a memoir, or a personal experience. However, in other cases the misrepresentation might consist only of a false suggestion by the author of his ethnic identity, intended to establish credentials for writing the story, and to gain access to market quotas he presumed to exist for that cultural or ethnic identity.

An interesting survey and a writer's discussion of this topic are given in "Real Fakes & Inauthentic Others," by Alyce Miller, in The Writer's Chronicle, V5 No. 41, March/April 2009. Curiously, some of the same fakes and inauthentic others were discussed in "Guilty," a 2008 bestseller by Anne Coulter, a political conservative, who focuses on a notion that such authors feel the 'modern' need to identify with 'victims' in their stories.

Hoaxes dealing with the Holocaust include an award-winning "Fragments," by Binjamin Wilkomirski, published in 1995, and comprising memories of his imprisonment as a Jewish boy in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. He was uncovered as a hoax in 1999. He'd actually spent the war years with adoptive parents in Switzerland, and wasn't even Jewish. Another two hoaxes of the genre exposed in 2008 included "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years," by Misha Defonseca, and "Angel at the Fence," by Herman Rosenblat. They had all seemed to reviewers to write with authority, but their stories had come unraveled, either when backgrounds were checked, or some pertinent detail didn't stand up. Rosenblat couldn't repeatedly have met his blond angel at the camp fence as he described, because someone who knew better, an actual camp inmate, pointed out the physical inaccessibility of that fence to any prisoner. Nonetheless, these were stories that were apparently well crafted, and were praised by critics and readers—until the matter of authenticity had come up. If the story had been labeled as fiction, would it have succeeded as well? It might have lessened the presumed authority of the writer, but if the protagonist had been developed as a sympathetic character, and the story had gripping obstacles and resolutions, well then, perhaps.

An example of the false memoir, and false ethnicity issue, which was treated in both of the references given above, and which I also recall from reading a NY Times book review, unfolded after the publication of "Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival," by Margaret B. Jones. The memoir's protagonist is a half-white, half-Native-American girl, who grows up in an African-American foster parent's household in South Central Los Angeles. She runs drugs for the 'Bloods' street gang, raises pit bulls to sell to gang members, and loses her foster-brother to gang warfare. In the Times interview, Margaret has escaped her past life, now has a small daughter and a new home in Washington, bought using proceeds from a Starbucks investment, and attends college. It seems incredulous, but why not? The interview includes a photo of a young black man who is a guest in her home and is said to be recovering from a gun wound. In another photo Margaret is sitting on the stoop with her child, Rya, and one of those mean-looking pit bulls she used to raise in the 'hood. Unfortunately for her, it was later discovered that Margaret B. Jones is really Peggy Seltzer, who grew up in an affluent section of southern California and attended a private school there. Nevertheless, she opined that she'd done some good with her fictional account of life in the 'hood, by giving voice to an oppressed minority who are usually ignored. Too bad she hadn't called it fiction.

Another interesting literary ruse occurred with the publication of "My Own Sweet Time," by Wanda Koolmatri, supposedly an Australian Aborigine woman, but which was really written by Leon Carmine, an Anglo-Australian male cab driver in Sydney. He was disarmingly honest about it when the ruse was discovered: "I couldn't get published, but Wanda could." Before being discovered an ethnic outsider, his book "took the publishing world by storm."

There were many other interesting cases discussed by Miller in her article; "The Education of Little Tree," by Forrest Carver, a hugely successful 'autobiography of a Cherokee Indian,' though Mr. Carver was later discovered to be white; and "I, Rigoberta," an autobiography by Rigoberta Menchu, a renowned Guatemalan human rights activist and Nobel laureate, but relating experiences Rigoberta never had. Though not the poor, uneducated person she had claimed to be, she said she wanted to speak out for those voiceless, oppressed people of her country who had suffered such genocide.

Ms. Miller makes some interesting points when she surmises that "the…hoax may, in part, function as a reminder of the consequences of condescending to work from "previously silenced or suppressed voices" by presuming it looks like a particular thing," and, "The notion that an 'outsider' appropriates, while the insider never does, is false and simplistic."

To conclude, the inauthentic author might run the gamut of a repugnant hoax, to someone who made a venial marketing decision.
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