Identity Crises… Literary Edition

When she was in second grade, my girlfriend was informed by her teacher that E.B. White was a woman. Ostensibly, she was using the initials ‘E.B.’ to hide this fact, because books written by women, of course, didn’t sell as well as those by men.

"No," I said, fifteen years after the fact. "You’re wrong, like usual. Or rather, your teacher was wrong, but I’m putting it on you."

After a quick Google search, we found that E.B. (author of Charlotte’s Web, the book they were reading) was short for Elwyn Brooks, and even though that’s still somewhat androgynous, the pronoun ‘he’ was being used in all instances. And there was a picture of a man, which was fairly incriminating, smooth cheeks notwithstanding.

"This changes everything," my very sweet, feminine girlfriend said. "But you shouldn’t have told me I was wrong. I still love you though."

This changes everything. Why do we form such set ideas about the authors whose books we read? To the point that, if we learn an unusual fact about them, our opinions change about their work? Like when I heard Roald Dahl was an anti-Semite, or Wallace Stevens was American (I’d thought Irish – I don’t know why), or Shel Silverstein is maybe the most terrifying person ever: All of a sudden I felt I had to reexamine their stories and poems, as if these personal tidbits might unlock some secrets hidden in their texts.

But it’s unfair of us. Especially in the realm of fiction, where the entire premise of a story is that it doesn’t have to be real. (They have to be honest, they have to be sincere, but certainly not real.) I imagine the very reason writers like J.D. Salinger become reclusive is so that their biographies don’t get intertwined with their work. Still, I’ll re-read Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey and think to myself, ‘This was written by a man who totally took himself away from society. What does that mean?’ And I suspect that thinking about this gives the narrators of these books, in my head, certain desolate, lonely voices that may not have been intended. That is to say, we mar fiction by involving its authors in their work.

In the last year or two, the already-ailing literary world has been getting a ton of bad publicity due to some identity fraud. The most notorious example, of course, is James Frey’s admission that he exaggerated some facts in his Oprah-loved memoir, A Million Little Pieces. More recently, Margaret Jones confessed that she wasn’t actually a half-Native American raised by a black family in LA, as she posited in her memoir, Love and Consequences; and Misha Defonseca, author of the Holocaust memoir Misha, admitted she wasn’t raised by wolves in the forests of Europe during the war. (Is this new news? No — this isn’t new news.)

Memoirs are supposed to be true, and these writers deserved to get called out. Apparently Mr. Frey was considering publishing his as fiction…and then didn’t. My theory? It’s because he can’t write a sentence. An excerpt? An excerpt:

"I see my attendant friend and I raise a hand.
Are you okay?
What’s wrong?
I can’t really walk.
If you can make it to the door I can get you a chair.
How far is the door?
Not far.
I stand. I wobble. I sit back down. I stare at the floor and take a deep breath."

If we all go back to late high school/early college and take out our differential calculus text books, and decide to apply mathematic principles to literature, one might say that Frey’s prose is a derivative of Cormac McCarthy’s prose (aptly ridiculed here), which is a derivative of Hemingway’s prose, which is sometimes perfect but still sparse.
Hem’s answer to what might be the best intellectual training for the would-be writer, taken from his interview with The Paris Review:
"Let’s say he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with."

Frey had a good story (in minor need of embellishment, I guess), but not a lot more. Still, in the current climate of the literary industry, if you’ve got a good story, and it’s mostly true, it can still sell well in spite of shoddy craftsmanship.

Rachel Donadio puts it well in Papercuts.

The real damage, though, has been inflicted upon the fiction industry. Take a look at JT Leroy. Among other books, he wrote a short story collection entitled The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2001). It was met with ridiculous amounts of praise, and deserved every blurb. Then, in 2006, it was revealed that JT Leroy didn’t exist — he was actually an alternate personality for one Laura Albert, a middle-aged woman in California. (‘Alternate personality’ meaning, this was no mere pseudonym. Check this out.)

Unqualified rage ensued. Pretty soon thereafter, the likes of Ian McEwan (Saturday, Atonement) was getting harangued for not citing his sources in his novels. Even though he did cite them.

The point being, Leroy/Albert’s writings were published as fiction, which gives the author, in my view, the liberty to slap whatever they want to inside – or outside – a book’s covers. Albert never claimed the writings were autobiographical, rather it was assumed. And to make something imagined so personal that people believe it’s real, well that’s just good writing. (I’m not going to get into the battle over film rights, which does incriminate Albert just a little bit…or a lot.) Really, though, this is no different than Mary Ann Evans writing as George Eliot, or Amandine Dupin writing as George Sand…or E.B. White the woman writing as E.B. White the man.