Monday, March 10, 2008

on plagiarism & other fun things

First let me note that I've been terribly ill with some flu-y thing for the past week. I have so much empathy for people who live with illness all the time. It makes it so hard to do anything, such as, oh, have the will or interest to live. But score another win for health, which has emerged victorious again. Although only after a grim battle.

Anyway. I read with interest and not some small amount of disgust about yet another writer who decided to fabricate her life and call it a memoir. (Also recently in the news was even another writer who fabricated a Holocaust memoir.) But the disgust was only partially aimed at the writer.

I mean, come on. If you can get away with it...if you are desperate enough...and if you live in our culture at this time, when it's so hard to recognize anything as the truth at all (um, hello, Mr. President), no wonder she was a little confused on the process. You can't even tell if a picture is real or not anymore, what with technological amazements that anyone can manipulate from their own computers. Reality TV? Snort. Not quite. And as for writing--well, it's virtually impossible to be able to say that anything is absolute truth, no? Who can get into the head of a writer? Or of anyone? Ask any police officer and she'll tell you that five different witnesses have five different memories of an event. Which of them is lying? One? Or all? Or, perhaps, no one was lying? Human memory is notorious for its infallibility (thank god, eh?). Perhaps that's a large part of what makes us so creative. We can fabricate stories at any time, slap them on paper (or on our blog), and call it literature.

Heck, what I write in my blog could be complete and utter fiction. I'm sure lots are. We are so good at not being what we really are, for so many different reasons. Is Margaret B. Jones really to blame for wanting to be someone else? (Even if, oddly enough, that someone was a gang member wannabe in South Central L.A.) We all want that at some point in our lives, even if very briefly and only as a moment of wild fantasy. (Come on, admit it. You wanted to be Wonder Woman and have her golden bracelets that could deflect nasty things.)

On a strictly literary level, I certainly do not approve of the actions of writers who pass off someone else's life experiences as their own. If it's a blurry memoir, where the lines of truth, reality, fantasy, and wishful thinking all cross, well then by all means call it such. The reading public can handle it. We are not stupid, and we are capable of bending our minds around the usual suspects to create new categories, new genres.

We are, however, liable to get pissed off if we feel deceived. There's not much we homo sapiens enjoy less (aside from waterboarding, philandering spouses, and unethical lawyers, that is) than having the wool pulled over our eyes, which we like to think of as being very sharp and in charge. Fool me, shame on you--and I'm also going to get even and show you who's the smart one, you smarmy little bastard. (Hey, I just call it as I see it. We do not like being duped.)

Ah, who knows what went through the heads of people like Margaret Seltzer (dba Margaret B. Jones, lol and hardy har har), JT Leroy, James Frey, Misha Defonseca , Kaavya Viswanathan, and others as they penned their fake masterpieces? They probably didn't really plan it. It wasn't really murder, officer, it was more a literary bookslaughter. Things just sort of--got out of control. All of a sudden, I had a big book contract, a book tour, people asking me to sign copies, saying in awed voices, "All that really happened to you? And you had the guts to relive it and write it down? Cool." Yeah, what was I supposed to do then? Admit it was all a fake before it went any farther?

Um, in a word: Yes.

Well, yeah. I know, I know. Easier said than done. But still. As a writer, who is very clear when I write either fiction, or a literary essay (which should be pretty clear by its label that it's not cut and dried nonfiction, dredged up via hypnosis from the still whimpering depths of my traumatized soul), etc., I am offended. I have not written anything that should have been fiction (or blurry nonfiction), had it published as something else, and whirled off on a tour. And I'm not going to.

But again, I am offended at both the individuals as well as our own culture, which fosters such behavior through means both obvious and less so.

Elders, wake up. Young people, wake up. Everyone, wake up. What are we doing, when we allow such untruths to be circulated and homaged as gritty (or pretty, depending on the case) reality? Where does it end? How close are we to slipping our hold on the true reality of our lives and letting just anything go? Boundaries are there for a reason, believe it or not. And I think we should abide by them, because otherwise it is a strong and clear nod to anarchy.

I know, I know--you'll accuse me of the slippery slope argument. But take a closer look. Really look. Really use your own, uncluttered judgment on this one. And decide for yourself.


Anonymous said...

When I was in college, my writing instructor said something to myself and my class that has stuck with me for nearly a decade now. A good story can survive anything.

If you have a good story, it doesn't matter if it is fiction or non-fiction, it doesn't matter if it is poorly written, so long as it is intelligible, and it doesn't matter how long it is. A good story can survive.

Ever since then I've put my focus on telling good stories and nothing else. I have to wonder if, possibly, some of these authors never got this lesson.

If they had, there would have been no need to lie or plagiarize...

jenna said...

Except a good story doesn't always get published. If you can't sell something as fiction, but you can if it's titled memoir, who's fault is that? Those people took a chance and got caught. Out right plagiarism, well that's plain thievery and not creative at all. Those people deserve all the humiliation they get. Embellishing the truth and calling it memoir...I don't agree with it, but I don't care that others do it. Especially if it's a good story.

Julie K. Trevelyan said...

Plagiarism is still fundamentally wrong on a personal moral level as well as a wider societal one, when said society allows and/or encourages such things to happen.

A good story can survive anything, yes--perhaps this is why A Million Little Pieces is still going strong and netted so much money for author and publisher? Though I can't claim to have read it myself, just positing a question. However, I think the emphasis should be on the label. What kind of a story is it? Is it mostly true? Somewhat recalled and somewhat made up? There are memoirists who claim such safeguards when they publish their work, likely at their own fear of legal (and financial, in terms of plummeting sales) reprisal as well as their publishers. Would it have been so hard for authors such as Margaret Seltzer to do the same?

I should also note the flack that Seltzer's editor at Riverhead, Sarah McGrath, has received for having "missed" the fact that this was a fabricated memoir. Leave her alone, I say. I worked with at-risk youth for 8 years and let me assure you, many people can lie very effectively and deliver all their words as a solid truth that would never be questioned (except, of course, that these particular kids often happened to already be branded as liars due to their actions--but that's another story). Fact-checkers, lawyers, all that mess...some can cya (cover your ass) better than others. No one's perfect. Beside, if every editor had to operate as if every person was an unscruplous lout, the job would suck.

As for embellishing the truth--sure, we all do that. Anything to make us look better! And I must say that I have "embellished" the truth sometimes. Consider, for example: who's to say that "The leaves were yellow and brown as they fell" is more accurate than "The gentle, near-luminesence of the swirling autumn droppings, fairly glowing in their russet and saffron, lined the path for me as I wandered through the darkening days"? (It may be affected, that second sentence, but it was more fun to write, for sure.)

As Jenna says, who really cares if there's embellishment. But please--don't outright lie to me.

Nada said...

The Rosenblat story is so sad. Why is Atlantic Pictures making a film based on a lie? Why didn't Oprah check the story out before publicizing it, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat's story couldn't be true.
Genuine love stories from the Holocaust do exist. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt - the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. It's such a romantic love story. Another reason I love Dina's story is the tremendous courage she had to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

Dina's story is also verified to be true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

Why wasn't the Rosenblatt's story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina's be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.