Wednesday, January 11, 2006

In the Self-Important, Over-Memoired Literary World, There's a Sucker Born Every Minute

I've been following the ridiculously pathetic self-analyses of lit types taken in by fraud and the overall howlable revelations regarding the unmaksing of JT Leroy and James Frey as a couple of very crafty literary frauds.

Yours truly is certainly NOT surprised by these revelations. The voracious need of the literary world for salacious memoir has lead to a number of easily-forgetable and dopey screeds penned mostly by hip, young, upper-class misfits. The current-day crop of V-8 smack-to-the-head "oy! what were they thinking?" memoir started with Elizabeth Wurzel's Prozac Nation and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, gathered steam with the likes of Lauren Winner's dopey Girl Meets God, and has slogging its way towards the literary gomorrahs of Frey and Leroy.

What is it about the lit world that needs these kinds of memoirs? Why not just put them out as the fictions they are?

Simple: memoir creates instant celebrity. It's an easier path than writing ficton. Plus, memoirs--esp. memoir about sexually confused, drug addled young outlaws that remind people of the Beat Generation--are easier to market than fiction.

The literati, and some readers, like to think these sordid tales can actually happen. Probably because many of their lives are deadly-dull and they need to know that there are, still, indeed, wild-at-hearts who can, like Burroughs and Keroac and Hemingway, become literary giants.

If Frey and "Leroy" were up-front about what they were doing, and said they were writing fiction, such as author Stephen Elliott, whose books Happy Baby and What It Means to Love You are riffs on (supposedly) personal experiences, and Dorothy Allison, who penned the remarkable Bastard out of Carolina under the same circumstances, would they be less than Celebrety? Probably.

Would they be on Oprah or have hugely lucrative film deals? Probaby not. They'd probably be (heaven forbid!) teaching somewhere, or surviving on grants.

More importantly, would they even have got published in the first place? Probably not. Or, if they did, it would be with a small press like McSweeny's rather than the formidable publishers of Frey & Leroy. There would be no agents, no big-time press junkets, no hob-nobbing with Hollywood.

The problem is with how fiction is chosen for publication. Ficton writing, in general, is more competitive these days--partly because of the massive number of MFAs being produced by just about every medium to small college out there. Everybody wants to be a writer. Not everybody can be a writer. What then appears to make a writer these days is not necessarily talent but the right MFA, the right connections, and the right agent.

Don't bother sending your manuscript to a publishing house--you'll only end up in a slush pile the size of an Indiana Jones warehouse.

It's easier to say that what one is writing is a life story. It doesn't require an MFA--just connections, as Frey and Leroy's stories show. And if the memoir is super salacious or pathetic, bam! immediate celebrity.

Celebreity is far more fun than spending time grading the short fictions of eager and possibly more talented freshmen, and waiting and waiting to have something published by a name-brand publishing house rather than a small literary press.

Beyond that, though, what is affecting the publication of so many dorky kid memoirs is the hyper-fascination with young people. Memoir--and I mean real, interesting, thought-provoking life story memoir--can only be penned by people who have had lives. And I don't necessarily mean people like Bob Dylan and John Updike who've lead extaordinary celebrety lives. I mean people who are not in their 20's or even early 30's. People like Frank McCort, who didn't start out as a celebrety nor did he expect a Pulitzer Prize for Angela's Ashes, and Terry Ryan's fascinating Mother in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio : How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less .

You can't do that kind of stuff (like win Pulitzers), nor write about those kinds of lives, until you've lived beyond the 18-34 age bracket--the tender beginning of adulthood. Being mentally disturbed, drug addicted, a born-again virgin, upper-middle-class, over-educated and spoiled doesn't automatically make one a great writer nor make one's life all that much of a compelling read.

It's just easier to polish a kid up and make him/her a celebrety than it does to take one of the old folks and make him/her photogenic again.

ah, the vanity of celebrity! ah, the gullibility of the literati!

So, all I can do is sit back and have a Nelson-styled "HA-HA!" at the lit world. They surely, and rightfully, got spanked this week.

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