Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Anthropology, Physics, and the Memoir

A close friend started reading Eat, Pray, Love -- one of the most engaging books I've read in years -- and couldn't make it past page 87. His chief complaint: the author had secured a book deal before setting forth on her journey of self-discovery.

"After reading that, everything felt manipulated and controlled and fake. This wasn’t a personal, see-where-the-wind-takes-me journey. This was a planned-out literary event hashed out beforehand in New York," he writes in his highly entertaining blog.

I was stunned.

Every trip I've ever taken has been planned to one degree or another, and yet my experiences have always been unique, spontaneous, and real. Or so it seemed.

Why begrudge Elizabeth Gilbert her book deal? How else was she going to get to Italy, India, and Indonesia?

How did Richard Goodman find the wherewithal to write French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France? He doesn't say. Great book, though.

The problem with such books, I suppose, is that they are all a bit self-conscious. Of course that's also their greatest strength. Gilbert's strength is that she watches herself and others very closely.

Anthropologists tell us that the mere act of observing changes the thing you're observing. I gather that's even true in particle physics, where particles behave differently when you train a high-speed camera on them. (See What the Bleep!? Down the Rabbit Hole.)

If that's the case, then everything we read or say or observe has to be considered a bit unreal.

Just enjoy it, I say.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Truth

My friend's father prefers non-fiction books.

"You know why?" he said to me. "Because they're true."

I let it go.

I happen to prefer fiction. You know why? Because, in some ways at least, it's truer.

Writers of both fiction and non-fiction use a lot of the same narrative techniques and have to make a lot of the same choices as they craft their stories -- what to leave in, what to leave out; where to start, where to stop -- so that in the end the difference between a novel and, say, a memoir can be a little hazy.

One of my favorite memoirs, James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, was famously exposed as, well ... fiction. Turns out Frey had exaggerated everything that happened to him. And I could understand why. It made a better story. His defense: It was still true on an emotional level.

I can buy that. But he should have called the book what it was: a novel.

On the other hand, even the best biographies and histories and accounts of current events aren't really true. Why? Because writers have to make choices. They can't include everything, but everything they leave out makes the story a little less true.

Everything they add changes the truth of what they've already written.

Novelists make the same choices, of course, but they have more freedom. They aren't hampered by an inability to get all the facts. They can make them up. Yet the best fiction ends up being as true-to-life as the best non-fiction. More so in many cases.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hip Mamma

My little sister has done it again.

(Okay, she's really my sister-in-law, but I think of her as the younger sister I never had.)

What she's done is publish another essay. This one in Hip Mama, "a magazine bursting with political commentary and ribald tales from the front lines of motherhood."

What I like about her latest creation, "Clear Blue (but not so) Easy," is that it's written with style and courage.

It's very personal and very real.

Check it out.