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Really? As Pliable as Orange Peels?

akeefe's picture


Really. I recently finished reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, and was struck that by the juxtaposition of the novels many Romantic gestures, and Stowe's continued insistence of the realness of her work, particularly in the key. Certainly we see enough examples today of entertainments that insist on their own reality, so the move wasn't all together foreign to me. Once, I spent some time with the idea of "reality" in the media, I found that the 19th century novel and our modern fascination with reality may have a similar function - helping us to create meaning in our lives and dispel existentialism.

"Reality" in the modern media takes on many forms from Reality Television, to memoirs, to blogs. We might even say that the emergence of sites like Facebook, and Myspace, which allow the public access to personal live, can be placed into the genre. For the purposes of this discussion, I would like to focus on memoir. Recently, USA Today published that about "295 memoirs were signed by publishers last year, compared with 227 debut novels, and 214 memoir in 2006 (Minzesheimer 1)." It also reports that "memoirs accounted for 12.5% of non-fiction deals up from 10% in 2006 and 9% in 2005 (Minzesheimer 1)." Many of theses stories don't even feature particularly extraneous circumstances, but people living simply living their lives This is a quite significant; what has made the memoir so popular in recent years?

I think there might be a clue in the memoir that went bad. The one that needed to be pummeled in just about every recent article I had read on the topic, Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Just in case you weren't watching Oprah or Larry King or CNN at the end of 2005, and the beginning of 2006, Frey's immensely popular memoir, which details his recovery from drug abuse, was revealed to significantly altered facts, or lies. Frey took a beating, and his story has become the cautionary tale of memoir, but why? Why was this revelation so personally offensive to so many people. I would say that genres, like memoir, call themselves "real" make a contract with their reader. Frey violated the trust of his readership.

Yet, is memoir actually "real?" Webster gives several definitions for the word, but I believe the most useful one for the moment is "existing as fact, rather than as a product of dreams or the imagination." Memoirist Patricia Hempl discusses reality in memoir in her book I Could Tell You Stories. She calls the act of dutiful transcription the "myth of memoir." She points out several inconsistencies between the facts and her written account of an event in a first draft. As a disclaimer, let me say that none of these inconsistencies can be compared to the scale of Frey's supposed work. However, she doesn't shy away from the fact that these little "lies" happen in memoir. She finds the symbolic use of these "lies," saying " Here memory impulsively reaches out and embraces imagination. That is the resort of invention. It isn't a lie, but an act of necessity, as the innate urge to locate the truth always is (Hempl 31)."

Truth in the unreal or imagination? I believe that the "truth" Hempl is referring to, is not fact, but is instead that same truth that all types have artists and scientists having striving for across the ages - that which speaks to out meaning. Yet, why do we recently enjoy believing that this "truth" comes form "real" sources. There are clues that these stories may not be fact (ie Frey's novel, reality TV scandals, misrepresentations on Facebook...) So why suspend our disbelief? Why prefer a partially constructed story to an untampered with list of facts. As Mara Naselli says in her article The Truth About Memoir, " We are dependent on stories, not facts, to make sense of lives. Our narration of a traumatic or life-changing event isn't created in the event. It's created in hindsight as we try to make sense of what happened (Naselli 1)."

I believe that when we read or watch something that claims "reality," the piece begins to break the forth wall ( to borrow a theater term.) You become aware of the piece as something that could effect you, contain you. All of a sudden, your life can be placed inside of safety net of literary rules. She found a real life prince... it could happen to me. He killed a crocodile... I could do something that brave and live for all the glory. They fell from grace due to greed ... better not be greedy or it could happen to us. Unlike traditional fiction, which can be written off to authorial creation. The genre is supposed to guarantee to action. This is what makes anything that is large enough to break the suspension of disbelief so repulsive. These act don't just undermine the their own validity; they undermine the genre, and thereby our expectations.

Using literature as a means of giving life order isn't an new concept. As we have been discussing in this course, the emergence of the novel in the 19th century helped diffuse the existentialism of the period, as God slid farther a farther into the night sky. The novel could keep the universe glued together. Indeed as the novel becomes more and more fantastic, perhaps this new genre is providing the order we desire. As Mara Naselli reports about memoir, "... something truer (a more factual account) might show a different kind of story - a story that shows us how little control we have in the world, and how vulnerable we are to forces bigger than we are, and that in the end all we have are our stories (Naselli 2)." To not believe these stories are real, may reduce us to randomness.

I don't think that what we are doing with "reality" is a bad thing. To the contrary, I would suggest that if we limit the "real" and memories, which are as pliable as orange peels, to the rigid world of fact than we lose what is remarkable about the human mind - it's ability to find and construct meaning. Knowing that our fascination with "reality," could serve as a coping method shouldn't make us want to shy away from it. It's because of stories like that, that we may be lead to the stories worth examining in us. Really.



Works Cited

Hempl, Patricia. "Memory and Imagination." I Could Tell You Stories. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, 1994.

Minzesheimer, Bob. "Everybody has a Story to Sell, so Memoirs Sell." USA Today. 2008. 20 Mar. 2008 < memoirs_N.htm>

Naselli, Mara. "Truth in Memoir." Identity Theory. 2006. updated 2 Feb 2006. accessed 20 Mar. 2008 <>.








Anne Dalke's picture

on being pliable


I love the evocativeness of your title; wherefrom those orange peels? The world of the commedia dell'arte?

So interesting to see you going on here with some of the explorations first initiated in our CSem on Storytelling as Inquiry, where (for those on the outside) it really was "stories all the way down..."

--as well as with some of the conversation we both heard last night in Patricia Hampl's reading in Thomas Great Hall, where she admitted that--in her encounter with the false customer in her father's flower shop--she made his ploy possible, because she herself "made him up."

Another important citation for you (because good anchor for your argument) is Leland Monk's Standard Deviations: Chance and the Modern British Novel, which suggests that--since we can't bear unpredictable--what we do is turn it into a narrative: make it into "providence," or fate, or the plot line of a novel, where what appears to be random turns out (think: Dickens) to exhibit a logic, to make perfect sense.

Another intriguing extension would be the "bit to play with for a piece" posted by one of your classmates last week, which explored The Eyre Affair, in which a phenomenon just the opposite to the one you describe takes place: the fictional becomes real.

I actually think the critique of the "real" that you conduct here goes even deeper than you (are willing to?) take it: it's not just that--as you have Hampl say--"little 'lies' happen in memoir," but rather that both imagining and remembering are acts of constructing, of making up. To learn a little about some of the neurobiology of this phenomenon...

see the archives on Serendip of two brown bag discussions about what the mind, brain and nervous system have to do with the writing of memoir and other acts of memoralizing: History, Memory and the Brain and Whence Nostalgia and the Constraints on Stories? These suggest that "little 'lies'" are not just symbolic, but necessary, innate, biologic, inevitable, not-go-around-able....

What follows from this is indeed the claim you have Naselli make, that "in the end all we have are our stories," and (with that admission) the acknowledgement of the essential randomness of the universe, the impossibility of pinning down any "facts" at all.