Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I Would Call This 'True Lies,' But That's the Title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie. Ewwwwwwww!

Talking about Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" in feature writing today and was caught as always in the cleft stick of how right she is, with what hyperbole she overinflates that rightness and how anyway she ends up blaming the people journalists interview for being such a grand set of chumps, since didn't their mothers tell them they should know better?

Or to put it another way, rhetorically speaking Ms. Malcolm rubs her tummy and the top of her head at the same time. Her book doesn't quite say what it says.

Recalled something Jon Carroll wrote a long time ago on Malcolm. Looked it up. Pretty good. And here it is.

He stole from me. Why shouldn't I steal from him?

Joan Didion's famous epigram that ``a writer is always selling somebody out'' has often been interpreted as a Janet Malcolm-like indictment of the vampire treachery that is at the heart of writing. But it's actually more subtle than that.

If you tell the truth, you are often selling out the people who are near to you, who have agreed to talk to you, who have told you their stories, who have gone on travels with you. Writers are not nice people, although they may be charming enough.

But: If you don't tell the truth, you are selling out the readers. And as a professional matter, that is where the loyalties of the writer lie.

A WRITER IS a kind of holy sociopath. A writer -- a good one, anyway -- is always in danger of getting run out of town or denounced from the pulpit or charged with self-indulgence or willful obscurantism or just plain rudeness.

Very few people actually like that experience. Most people want love and approval -- this is not exactly a secret. So why bite the hand that feeds you? Because the hand is corrupt. Why air dirty laundry? Because dirty laundry doesn't get cleaner sitting in a basket.

And because a story needs to be told. All writers start out as readers; all writers have read stories that spoke to them, that opened worlds, that dissected emotions, that explained relationships, that showed them other ways of being. Writers start out being drunk on someone else's words; they spend their lives trying to create equally potent brews.

.... Writing is not just a game they play in New York, although, of course, it's that, too. Writing is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. Someone has to tell those stories. The telling is always risky.

There's a story about the reaction to Truman Capote's ``Answered Prayers,'' his dissection of the New York society circles of which he was so much a part. Many of his friends were portrayed therein, thinly disguised and distinctly unlovable. They were furious. They cut him dead. They accused him of secret note- taking, which he freely confessed.

``What did they expect?'' he said. ``I'm a writer.''

And as a result, we are left with a document that outlines very accurately a certain kind of society at a certain moment in American history. Would that it were a better document, but quality is not the issue.

You can never know really whether what you're writing is any good; you can only hope that you have not broken faith with the reader. A writer is just someone who has lived to tell the tale. It is the tale that must never be betrayed.

Of course, Jon never stole a damn thing from me, never borrowed anything he didn't return, never short-armed a check when the reaching time arrived.

But wasn't it -- in context -- an artful lie?

1 comment:

B. Wieder said...

All very nice, but it sort of all rests on the single piling of loyalty to the reader as the prime directive, which it isn't. Plenty of writers, and there might be an argument to be made that most writers, at heart or right up front are primarily loyal to themselves, or a cause, or a philosophy, or an agenda, or a paycheck, or numerous other ors. Absent that pillar, the rest of the commentary is somewhat ramshackle.