I was just reading Christopher Barzak’s entry on failures of the imagination, where he argues that the text of a book should matter rather than the persona of the author. This entry was made in the context of James Frey and JT Leroy’s very public hoaxes on the public. It argues that the text should be more important than the author. If the text is good, why should the author matter? My answer to this is “Why?”
Truth is the set of all things which have happened. Fiction is the set of all things we can ever imagine happening. They affect us in different ways. Fiction expands our minds, makes us think beyond the day to day. Truth expands the world, it makes us understand our surrounding better. The beauty of the myths and of these stories is that it does both.
If the purpose of art is to create some sort of effect in the viewer / reader / consumer, then isn’t the author’s persona just another tool to create that effect? Where would Hemingway be today without his persona? Or F. Scott Fitzgerald without his? When people read these authors, they buy into their vision of the world, which the authors themselves purport to represent in their own lifestyles.
When you look deeply into history, you realize how many formative stories are partly fiction. Doc Holliday was not a champion sharpshooter. Wyatt Earp was regarded as more of a punk than a law-man. Davy Crockett was a politician who purposely built his own mythos. If you delve deeply into any historical figure you’ll see places where ambiguity has been dropped in favor of creating a more exciting story.
Given that this happens, is it bad? Would the world be better off if we did not cloak history with myth? Would people be better off if they realized that these events did not actually happen in real life? Many times, art purports to represent real life. It adds an extra spice to certain books when one thinks “My god, this actually happened”. It expands your horizons to believe that these outlandish tales have some added stamp of verisimilitude. What harm does this do?
It is accepted wisdom that an addict usually cannot conquer his addiction by will alone. James Frey’s book challenged this. This challenge would not have been taken seriously unless it was said that “it really happened”. Millions of people read this book and thought new, almost heretical, thoughts. They took part in a new reality. To me, that seems wonderful. By building this myth, Frey made a new reality. He expanded people’s horizons.
We live in a world surrounded by myths. The Wild West lends substance to our national identity. Tales of sports stars reinforce our meritocracy. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. I think it’s beautiful to shift people into a new reality, to open new vistas to them. I think that persona is just another tool an author can use to craft their story.
Where James Frey and JT Leroy failed is that they didn’t convince people. They didn’t manage to hit that point where the persona becomes truth. They didn’t hit that point where, even after repeated debunking, the myth is so attractive that people cling to it because it appeals to something in them, because they like the way it makes them feel and think. I think that they deserve the dust-bin to which they have been relegated, but I don’t think that they deserve our hatred for having tried.