THE ‘MISERY LIT’ INDUSTRY AND OUR PART IN IT

Finally Getting Rid of Important Gasbag Author David Shields — Part III

So back to the most delicious part of that blowhard David Shields’ book, “Reality Hunger.”

To summarize Parts I and II below, Shields says that thanks to the Internet, we’re all bombarded with so many words and ideas from so many sources that it’s impossible to find truth or meaning in daily life, especially from authors we used to trust.

So Shields has decided to “help” matters along by adding his own thoughts to quotes from our best thinkers (Woolf, Emerson, Orwell, Goethe, Yeats, Gornick, Thoreau, etc.) to generally f— pardon me, mess with our minds.

The ensuing confusion is not a departure from reality, Shields suggests –

it is reality, and we’re all adding to the confusion by asking for lies when we say we want the truth.

The Memoir Hoax

Remember how incensed everyone was about yet another “memoir” that turned out to be a fake?  Well, I was. That pissant James Frey lied about so much that didn’t really happen to him in his whole drug-addicted life that Oprah Winfrey, who had loved his book, “A Million Tiny Pieces,” dressed him down dramatically on her show.

You’d think publishers or agents or editors or somebody would stop these liars from making millions from an obvious hoax. But no.

–There was J.T. Leroy, a middle-aged woman (or a married couple or threesome; it was never quite clear) parading as a 16-year-old boy who got hooked on drugs and became a prostitute and wrote a memoir that wound up as a story on “Law and Order.”

–There was Misha Devonseca, phony Holocaust memoirist; Margaret Seltzer, baloney L.A. gang member; Herman Rosenblat, apparently a real-life Holocaust survivor who lied about a romance that Oprah once called “the single greatest love story we’ve ever told on the air.”

All discredited, all mentioned in Shields’ book, but he doesn’t use an angry or righteous tone, no sir.

“Misery LIt”

Shields sees hoaxes like this as part of the “misery lit” or “illness memoir” industry, a “million-dollar, career-exploding, trick-tease train” of first-person books that everyone reads voraciously (we know that because so many become bestsellers).

Of course we want trustworthy first-person stories about true events — memoirs about average people who’ve become heroes against horrible odds. But at the same time, Shields insists, we know also there is a marketing of heroes, a media machine looking for the “right” stories to sell to an audience that wants to ingest essentially the same memoir over and over, like pop corn.

Shields quotes fiction writer Mary Gaitskill: “The JT Leroy phenomenon turned out to be a hoax, an immensely enjoyable one at that, exposing our confusion between love and art and publicity. People were made fools of — which is useful, because a good hoax is like a good con.”

Then in the same paragraph, Shields quotes New York Magazine: A good con, says writer Stephen Beachy, sends us “back into the world a little less wide-eyed, a little more jaded, [our] vision now penetrating beyond the surface of things. To enlighten us, a good hoax or con must eventually be revealed.”

A “Nearly Pornographic Obsession”

Aha: So there’s something cleansing, something healthy, something educational about memoirs that turn out to be hoaxes?  Oh sure, but that’s not exactly the point, says Shields. What he likes is that memoir hoaxes reveal something essential about sheer human need.

He quotes Salon.com: “The best illness memoirs, especially those dealing with psychiatric illnesses like depression, are written, I believe, not for the purpose of a peacock display but to offer solace …. The illness memoir is a kindly attempt to keep company, a product of our culture’s love of pathology or of our sometimes whorish selves ,,,. ”

In other words, we lust not for the hero but the charlatan hero who gets caught in public while marketing to our needs, because that’s the story that better reflects our personal reality.

Here’s Shields whorishly quoting himself: “Of course [phony memoir writers] made things up. Who doesn’t?  Each one said sure, call it a novel, call it a memoir; who’s going to care? I don’t want to defend Frey per se — he’s a terrible writer — but the very nearly pornographic obsession with his and similar cases reveals the degree of nervousness on the topic. The whole huge loud roar, as it returns again and again, has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality and, within that frame, great drama.”

So take someone like James Frey, who makes millions on a real-life experience  he changed to suit the need for drama he sees in the audience that will buy his book. In a way, says Shields, “we begged Frey to produce self-flagellating myth, and he complied. Frey and millions behind him line up to humiliate themselves for the sole purpose of being humiliated.”

Enter “Oprahcam”

Then, when Frey himself is exposed as part of that drama, we readers are shocked, we tell you, shocked. Why, Frey’s book is just junk food the publishing industry has been foisting off as healthy literature. How dare we be lied to! Bring that fabricator James Frey to the modern-day coliseum. Unleash Oprah from her lair of justice.

And out she comes, furious and righteous on her show and ready to give Frey hell, which she does. Shields indicates that we’re supposed to believe Oprah feels personally hurt and personally betrayed not only for herself but for her worldwide audience, and that is probably as true as such things can be. But what she really represents is “Oprahcam,” another marketing subset, a needed enforcer of “morality” (which, of course, is another lie we keep inventing to comfort ourselves).

“Oprahcam tells us that we are all abused in some way,” Shields writes, “but we need arbiters to sift through the dirt for the story that can be marketed as emblematic.” Remember George Washington and the cherry tree?  That was emblematic, but ha ha, not possible today. Our reality is James Frey and “misery lit” that we can’t get enough of.

Shields’ point in a nutshell: “What if America isn’t really the sort of place where a street urchin can charm his way to the top through diligence and talent?  What if instead it’s the sort of place where heartwarming stories about abused children who triumphed through adversity are made up and marketed?”

Honestly. See what a gasbag he is? See how he manipulates quotes from much smarter people to make himself look good? See how — oh hell, see how much sense he makes?

A Moment, a Look That Cuts Through

I don’t like this snide kind of show-offy look-at-me writing (hey, I’m writing about Shields now). It’s cold, self-congratulatory, sloppy, one-sided and deeply, morally (have to use that very word) distracting. This is not the only way society works; there is an honesty that insists on emerging.

The other day I happened to watch Oprah Winfrey interview three convicted pedophiles who talked to her — it seemed honestly — about how they “groomed” their victims into getting used to adult touch. It was sickening and scary but they talked rather casually about combing the kids’ hair or putting the child on their laps to read a book, or wrestling with one or more children on the living room floor — all with seeming innocence but an eye for targeting the next mark.

Oprah was very firm with these men, She is a survivor of sexual abuse herself and seemed to have no compassion for them, but she wasn’t judgmental, either. Somehow they had made a bargain with her to admit to a hidden pattern of behaviors that adults might miss but that children are subjected to every day, especially from “close relatives” and “friends of the family.”

Of course, I wasn’t thinking of Shields throughout all this — heavens, his stuff is beyond irrelevant, as we’ll get to in a moment.

What did hit me was that every once in a while, Oprah would look turn from these men, look directly into the camera and say, “Now if this ever happens to you …” or “See how this works?” or “You’ll know if you feel uncomfortable when he ….. ” and so forth.

It was a look that cut through all the problems of modern society and zeroed in on anybody out there as powerless and victimized as she once was. No one knows more than Oprah that millions of kids feeling exactly like that watch her show, right alongside “close relatives” and “friends of the family.” everyday.

(One had the feeling that this is the reason Oprah does shows featuring “hairdos and handbags” and “how to decorate your uterine wall.” If there’s going to be a blizzard of information blinding us all the time, she has become a master at opening our eyes inside the media storm.)

I admit to getting a bit teary watching this, because when the camera caught that look, and I thought of how much viewers have come to trust Oprah for giving them exactly this kind of power, all the easy indictments by Shields and others of “Oprahcam” and her show as “a higher denomination of multimedia saturation” became just so much more of the everyday baloney he writes about.

Of course we’re all caught in a blizzard of half-truths and outright lies, and maybe we do hunger for the phony hero story and shocking scandal. But every once in a while a true moment, a look, a thought or idea can cut through it all and really mean something.

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