By Ryan

Note: This is the third in a series of columns inspired by the excellent Reality Hunger by David Shields.  You should read it.


We live in a very truth-obsessed culture. Our religions, our politics, our personal lives are governed by truth. This is not all bad; truth helps us make sense of reality. What we most want to make sense of, however, is ourselves, and here truth fails us. How can we objectify the subjective experience of lived life? The curse of the memoirist.


Every reader is always seduced by a good work of fiction. That is, by a lie. Huckleberry Finn did not happen, but if you’re reading it, you’re made to believe that it is happening. If you didn’t believe it, then it would be a lousy work of fiction. I’m trying to write about the way in which fiction takes place. I’m like a seducer, yet beneath all the acts of seduction there’s a kind of love going on, a kind of trust you’re trying to establish with the reader, saying “here’s who I am, here’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. And in fact I do truly love you, I’m not just tricking you, I’m letting you in on my game, letting you in on who I am, what I am, and why I am doing what I am doing.” All these lies are the surface of something. I have to lie to you and explain why I am lying to you, why I’m making these things up, in order to get you to know me and to know fiction, to know what art is about.


Art is a lie that attempts to reveal the truth.


True story is an oxymoron: a story is by its very nature a lie. So too “based on…” All of our stories are informed by the reality we know. Yet we apply this either/or dichotomy to stories. We love a good work of fiction but despise a distorted reality. All fiction is distorted reality.


The roominess of the term “non-fiction.” An entire dresser labeled “non-socks.”


James Frey was crucified for a handful of inaccuracies in no way essential to the character and spirit of his book. I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.


The assumption is that we should read a novel differently than we would a memoir, judge a painting differently than we would a photograph, and think about a fiction-film (terrible term) differently than we would a documentary. Why? McLuhan demonstrated long ago that the medium is the message, so let’s stop making these dichotomies more important than the art itself.


Sadly, the best example here is reality television, which is a sort of lie set in the supposedly real world. We assume that everything that happens to Kim really happened because we think we saw it. Producers, editors, and executives shape every move, yet no one cries foul the way they might were she writing a book, starring in a documentary, etc. Television networks figured out long ago that we only care what’s real when the matters concerned can be deemed “intellectual” in nature.


In The Squid and the Whale, Walt tries to pass off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own. His justification? He feels like he could have written it.


Frey could have experienced everything in his memoir but, fortunately for him and then unfortunately for him, he didn’t.  But if he imagined these experiences and wrote about them in such a way that people were shocked to find out he was lying, well…isn’t that just as well?