December 29, 2008
Oprah Winfrey has been described as “a serious American intellectual” whose popular book club has been able to motivate even serious non-readers to pick up books. That description comes from Kathleen Rooney, a young poet who holds an MFA from the well-regarded writing and publishing program at Emerson College. Rooney’s assessment of Winfrey’s intellectualism is from Reading With Oprah, a book she wrote about the phenomenon known as “the Oprah effect,” in which a mention by the popular personality can increase any book’s sales.
The Oprah Effect was not without its controversies. In 2001, after Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections became an Oprah pick, the novelist expressed dismay that the choice made his book appear to be of the same caliber as some of the “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” titles that had been elevated by Oprah before his. His invitation to appear on Winfrey’s show was promptly withdrawn.
Then, in 2005, Winfrey chose James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, lauding it as a memoir so powerful that reading it kept her up at night. When the book was revealed to be laced with fabrications, Winfrey publicly scolded Frey for his dishonesty and his publisher for failing to check facts.
Well, Oprah Winfrey has done it again. Although she didn’t choose it for her book club, Winfrey did lavish praise and attention on Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, calling it “the single greatest love story” she’d ever told on the air. She had Rosenblat and his wife on her show twice.
Now it has been revealed that Rosenblat’s story, which had been scheduled for publication in January, is largely fabricated. Although he did survive the Holocaust and he did meet his wife on a blind date in New York in the 1950s, she is not the girl who he claimed kept him alive by tossing apples over the fence at Buchenwald. In fact, no such girl existed. Publication of the book has been cancelled and Rosenblat will be required to return all of the money he has received to date.
It seems to me that a lot of supposedly “serious American intellectuals” have made some serious blunders in both the Frey and the Rosenblat cases, and the several other fake, fabricated, or generously embellished memoirs that have been published in recent years. As one of the world’s legion of unpublished writers, I know that my work competes with that of too many others to count, most of whom have more talent than I do. I meet every year at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference with agents and editors and listen to their advice on what they are looking for and how to present my work so that it will capture the attention and imagination of someone who will believe in it and shepherd it along the difficult road to a spot on the ”new fiction” shelf down at Barnes & Noble.
I am particularly irritated by this most recent debacle because I am a writer of both fiction and memoir. Of the several hundred personal essays on this site, many are commentary on current events, for example Sleepless in Yorba Linda, in which I examine a controversy over the suitability of a book for a school reading list. Others pieces, however, are essentially my autobiography. I remember the teachers who inspired me, the students who taught me at least as much as I taught them, the joy I took in raising Lynn, the experiences that being her mother led me into. I present the stories with as much faithfulness to the facts as I can (my sister claims she never actually poked holes in the bottoms of items in a Whitman’s Sampler to see what they were, while I insist that she did, at least once) while acknowledging that the truth as I experienced it might be different from the truth experienced by someone else who was also there.
And the thing that irritates me the most is the several commentaries on the Rosenblat brouhaha that call what he has written “fiction,” or call what James Frey did “fictionalizing” his experience.
Fiction is not “what happened to me with the names changed” nor is it “what happened to me with some cooler details added.” Fiction is an art, and a difficult one, in which the writer examines the truth of human experience through created characters operating in a created world. That created world can, of course, be drawn closely on the writer’s own world. A piece I wrote in March, Old School, examines this process.
Many who comment on the present difficulty with yet another story Oprah Winfrey found compelling, including Oprah herself, suggest that maybe the writers should turn to fiction. They should instead call these writers what they are: frauds and charlatans who make things even harder for those of us apprentice writers, of both memoir and fiction, who are sincere in their efforts to shape a good story.
A year ago, I captured Lynn and her friend McKenna engaged in a twenty-something version of toddler parallel play.
Two years ago, I did not post on this date.
Three years ago, I offered an image of four trees in winter.
Four years ago, I wrote about being self-absorbed.
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