Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Truth and Consequences

This week’s publishing scandal is about Margaret B. Jones’s fabricated memoir Love and Consequences, an account of her youth as a drug runner in a Los Angeles gang, which turns out to be pure fiction. Think of it as James Frey, Chapter Two. (James Frey’s purported memoir A Million Little Pieces, a down-and-out tale of drugs and woe was discovered to be mostly fiction last year, prompting a debate that no doubt helped make Frey much more famous than he otherwise would have been.) Old Latin motto: Sive bonum sive malum, fama est. (Whether good or bad, it’s still fame. Or, in media-speak, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”)

Appropriate standards of verifiablity are a hot topic in discussions of memoir writing these days, but it’s not my subject here. Instead, I want to look at the readership’s preference for fact over fiction, and how this bears on presumably autobiographical writing in poetry.

Everyone in contemporary publishing knows that non-fiction books far outsell fiction. Why does fiction interest readers less? A couple of theories: In a competitive society, fact is an equivalent to money; it is “hard” and negotiable, and may help you acquire the real thing. Fiction is seen as “soft,” little more than somebody’s dream world—an entertainment, perhaps, but not especially helpful as you struggle to outdistance your fellow citizens. Or: Modern science has raised the prestige of proven fact by turning scientific discoveries into a pragmatic technology that can improve our health and our living standard. What comparable thing can fiction do for us?

Several years ago I published a novel titled Part of His Story, written in the first-person by a male narrator roughly my age, who had lived in New York and London. He, too, was a writer, but a playwright, and theater is the one form I’ve never worked in. Resemblance between author and narrator pretty much stopped there, and his name was different from mine. In the months after publication, when I gave bookstore readings, time and again people would come up after and ask me, "Is it an autobiographical novel?" When I said it wasn’t, I could always see they were disappointed. Fiction isn’t as highly prized as fact. The ability to invent, imagine, and make events seem real doesn’t make a strong impression. Only what has actually happened interests the broad public.

Beginning around 1959, many American poets began emphasizing the autobiographical aspect of their art, tapping into a long tradition of autobiographical writing that includes Ovid, Dante, Villon, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Pope, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Dickinson, Hardy, Frost, Crane, Auden, Rukeyser, and others. More specifically, authors like W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Adrienne Rich began writing about taboo subjects—sex, divorce, drunkenness, pills, insanity, suicide, what have you. The critic M.L. Rosenthal named this trend the “Confessional School,” even though it really had nothing to do with Christianity or the sacrament of confession. It was hailed as bringing a new honesty and authenticity onto the scene, taking poetry out of the mythological groves of academe and putting it squarely in the center of American life as actually lived. Eliot’s ideal of “impersonality” was scrapped. The period coincides with the rise of public interest in non-fiction, as opposed to fiction. And clearly some of the appeal of the “Confessional School” resides in the perceived notion that the authors are telling the truth, the real dirt about their experience. This was stuff that readers could use as they tried to negotiate their way through the labyrinth of American life in an era of turbulent change.

At least one of these poets (Lowell) admitted in interviews that his so-called confessions were partly made up. The extent to which other purportedly truth-telling poets were inventing is moot. And the problem is still with us. I can think of an instance of a well-known contemporary poet (Sharon Olds) who has written many poems about being abused by an alcoholic father. In an interview she was asked to give the actual details and declined to do so in order to “protect the poems,” as she said. Which is a way of indicating that some of the accounts are at least partly fictional. Why not just say that? I speculate that she realized most readers experienced the poems as being factual; and that their participation in the poems, their identification, would be marred if they knew what they were reading was fiction. When we read texts portraying the sufferings of an author, we almost automatically feel sympathy for what they have undergone. The more piercing their agony, the more we want to alleviate it, and praise is one way to do that. Which remains true even when the presentation of agony is deficient in artistic quality. Actually, we can view clumsiness as one more sign of authenticity, as though the author were in so much pain she or he couldn’t be bothered with niceties like economy, taut syntax, vivid metaphor, freshness of expression, or rhythmically alert lines.

Poets who make it all up may not be aware that they can find justification in the tradition if they look for it. Consider Sidney’s “But the poet...nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writeth.” (The Defense of Poetry). And so it was for centuries, where fiction interested readers as much or more than fact. But of course the situation has now changed.

I took an informal survey among my poet friends in this topic, and found that they all reserved the right to invent; and I don’t mean invent poems in dramatic voice, where a character with a name not the author's tells a story that differs from that author's biography. All my poet friends felt authorized to invent lyric narratives and present them in the first-person singular, in the present day, and composed of situations that sounded generally plausible. Myself, I don’t feel comfortable casting fictions in the first-person singular unless they’re presented as belonging to a character designated as someone not myself. In this, I’m a small minority; the only other poet I know of who shares this view (or so I’ve read) is Ted Kooser.

Maybe this anecdote will explain the scruple. I attended a poetry reading once where the featured poet read a poem about the death of his little girl. People came up afterwards, and I happened to be in earshot when a middle-aged woman with a tragic expression spoke to the poet and said, “I was so moved by your poem about your daughter dying. You see, I’m in the same situation.” He looked at her and shook his head. “I never had a daughter. That was a poem. Poems are fictions.” She turned away and I could see that she was furious, that she felt betrayed. That seemed justified to me.

If we’re living in an age where memoir writers are being criticized for passing off fiction as truth, maybe it’s time to examine purportedly autobiographical poetry as well. How close is it to what actually happened? I can think of another instance where a poet involved in a messy divorce wrote nasty poems about the estranged partner—poems that were highly fictionalized. They weren’t Confessional poems, really, because they didn’t stick to the facts; or you could say that to the extent they were Confessional poems, they confessed the sins of someone else. Sympathy based on these inventions was forthcoming, in fact, it resulted in career advancement for the fictional poet. Is this an abuse? I think so. And I recall something Dr. Johnson said (the citation may not be perfect) in his comments on Lycidas: “He who has the leisure for fiction feels no true grief.” All right, he doesn't have to. But let's not feel so sorry for him then.


David Graham said...


Very interesting post, and right up my alley. In case you haven't seen it, allow me to plug the essay anthology I co-edited with Kate Sontag, *After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography* (Graywolf). It contains a whole section on the ethics of autobiographical poetry, including a piece by Ted Kooser. Read more about it here:

(Home page:

Ron Slate said...

About the coincidence of the poet with his poem, of his one identity with his one subject, I follow Louise Gluck: "The truth, on the page, need not have been lived. It is, instead, all that can be envisioned." She in turn follows RP Blackmur: "The life we live is not enough of a subject for the serious artist; it must be a life with a leaning, life with a tendency to shape itself only in certain forms, to afford its most lucid revelations only in certain lights." Thanks for posting on this subject. I can vouch for the value of David Graham's Graywolf collection on the topic (mentioned in his comment).

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks, Ron. I wasn't aware of the Blackmur quote and am glad to have it. Obviously no real poet would ever write autobiographical poems solely. Poems in characterized voice, nature poems, philosophical poems, poems about other works of art, poems about justice, riddles, comedy, dreams, anecdotes, jars, jazz, words--you'd need all of that to qualify as important. But: If you do write autobio-poems AND you misrepresent the words and deeds of people close to you, is that fair and just and permissible?

David Graham said...

(Sorry for the length of this comment, but it's a big elephant we're circling around here.)

Whenever the topic of the ethics of autobiographical poems arises, it's striking how inerringly the discussion turns not on the poems themselves, but on how they are labeled and presented.

There really isn't much serious debate about whether or not a poem can be fictive. Of course it can. Some insist that it always is, even or especially when presenting autobiographical material. Yes, of course poets from Chaucer through Browning and beyond have felt free to invent characters, write in persona, meld fantasy, dream, and desire with tangible fact, and so forth. No one is misled by the slant of Dickinson's truth, or confused by Whitman's claim to have entered the bed of the bride and bridegroom.

Furthermore, sorting out the true from the shaded or otherwise fictive, even if you cared to, can be a daunting task, and in many cases (dead poets especially) essentially impossible.

So all we really have to go on, much of the time, is what the poet says about the poem, or how it is presented to the public.

I do think it's true that there has been a sea-change of sorts in attitudes toward the personal lyric since the first "confessional" work of Sexton, Snodgrass, and Lowell. (Plath I've never seen as confessional in the same way; and of course all the main players have vigorously rejected the label.)

For instance, it was once S.O.P. to indicate the use of a persona, even if the body of the poem made it clear enough, with the title or epigraph: "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," "My Last Duchess." And plenty of lyrics understood to be more or less in the voice of the poet also employed the convention of third-person titles: e.g. Jonson's "An Ode: To Himself," Bradstreet's "A Letter to Her Husband. . . ."

When did these conventions fall away, and why? No doubt it has something to do with the Romantic revolution, with new rhetorical emphasis upon sincerity, "a man speaking to men (sic)," and all that. When Whitman writes "I was the man, I suffered, I was there," surely no one was *fooled* or offended.

What seems new in the past half century is a fairly deliberate blurring of such matters, which makes possible current controversies about what poets are entitled to do with regard to truth-telling, appropriation of others' voices, and so forth. In some respects this is a debate that would have baffled earlier eras, isn't it?

The poet Ai strikes me as an intriguing case in point. She has some poems that, if I were not already primed to *expect* personae from her, would be practically impossible to tell apart from autobiography. I'd agree that this whole discussion needs to be framed in terms of rhetorical convention and expectation; and it seems the matter remains far from settled, even a half century after Life Studies.

Like many poets these days I write first-person lyrics that are essentially "true" and others which depart substantially from the facts of my life. I don't always feel the need to label, on the page, which is which. (For that matter, it can be tricky even for an author to make such distinctions accurately.) Where I would draw an ethical line would be in presenting the poem at a reading. I would never allow an audience to believe I had a dead daughter, for instance, if I did not. In that sense I agree with Ted Kooser and Alfred and others who are uncomfortable with such sins of omission.

Ryan said...


I think the preference for fact over fiction has to do with the culture's overall confusing of fact and truth. Truth can be and is often separate from and contrary to fact. Still, empiricist-rooted thought has confused these entities and has, since mid-century, given privilege to 'authenticity' in art.

Authenticity is a trope. What is being praised should be the illusion of authenticity. Because objective perception is impossible, there is no writing that can represent 'fact'; all writing is metaphor, all reductive, all previously perceived and transformed and transformed again into language, all, in short, fiction.

I agree that people should not mis-represent themselves, should not manipulate audiences for personal gain by presenting fictional writing as autobiographical. However, I feel it's important to point out the obvious: that there is not a memoir or a poem that isn't fiction. Furthermore, the tendency of non-fiction to outsell fiction indicates, at least to my mind, a culture's seeking refuge in reduction.

Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it and the discussion it's begun.


Jonathan Trejo-Mathys said...

I believe that whether or not a particular lyric poem's use of "I" is misleading in a morally or ethically objectionable way depends upon what kind of utterance the poem itself is. What kind of 'speech-act', to use a philosophical term, is it? Leaving aside worries about the 'textuality' of texts, about the fact that they are physical objects, and so on -- so are the vibrating particles that carry sound waves in speech -- it seems clear that the publication of a book or a poem is an act, beginning with a poet and ending with a public. This extended, highly complex act is mediated by an ungodly number of intermediate actors & institutions of course. Nevertheless, it is a form of utterance whose communication or conveyance is made possible by print media. The signals embedded in titles that were mentioned by some of the other commenters, signals highlighting the fictionality of the speaker in the poem, are examples of guides concerning what kind of a speech-act the poem is meant to be (how the author intends it to be understood by its public). The trouble is that in many cases insufficient guidance is given by titles or other devices, and -- of course! -- many times this lack of guidance is itself fully intended by the author.

This may seem inconvenient, but I don't think it's different in kind -- and here I think I am defending an unfashionable position -- from our general understanding of human action and its problems. I mean to say that it is (distressingly) often the case that it is unclear how a certain action was meant, or what meaning it has, whether a gesture, a deed or an utterance. Sometimes we can just ask, "What do you mean by that?" Sometimes we can't (e.g., the author is dead). Even worse, many times we simply disagree about what was done and why -- often in the most intimate of contexts too.

Speaking of context, it is this that also often helps to determine or at least constrain the interpretation given to an utterance or an action. The signals in poem titles are examples of this. It's for this reason that I would caution against attempting to articulate any general rules about what uses of "I", what kinds of personae, and so on, are permissible in poems, lyric or otherwise. I don't think anyone doubts that intentional deception is in general flatly wrong and hurtful -- in poems or otherwise. But under what conditions does the writing and publishing of a piece of 'creative' writing or fiction constitute intentional deception? (Back to wrestling with Plato.)

The cases of faked memoirs are easier. The case of the poet reading a lyric poem about dealing with the death of a daughter in front of human beings among whom there could be someone who has lost a daughter is harder, but fairly clear: sensitive judgment and thoughtfulness lead us to make sure we do not mislead people here.

It seems to me that Olds does her own readers a disservice, however, if she refuses to clarify in an interview where her poems about abuse come from and what relation they bear to her life in order to protect the poems, or, as Alfred suggests, her readers' capacity to identify with them. Maybe every poem and every act of reading poetry is an occasion for learning to read poetry (learning to read oneself and learning to read human life). If that's the case, I think it may be unconscionably condescending to suppose that readers cannot learn to appreciate a poem unless certain truths are not disclosed. But perhaps this is simply the prejudice of a philosopher.