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.