Monday, December 15, 2008

The Word of the Day: Truthiness

Saturday I went to a roundtable at The Philoctetes Center concerning the twin topics of autobiography and biography. Given the fact that I write mini-biographies over at Scandalous Women, this topic was right up my alley. And the list of guests was impressive, Simon Winchester, Nicholson Baker and Judith Thurman who has written biographies of Isak Dinesen and Colette. One of the topics that came up was of course the infamous James Frey. One of the panelists, David Shields, felt that Frey had been made a scapegoat, which I disagree with. He set himself up by insisting that everything in his memoir was the absolute truth and then he turned out to be a big fat liar. Nicholson Baker brought up a good point that when people pick up an autobiography there is an unspoken pact between the reader and the author, that what they are about to read is the truth. And then Judith Thurman said that there are facts and then there is the truth and they are two different things.

Whoa! I had never thought of it that way, but after I thought about it for a bit, I realized that she was right. One of my favorite Scandalous Women, Lola Montez, completely reinvented herself. Born Eliza Gilbert in Ireland, she went to Spain to study dance and when she returned she was Lola Montez, complete with the accent and a made up story of an aristocratic background. She told this story so many times that she actually began to believe it, and when she wrote her autobiography, she kept up the lie. It had nothing to do with the facts, but with her own version of her truth.

I was so fired up that I actually got up at the end of the roundtable and actually made a comment and asked a question, which I never to do at the roundtables at Philoctetes. In almost two years, I have asked precisely two questions. Part of the problem is that I'm not exactly a quick thinker, quite a few times I've thought of questions I wanted to ask later on after I got home. The other problem is sometimes the roundtables are either so over my head or out of my comfort zone, I wouldn't know what to ask. Anyway, I made my comment about Lola Montez and then I asked Judith Thurman if she felt like Amanda Foreman, that if she had a chance to write her biographies of Colette or Isak Dinesen again, would she take a different tack, now that she's gotten older or would she emphasize another aspect of their lives? I felt really proud of that question, particularly when a gentleman after the roundtable told me that he thought my question was very intelligent. Yeah, score one for me! Oh, and I remembered to mention the blog when I made my comment. Got to self-promote.

I was disturbed however when Francis Levy, the co-director of the center, made an announcement that things were kind of dire at the moment, due to the economic climate and losing some of their funding (?). That worried me. What would I do with my Saturdays if I didn't have Philoctetes to go to? Even though some of the roundtables were over my head intellectually, I've always gotten something out of them, and I've felt like I've expanded my horizons considerably since I discovered the center.

It is times like this that I wish I could win the lottery, so I could set up a foundation and continue to make sure that places like Philoctetes continue to exist. I would be such a good rich person. I hate getting letters in the mail from worthy causes and not being able to contribute. It sounds a little like playing Lady Benevolent, but I've always thought if I had access to a great deal of money, I would set up a foundation to make sure that the arts, particularly small theater companies, were decently funded, as well as research into diabetes and lung cancer.

Ah well.

1 comment:

Hope Tarr said...

I never read Frey's A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and I'm not likely to. Ditto for his new book. And I concur with you, Elizabeth. When you write and market something as autobiographical, you are making a pact to be factual or truthful or both even.

That said, Frey's new release appears to be doing well enough despite the previous scandal. Or maybe even because of it. Who knows. One thing about American society in particular: there's an enormous opportunity to reinvent one's self. That's something, I suppose.