Monday, February 06, 2006

When I Hear the Word "Memoir," I Reach for My Polygraph

Among other valuable neurotic traits (like a sense of irritation, which helps you spot errors), copy editors have to cultivate a certain level of paranoia. It's productive to be irrationally suspicious of every sentence. But when you're at home reading, say, the Sunday New York Times, you'd like to be able to turn off the skepticism switch and sit back and enjoy.

That was my state of mind yesterday as I clicked on Leah Hager Cohen's review of a memoir called My Fundamentalist Education, by Christine Rosen, who attended a Christian school as a child. Repose swiftly gave way to vigilance, however, after I read the hackneyed and tendentious opening sentences:

Hear the phrase "religious fundamentalism" and you are likely to picture a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, Jewish settlers resisting removal from the Gaza Strip or the slaying of abortion doctors in the United States. But the fundamentalists described by Christine Rosen in her closely observed memoir bear little resemblance to the extremists who have become the staple of the nightly newscasts.

This is written by (or addressed to) someone who thinks entirely in stereotypes. Who else would find it surprising that not all fundamentalists are violent extremists? Can the Times really be this simple-minded? Suppressing the urge to hit the "back" button, I read on, my innocent curiosity having turned morbid, to see whether Rosen's "close observations" could rescue us from the realm of lazy media cliche.

As I feared, the bits Cohen quotes leave us mired in stereotype. The fundamentalists depicted in Rosen's book are not extremists, they're just tacky white trash, for whom getting to Bible camp requires "a sweltering two-hour ride in the church van." Once there, campers swim in an "algae-covered lake." The mothers of Rosen's Christian-school classmates wear "vinyl mock-croc pumps and polyester-blend dresses from Sears. Visiting missionaries have 'out-of-date clothes' and 'badly cut hair.' "

The truth is, this is precisely what many people picture when they hear the phrase "religious fundamentalism": poor, ignorant, fashion-challenged rednecks. The reviewer has replaced one stereotype ("fundamentalists are extremists") with another ("fundamentalists are hicks"), neither of which gets us beyond the "staples of the nightly newscasts." On the contrary, we're simply having a different set of snobbish preconceived notions confirmed.

In a paranoid leap, I recalled what Ana Marie Cox had said about former Times reporter Rick Bragg (who lost his job because some of his claims to have actually observed what he wrote about turned out to be false), that he was the master of the "Platonic ideal of Timesian condescension." (And what is the phrase "vinyl mock-croc pumps and polyester-blend dresses from Sears" if not a Platonic ideal of white-trash tackiness?) Could something like this be going on here? I wondered. In the wake of the Frey fiasco it's hard to know what to think. Don't confabulators like Frey (and Bragg and Stephen Glass and Jason Blair) pull off their feats by making their fabrications conform to what readers already believe or want to believe?

My flight of fancy was ludicrous, of course. I have no doubt that Rosen experienced her church ladies firsthand. And it could well be that her book is a lot more nuanced than what is conveyed by the Times review. But right now the word “memoir” sets off alarm bells, and on Sunday mornings I don't want to be in paranoid-copy-editor mode. So no more reviews of memoirs for me, at least in the Sunday Times.


At 9:40 PM, Blogger Lunar Brogue said...

The Frey case highlights the strange notion that a degree of factual error (embellishment, dishonesty?) is acceptable in accounts of "subjective history." From memory Mr Frey was even bold enough to put a percentage on it ... So this is what I'd like to see: just like the yoghurt branding "97% fat free", we ought to have memoir branding - something like "95% error free, may contain traces of Oprah endorsement" ...

At 11:22 AM, Blogger tongue-tied said...

I like that. It might present some quantitative problems though. How error-free, for instance, is the claim that a three hours in a holding pen was three months of hard time? Less than 1 percent, surely. If you saw the recent movie, you know what Truman Capote (who made early advances in blurring the line between fact and fiction) claimed his conversational recall was 94 percent error-free. Maybe and goverment agency could establish some tests for this sort of thing.

At 4:07 PM, Blogger Tracy Q said...

It's human nature to control your own life story whether in the telling or the writing. Blogs are sometimes a good example of this.

That's why biographies are sometimes more interesting than memoirs.

This is not about memoir but is about the writerly urge to control your life story: Colette refused to include her movie reviews in her official "collected works." She thought them too light or ephemeral, perhaps.

Whatever. "Serious" Colette readers find this regrettable, for she was actually one of the first movie reviewers! What was she thinking? Her pruning of the Collected Works was, I'd say, a way of tinkering with her life story. But you can't stop people from doing that -- they always will.


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