Thursday, January 26, 2006

What Would Tolstoy Think?

Image site here.

You probably don't care, but the title's my warning that this will be another litcentric post.

First, I must say if you care about such things, the Publisher's Lunch Deluxe online daily newsletter is almost worth the price of subscription to Publisher's Marketplace, itself a trove of business and trend info for the wheedling aspirant. However, because you likely do not subscribe, but I wish to rant about highlighted subjects, here are some hot links they served up today.

1) This is a great listing of booksellers who blog, along with other fine litblogs which included Chekhov's Mistress, one of the online homes of the intimidatingly productive Bud Parr, the progenitor of the MetaxuCafe metablog to which I contribute such humble offerings as I may. Congrats on the great mention, Bud, and may it drive up Metaxu membership. And don't you forget, non-Bud readers, participating in MetaxuCafe discussion forums makes you sexier.

2) Oprah's changed her mind about the importance of truth, or at least her stand when it comes to James Frey. I understand that on today's TV show she gave him a good "grilling" and vented onto him her own heretofore unexpressed feelings of being "duped." I wish it didn't sound so hypocritical and reactive to me; I wish supporting truth in labeling had been a quick, automatic decision; and I wish that Oprah, as she so often does, wasn't claiming this latest decision sprang from her evolving, changeable "feelings," as I suspect that's the briary path that led to this fever swamp in the first place.

3) As people start remembering memoir "issues" that they previously ignored, another scrivener celebre' is being called into question. Navahoax, a long, but worthwhile article in the L.A. Weekly is about the writer calling himself Nasdijj (a non-existent Navajo word) who's written several wrenching "true stories" based on his life as a damaged child of an alcoholic, broken home and incest who grew up to nurture multiple, fatally ill children. This combination surely strikes every chord of horror and tragedy, but is this person really a former S/M leatherman, gay erotica writer with less Indian blood than I have? Sherman Alexie, a well-known Indian activist and writer of an unusual mystery novel that I liked, joins Indian scholars and other tribal members who've been saying for years that Nasdijj appropriated his identity and makes numerous mistakes in portrayal. Bonus in this article is another swipe at the heinous Ward Churchill who has taken the same fraudulent stand for his scholarship that Nasdijj appears to have done in his memoirs.

“For some reason people lose their sense of discernment when it comes to Indians,” says activist and Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Shown-Harjo...“If I go to Italy and say, ‘I think the world of you people. I speak a little Italian, I love spaghetti, so I’m going to be voting in your next election. Give me preference as an Italian citizen as opposed to non-citizens. Give me a job. Give me grant money. And maybe I’m going to carry on your diplomatic relations with other nations,’ people would lock me up. But that’s what happens. The people that step into our world don’t do so in a respectful way. They rush right in and say ‘I’m your leader, I’m the articulator of your culture.’”

4) I happen to think there's honor in writing fiction, in unapologetically crafting a story that serves an artistic or entertaining purpose or both, and that the skills of mimicry that great authors evince are worthy of praise not concealment, not more shameful than having a truly fu**ed-up life. Tolstoy's own experiences in living were just the starting points for his fiction.

My articles of faith are these, and they're both examplified beautifully byLeo Tolstoy's short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (Don't let the 12 chapters dissuade you. They're extremely short. )

- First, the constant pile-on of more and worse horrors isn't necessary for stories to be gripping. In fact, it diminishes the inherent power of reality and leads to jaded, fatigued readers. Even a prosaic, boring life can be made compelling and rich by a great fiction writer.

- Second, writing this tale, Tolstoy was neither deathly ill nor deceased (obviously), yet his account of Ivan Ilyich's death is one of the most poignant and even realistic I can imagine. If a writer must experience a thing in order to be allowed to write about it, what are the gifts of observation, empathy, and imagination worth?

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