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January 27, 2006


Jason Steed

Ack. This makes my head hurt. What Pandora's Box are we opening here? Think of all the (so-called?) memoirs, autobiographies, biographies -- even histories -- that might be called in for scrutiny if we start "fact-checking" any piece of writing that doesn't openly declare itself a "fiction."

A reconstructed conversation, a paraphrase of another's statement -- an experience remembered one way by the author but another way by a reader-but-fellow-participant....

We in the world of literary study sometimes have fun with these genre debates -- but then, there are many of us (myself included) who, in the end, embrace the notion that it is all narrative, all "fiction" ("history" and "journalism" included). But we can continue our debates over genre because the impact is only intellectual, rhetorical -- only theoretically political. That is, there is no perceivable "real-world" impact.

This will not be the case, as these debates enter the legal sphere. Is this okay? What will the impact be? Are we ready for it?

Ack. Like I said, this makes my head hurt.


I'd agree with some of what you say, Jason, but many in the literary domain think that art (in whatever form) has substantial "real world" impact. Debates about genre often revolved around the authority with which the art is received, for example.

That being said, I agree with your opening and closing -- these lawsuits make my head hurt too. Nevertheless, if the cases get to the point where discovery is conducted (e.g., if not all cases are dismissed for failure to state a claim), the testimony of the readers of the memoir should be pretty interesting, if at least for its commentary on the public's view of the value of literature. Can you imagine:

Statement: I picked up Frey's book because I wanted to know how an addict recovers. I relied on his representations that his story was entirely true.

Question: But how were you harmed by Frey's misrepresentation?

Answer: I wouldn't have bought the book had it not been true.

Question: But did you enjoy the book?

Answer: Yes, but I don't like it anymore.

Jason Steed

I didn't mean to suggest that art itself has no real-world impact, or that public notions of genre have no real-world impact -- only that the debate over genre in the literary world might not have much real-world impact. If it has any, it is slow and small in making itself perceivable to/in the public. (It's not like Blockbuster or Barnes&Noble starts shuffling its plastic signs marking its aisles in response to the latest academic conference on classification.)

I'm all in favor of the view that art acts in/on the real world, and that notions of genre conventions and expectations are key to this phenomenon. I guess I'm just questioning whether genre critics in academia really have any influence that is more than of the long-haul, trickle-down variety.

Of course, throw them in the courtroom as expert witnesses in trials over the definition of a memoir, and it could boost their influence substantially....

I repeat: Ack.

Bill Lewis

Yes, this is exactly a genre question. Law has trouble with the inevitably interpretive and ambiguous nature of representation (well discussed the comments in this blog about the heroic efforts of law's rhetoric to deny its own rhetorical character).

The problem is even greater here because the claim (Frey's claim?) that the book is true is itself a representation subject to interpretation. I enjoyed reading this book and I was moved by it. But it never occurred to me to take each statement as a "fact" referring perfectly accurately to the "real world". This is an addict's story of his own life. the ways in which it is exaggerated are unsurprising to anyone who knows recovering alcoholics--memory is none too clear and his ways of re-membering his own experiences make perfect sense.

I think that law is part of a broad process of cultural interpretation. Let's hope that the legal part of this discussion helps make reading these events richer for all of us--well, we can hope.

Coach Outlet

Chief Justice Robert's decision for the unanimous Court in in the law school/military recruiting

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