Two years ago, my wife had this conversation with our younger daughter (5 at the time), in the back of my parents' car as we were driving to Santa Cruz:
Daughter: Mom, did you ever tell lies when you were a little girl?
Mother: Oh, sure.
Daughter: Did you tell a lot of lies?
Mother: No, I don't think I told a lot of lies. I mostly told the truth. I didn't want to get in trouble.
Daughter: I tell lies. I've told hundreds of lies. But don't tell Grandma.
This turned out to be a bit of a watershed moment for my daughter. We knew what was going on, of course. She wasn't much of a liar, actually, because she was less interested in the art of deceit than she was in persuasively conveying the sensational. i.e. She told whoppers. If our older daughter said she'd seen a video in class, our younger daughter inevitably crowed, "Oh, we saw that one too! Only, did you see the part where the chicken chased the farmer into the pond, and when he came out he had poo on his head?" No, she hadn't. What else had she missed? "Oh! There was this part where the farmer got tooken up by a balloon, and he...."
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, of course. As a kid in grade-school I was also prone to telling whoppers. Here's a typical scene: my mates and I in the playground, discussing television shows (most of which I had no access to). I'd listen to the general plot, pay close attention to the wrap-up, then when everyone said, "Cool!" I'd say, "You mean that's when you got commercials?! Oh, man: not us! You missed the whole part where Pa Cartwright takes this big knife and cuts off the head of the bad guy, and just hucks it into the burning barn!!"
I could probably chart a few seminal moments when I realized that admitting to the actual truth generated a more desireable grade of friendship with my peers. This is the general path of maturity: doing your best to avoid putting on airs, speaking the truth about the things that matter most, speaking plainly and resorting to hyperbole only when you are desirous of an extreme response in your listener.
On the other hand, we don't want to dampen our children's creative spirit. We took great delight in our youngest's fabulist tales; her older sister couldn't get enough of them. What we tried to encourage in our youngest was introducing "the wink" early in the game: be very conscious about admitting at the outset that this is a game, and you will invite the sort of participation that keeps your friends and family coming back for more. This is how you earn people's respect.
This is what I'd most dearly like to believe, of course: the general mill of humanity makes me wonder if I'm not horribly mistaken. A self-aggrandizing yahoo like James Frey peddles 400 pages of whoppers with the tacit approval of his publisher. He forgets to wink, until he's confronted -- then he winks so much, it's hard to tell when he's blinking from nervousness. Meanwhile Oprah holds his hand and tells everyone it's okay because he's written "emotional truth".
I find the spectacle entirely demoralizing. At this rate, Oprah could give her seal of approval to Mike Warnke -- not just a self-proclaimed one-time violent drug-addict, but a former senior Satanist who sacrificed kittens and a baby before he came to know the Lord (wink wink wink, everybody -- "emotional truth", here!).
But maybe there's a bright side to this whole thing. Maybe the "memoir bubble" is finally going to burst, and people will shun reality TV and shocking tell-all memoirs (and church testimonies). A new day will dawn, one in which people will see and acknowledge "the wink" at the outset, and consume fiction and poetry by the bushel, grateful for the motherlode of emotional truth that was silently waiting for them all this time; a day when readers will cheerfully reward the purveyors of this craft for so openly inviting them to come and participate in the art of story.
In the meantime, we'll just have to settle for the emotional truths of our politicians.... (Hat tip to Bookninja for all of the links, except Mike Warnke: that one's mine, and I'll expect gratuities from both Warnke and Oprah when he's booked on her show.)
Tags: James Frey Mike Warnke