Truth in Content : Who Does it Matter To? (long)

When I tell people by the water cooler that I haven’t watched television in over fifteen years, some people want to know why. I usually tell them that I haven’t owned a set since my family got rid of the broken one we had sitting on the end table in the living room. They usually ask why not. And I usually tell them, as matter-of-factly as I will tell you now, because my uncle Rick put my head though the glass of a 27” solid-state unit in an alcoholic fit of rage when I was nine. Do you want to see the scars? I had changed the channel to “Picture-Pages” without asking. Do you want to hear about what happened the time I accidentally broke the whisky glass which my dad, his dead brother, gave him before he died, in an event my uncle would later refer to as “the will-gift fuck-up”? Would you like to know what the results of improper use of a manual can opener look like? They usually don’t ask any more questions. That’s where the conversation usually stops. But that’s usually because by this time I’m sweating and my eyes haven’t blinked for a few minutes and I may have accidentally backed them into a corner. It is real. They feel trapped. Physically. Mentally. Obligatory pity. After escaping this awkward situation, rarely does anyone report that they felt fascinated, transported, entertained.

What about you. Don’t you have just the smallest twinge of interest as to why I always wear long sleeves? Aren’t you just slightly curious as to how soon Uncle Rick will make parole? Don’t you want to hear about “the will-gift fuck up”? If I explained it to you in the form of an op-ed piece for a class at NYU, doesn’t that make it just a little less real? A little more safe? A little more…entertaining?

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been telling you the truth. Of course I have a television. I watched the evening news not more than a half hour ago. My uncle’s name is Jim, and I don’t even think he’s ever had a drink in his whole life. I’ve never actually seen Picture Pages. No scars. No can opener. No pity. I am a liar, a fabricator, an author.

When stories like the JT Leroy hoax and the James Frey memoir/Oprah embarrassment happen, we, the public, react. However, we constantly react in a way that is counter-intuitive. When Oprah lets us know that we have been collectively duped, it is not so much that we feel hurt (as in “we have been deceived”), as we feel disappointed at the unmasking of our man behind the curtain. Our entertainment value has been soured. Once we believe those awful stories about the back-alley abortion, we want them to be true forever. Where we once had a miscreant to feel superior to, now we learn they were as normal as any of us growing up. After the strings have been cut from our collective suspension of disbelief, we are returned to the maelstrom of mediocrity. We again feel the call of obligatory accomplishment, which we are all too ready to tie directly to success. We want to know that those things happened to someone. Mirror Neurons hard at work. Empathy. Sympathy. Self-pity. Those vacationing in various tropical destinations when the tsunami hit the village of Banda Aceh in December of 2004 felt both a twinge of guilt and a greater connectedness with the disaster than those of us further away. It’s an “I was affected more than you were” kind of reaction we cannot help but feel – we have a ridiculous and arbitrary superficial connection to something that hasn’t really affected us at all. We crave a something outside ourselves. The fantastic. The impossible. We crave the story.

Perhaps it isn’t our fault though. The concept of the “daily news” has been dressing information in entertainment’s clothing for decades. Reality T.V. as well has been sating the mainstream’s voyeuristic urges since “The Real World”. And we love it. Not because it is real. But because it is sublimely unreal. “This is the story…of one person…who lives in a dreary apartment…in Queens.” That’s my life. Who’s going to tune in to me? The formula for good reality television, indeed for most entertainment does not lie in the real, but in the hyper-real, the theatre of the ridiculous. The truth is, while my insignificant tale from above may lack the weight and length of a traditional homespun memoir, Americans love a good story, more than they do reality. We love the drama, the antithesis of the mundane, reality, our lives. We would much prefer to be lied to, so long as the lie is laced with the sweet nectar of entertainment. No one wants to be bothered with normality1.

American Academy Award nominated talk show host and magazine publisher Oprah Winfrey, in the highly publicized second interview with debunked “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey commented, “…as a reader I’m believing you because it’s on the bookshelf as a memoir.” Really? He’s a drug addict, writing about being a drug addict, writing a memoir (from the Latin memoria, meaning “memory”), an intimate and personal account of drug addiction. With this foreknowledge, what kind of information retrieval would you trust this man with? Would you trust him with your medical records at the hospital? If he can write a book detailing the use of alcohol and drugs, he must be a reliable source, right? Something is rotten in this logic. We bought the book because Oprah told us to. We have instilled our trust in Oprah. Oprah has instilled her trust in James Frey because, as she has said, “it’s on the bookshelf as a memoir.” I wonder if she believes the President of the United States because he is in office. In fact, former president Clinton was on her show. I don’t remember talk of his disappointing a nation because he had lied to them about personal details. Further, in response to those who would claim that the whole affair is a tragedy because his book was helpful to people, I would argue most who read James Frey’s tale are not drug addicts, and are not looking to the book as a self-help guide, but rather read it for it’s entertainment value. The very meaning of the word entertainment stems from the idea of holding one’s attention. And how do we achieve this? With the fantastical. With the surreal. Why should we question the inherent entertainment value of the memoir industry as this country continues to churn out title like, “Callgirl: Confessions of an Ivy League Lady of Pleasure,” and “Bat Boy: My True Life Adventures Coming of Age With the New York Yankees.” No form of entertainment can be entrusted to tell an unbiased truth. Truth shifts in parallel with our ever evolving tool-set of communication. What about Callgirl author Jeannette Angell? Do we trust her more or less than Frey? Really? Ah, yes…she hasn’t yet been on the Oprah show. How upset will we be when it is reported that she hasn’t really slept with a quarter of those she claims to have?

Obviously our “authorship society” is leveling the playing field for user-generated content. Unfortunately that level is reaching a low-water mark. More and more product floods the market everyday. As Daniel Boorstin, author of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America warns, “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” We seek to become the very product we can’t seem to consume enough of. We look to people like Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey to instruct us how to attain the “life-movie” we star in everyday in our mind’s eye. We long to be the life pored over. We long for our 15 minutes of fame. We long for our fifteen minutes of non-privacy. We long to be exploited. Newer generations are starting to put these desires into practice earlier and earlier. Twelve and Thirteen-year-olds are already obsessively exploiting themselves on social-networking sites such as the massively popular (and NewsCorp owned) MySpace.com or high school-themed myYearbook.com. 43things.com provides a forum specifically titled “write a memoir,” where people like “Becky” postulate, “i’ve already written my memoir – my blog over the past 4 years… i need to give it some form.. i don’t think daily diary entries is a good format for a book. or maybe it is (see “diary of anne frank”, etc).”

As William Grimes has commented, “the genre has become so inclusive that it’s almost impossible to imagine which life experiences do not qualify as memoir material.” I hope it is sooner rather than later that we, the consuming audience, realize that we do not want to know about “us”, or others like us for that matter, in the ways that we are currently selling ourselves. What we want is archetypal figures upon which to model a mode of behavior and personality. We want to be cool. We want to be sophisticated. We want to be told what that is. We do not look to ourselves. We do not trust ourselves. We trust the Dr. Phil’s and Oprah Winfrey’s (and Slashdot’s and BoingBoing’s or any other brand of coolness) of the world. The masses do not want to be trendsetters. Trend-setting by the masses are horses designed by committee.

It is the duty of the entertainment-industry to entertain. Why should we expect anything less from a memoir. Some have called the Frey escapade a hoax. A memoir hoax? What about the other genre’s. Could there be a “VH1: Behind the Music” hoax? What about the movies? As Anthony Lane of the New Yorker posits in his March 2006 article “Telling Tales,” “…there is no such thing as a cinematic hoax. Even the worst movies are made in good faith, and, if you start condemning public figures for pretending to something they’re not, what do you do about actors?” I wonder how many Oprah fans watch her show for the wondrous amounts of hard facts it puts forth. Come on, everyone dresses up for the camera a little. If Oprah wants the real truth from the entertainment industry, she should start by setting precedent. No more make-up for Oprah from now on. No more cameras either, or sets. Just invite the studio audience that wants to come down as usual for a rap session. You and Oprah, hanging out, talking straight about drugs. No decoration. No TV personalities. No entertainment. Period. Is that what you want?

Somehow, we have to reconcile our absolute obsession with the concept of celebrity and our motivation for user-generated content. We have to start again from the beginning,” Umberto Eco writes, “asking one another what’s going on.”

The full-length commentary is also available as an ironic videocast, which can be found here