Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Erotic suffering and cultural change

The first ingredient is exotic, glamorous pain. We all suffer, but most suffering is not glamorous. Audiences don't want to hear about the kind of suffering they actually endure. So to a medieval peasant, sufferings like cold, vermin, beatings and plague would not have been exotic or saleable. Those people wanted stories about what they didn't have, like enough to eat or a warm palace to sleep in. They told tales of palaces that fell into the possession of plucky orphans and magic tables that always overflowed with food...

Fast-forward a few hundred years and you find us, the doughy descendants of those wretched peasants, so stuffed with food that we obsess on losing weight. Magic tables constantly filling with roasted goose are the last thing we want to hear about.
Only now do stories about cold and hunger without happy magical endings become popular, because that form of suffering is, for most of us, a nice distraction from the actual sufferings we undergo...

It's important to realize here that the "suffering" of these stories is erotic to the reader, just as the vision of a magic table always full of food was erotic to a medieval audience. And by looking at what forgers feed their gullible readers, we can see how cultures change.

I've kept my mind pretty well out of the controversy regarding books sold as memoirs that are actually pure fiction. I think part of the reason is that I see the relationship between memoir and fiction as a continuum, a sliding scale. Memoir, like memory itself is partly fictional, and fiction, contains ingredients of memory. So the question becomes where and how should the line be justifiably drawn between the two. There are no hard and fast rules. And in recent years the line has become hazier. Why else has something emerged called "creative non-fiction."

Okay, the cases in the news lately have been particularly egregious examples of falsehood, outright fraud. And I guess what I find most interesting are not questions related to safeguarding the integrity of literature or even the book industry. But rather what the trend (and it does now seem to be a trend) tells us about the path of society, cultural change. Tyee Books has an interesting perspective as quoted in the above paragraphs:

No doubt the publishers were duped by the authors. But they share part of the blame. In the rush to publish and compete in an increasingly competitive economy publishers have become lax on the editorial side to the point of negligence. It's particularly intriguing to think that writers, of all people, have become such charlatans. I don't mean to place writers on any kind of pedestal, but there has always been a certain cache and nobility to writing. What makes it so surprising is that the rewards which await the fraudster tend to be relatively negligeable. With very few exceptions, writing has never been a lucrative activity. What a writer might expect from his/her toil is a certain amount of respect. Nonetheless nowadays, with the proliferation of writing in general and a great many paper and electronic outlets available more people are writing and some are even managing to scrape together a meagre living. The point being that in today's environment, it's inevitable that with more writers and publishers and product out there, there are bound to be more charlatans, people who will push the boundaries to get an edge.

And I suspect that pushing the boundary has become easier for young people who are growing up in a culture where everything is relative, a matter of spin. The points made in the Tyee piece seem to come down to one main point: what sells. Stories of violence and "glamorous suffering" are nothing new. They've worked since the bible. What has shifted is the context; a wired society that pushes the boundaries between fact and fantasy in a thousand different ways. Young people spend a great deal of their time in a headspace that is virtual, assume multiple made-up identities and dispense with them as easily as candy wrappers.

Book publishers are going to have to be more vigilant, no doubt about that, for the sake of their own financial interest. And the silver-lining here is how quickly these frauds have been exposed, which is also endemic of the wired world, the libertarian ideal of a system that can police itself. But even more important, it shows that as a society we still care. Not so much about the integrity of literature or the nobility of the writing profession, but about what goes in to the products we are consuming, from Chinese-made toys to books.

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