The Palin piece is a typical bit of Fishian contrarianism: Yes, he read Palin's autobiography Going Rogue, even tho Palin's on the bad guys list among his scholarly colleagues, & even tho the snooty liberal clerk at the Strand winced when he asked for the book, & sent him over to Barnes & Noble. And guess what? He enjoyed it. He found it (in words that could come from one of my undergraduates' papers) "compelling and well done." (Good Lord, Stanley, what's happened to your prose?)
And here's where it gets interesting. The left media hit Going Rogue hard on account of the autobiography's rather slippery relation to the historical record – in short, there were incessant & at times pretty shrill accusations that Palin's book was, if not a tissue of falsehoods, at least shot thru with misrepresentations. (For a slideshow of sometimes trivial things, see here; for more substantive policy-related boners, see here.) Fish doesn't commit himself as to whether he thinks Palin's lying or misremembering or whatever: for him, the book's truthfulness simply isn't an issue, because autobiography presents a different sort of "truth" than other nonfiction genres:
My assessment of the book has nothing to do with the accuracy of its accounts. Some news agencies have fact-checkers poring over every sentence, which would be to the point if the book were a biography, a genre that is judged by the degree to which the factual claims being made can be verified down to the last assertion. “Going Rogue,” however, is an autobiography, and while autobiographers certainly insist that they are telling the truth, the truth the genre promises is the truth about themselves — the kind of persons they are — and even when they are being mendacious or self-serving (and I don’t mean to imply that Palin is either), they are, necessarily, fleshing out that truth.... autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say will truthfully serve their project, which, again, is not to portray the facts, but to portray themselves.Did you follow that? In short, even if Palin is lying through her teeth about every substantive moment in her life, she's still presenting us with autobiographical "truth," since she's portraying not "the facts" but her own mendacious "self."
I will, as Fish is careful to do, entirely bracket the issue of whether or not Palin's book is accurate to the historical record. I have my own opinions, as he does (I suspect we share them), but they're not germane to the issue at hand – the status of "truth" in life-writing. In a piece from a decade ago, Fish made a careful distinction between biography, in which factual accuracy is a baseline standard of assessment, and autobiography, where we don't worry about such trivia because we're getting a portrait of the writer's self. Biography, Fish deconstructively concludes, always fails, always gets it wrong in trying to achieve an impossible factuality, while autobiography, inherently biased, unobjective, even disdainful of data, by its very announced subjectivity cannot fail.
Janet Malcolm, a far deeper thinker on these matters than Fish (& frankly, a much better writer), phrases it memorably in her The Silent Woman:
The questions raised by the passage only underscore the epistemological insecurity by which the reader of biography and autobiography (and history and journalism) is always and everywhere dogged. In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination.In short, Sidney's "Defense of Poesy" is put on its head: where the "the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth," one might say that the (auto)biographer (or historian, or journalist), since she or he makes statements that claim truth status (ie, "affirmeth"), will always to some degree fall short of absolute factuality.
This is the conceptual conundrum at the heart of life-writing, the hole of interpretive uncertainty that lies at the core of any biography (and yes, autobiography); it's part of what makes reading and doing the genre so interesting to me. We never know the truth of a life; we only know what a biographer – even an autobiographer – presents as a plausible attempt at that truth. The autobiographer or memoirist presents us with a particularly interesting, intimate, & in some ways problematic glimpse into a subject's subjectivity – but even the most seemingly disarmingly candid writer on the self (Montaigne, say) is consciously or unconsciously constructing a self to present to the reader.
Needless to say, this is even more the case with a political autobiography like Palin's, which is written not as an unprompted mon coeur mis à nu but as a full-dress act of self-construction in support of a public career, perhaps a run for the presidency. Truth to the historical record, factual accuracy isn't really the issue. Nor is the truth about Sarah Palin the human being. What's being given us is a construction of an ideal, maverick, perhaps even presidential Sarah Palin. In the last paragraphs of his review, Fish seems dangerously close to having swallowed the construction of Palin Going Rogue offers its readers, rather than the Palin his own (once sophisticated) interpretive techniques would disentangle.
The one bit of Fish's piece that I have to simply cry "foul" about is this:
I find the voice undeniably authentic (yes, I know the book was written “with the help” of Lynn Vincent, but many books, including my most recent one, are put together by an editor).Bullshit. Nothing is easier to fake than the "voice" of authenticity, and there's really no comparison between the kind of "collaboration" involved in most political autobiographies (the subject sits and talks, the actual writer recasts it all into coherent prose) and an editor's task of compiling previously published essays into a book. (If I were the editor of Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time I'd be pretty pissed off right now.)