Wednesday, December 09, 2009

home stretch (palate-clearing before grading blogging)

My friend Bradley, who has more than a little professional & personal investment in these matters, draws my attention to Monday's Times editorial from Stanley Fish on Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. Ah, Stanley Fish. One thing I'll miss about my chum Brian's blogging – if indeed he's surrendered to the soundbite-ethos of Twitter and Facebook updates, as so many of us have – is his more-or-less regular conniption fits in response to Stanley Fish's NYT blog posts. Brian, I'd murmur, he's just trying to get your goat, & succeeding; as Mom says, "he's just trying to get a rise out of you."

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.)


tyrone said...

Take it easy, Mark--I mean, it's Stanley Fish, for chrissake...

Brian S said...

What can I say, Mark? I took your advice on Fish. I read his piece yesterday, then looked at the massive pile of work I still have to do, and then decided to play Wii instead of deal with either of them. Better for my state of mind and my blood pressure.

Vance Maverick said...

In that block of bullshit, you call out the suggestion that ghostwriting is no worse, or at least no more, than editing. I'm more irritated by the evacuation of the meaning of "authentic", or alternatively, if we assume it's already meaningless, the insistence on it as if it proved something. If this is the kind of verbal performance in which one cannot lie, then what's the point of claiming that she's in some sense not lying? It's a sheer waste of time, like beginning with the argument that objects of all weights fall at the same rate, then going on to claim the same thing case by case. Surely an actual reader (no need for a qualified Miltonist) could spend the time judging whether Palin was lying well, or effectively.

Dan Alexander (FAU Alumni '07) said...

It took Sarah Plain almost 6 years and 4 colleges to obtain a Bachelors degree in Communication (Journalism) from the University of Idaho. Are we surprised that she couldn't write her own auto-biography?

Wait a minute. Can the Auto-Biography genre be ghost-written? My gut says no. I feel like Obama; "This question is above my pay-grade."

You're the professor Scroggy; what say you?

Mr. Fish brings up a great point though either way you answer the previous question; every writing style is subjective to the author and their truth (even fiction), but at least the auto-biography inadvertently gives readers a true reflection of the character of the author. That is to say, if Sarah Palin is not ethical enough to be factual in her auto-biography then she probably wouldn't be ethical in many other areas either.

The A.B. may not give the reader a high definition picture of the truth, but, we can get enough of a reflection of the truth (if we know where and how to look) to make a judgment call on the author (which we couldn't even hope for in any other genre with the exception of poetry).

When I read this, I cannot help but think of Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith/Resignation.

When it comes to Sarah Palin, you are either a Knight of Faith or a Knight of Resignation. By that I mean, you either believe everything she says and take it as fact (i.e. as the gospel truth), or you have resigned yourself to the belief that she lives in her own little world where facts are subjective and "Stubborn Things".