There’s an absolutely fascinating interblog discussion going on about the issue of whether, or to what extent, it’s acceptable to fictionalize one’s life and experiences in one’s blog. It doesn’t apply to Languagehat, because this is not that kind of blog, but anyone with any interest in the subject (which touches on literature, psychology, elitism, and all manner of meaty topics) should hie them to Burningbird, follow the comments there and at the other sites she links to (especially Dorothea, who is passionately pro-honesty), think about it, and perhaps add their own comments. I mention this also because Burningbird may go dark at the end of April, which is a horrible thought to those of us who love Shelley’s writing and the discussions she prompts, and I’m hoping someone reading this will have a hosting opportunity for her (she can’t afford the one she’s using).
Addendum. An interesting and relevant pro-fiction post from Baldur (via wood s lot):
It will happen slowly, it has to happen slowly. People need to be drawn in. Their hesitant minds, so acclimated to the “non-fiction” of information, news, reality-tv, gameshows and talkshows, need to give up the notion that fiction is made by the few, comes in big packages and in big numbers.
They’re not used to the idea of fictional stories being told by normal people to a small crowd.
Like virgins, they need to be approached with great care, and treated gently, so as to not turn them off the very concept for the rest of their lives.
Before they know it, we’ll be having them telling stories with the best of them.
Again, I say that’s fine, as long as it’s clear you’re “telling stories” and not (ostensibly) describing the facts of your life and the world.
I’m frustrated that the interblog conversation has died down, and I think I’ll post a couple of my comments here so that I won’t have to go searching through Outer Blogovia to try to find out what I think.
Let me come at it from another angle. In textual criticism there’s a principle called “lectio difficilior potior”—the more difficult reading is the stronger. The idea is that the original text will have had odd, unpredictable words or phrases that tended to get smoothed out when the text was copied, so that if you have two versions, one with a dull, obvious word and one with a striking, unusual one, the latter is preferable (other things being equal). Similarly (if you buy my analogy), life deals us unique circumstances, events, reactions, that we could never have made up or predicted and that if recounted truthfully can strike new and resonant chords in the hearer; when we reinvent them, “improve” them, like those ancient scribes we are likely to introduce easier readings that make a duller text. Hew to the lectio difficilior, however difficult it may be for you, and you will be read and treasured.
Another way of looking at it: frequently, in the Jewish scriptures, the Lord calls on a prophet to tell him to do something or other, and when the prophet answers the Lord’s call, he does so by saying “Hineni”: Here I am. He doesn’t go on about the weather, or give long explanations of his situation, or practise any sort of bullshit whatever. Just “here I am.” I think that’s what we unconsciously expect from bloggers (unless they’re patently doing something else): that they’re saying to the world “here I am, with all my faults, quirks, and general weirdness.” Otherwise, what’s the point? You’re just another mask in the crowd.
Posted by: language hat on April 16, 2003 02:11 PM
In response to Shelley’s quoting this passage of Annie Dillard in a later Burningburd entry:
I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as thought I’d been painted with roses.
and adding “Sometimes to tell the truth you have to lie a little,” I responded:
“But I understand why she created this story. What could better bring together the child and her wonder and acceptance with an example of wildness, of nature’s violence blended with beauty. Sometimes to tell the truth you have to lie a little.”
I understand why she created it, too; what I don’t understand is why she put it in the first person. Why not say “A cat, an old fighting tom, jumps through the open window by your bed…”? There are all kinds of ways you can frame an image like that; the only point to telling it as something that happened to you personally is to give it that added authority of personal experience, and in this case that is a lie. It’s possible that “Sometimes to tell the truth you have to lie a little,” but I’m quite sure that the number of cases in which it’s true is dwarfed by the number of cases in which somebody is using it as a cover for making things easier on themselves or making themselves look more impressive, the usual reasons for lying.
Look, I write about language on my blog. What if I described a really fascinating language, one with a poetic structure that made you think differently about the possibilities of being a linguistic animal? And what if you then discovered I’d made it all up? If that would upset and disappoint you, why should there be a different standard for describing one’s own life? If you’re fantasizing, speculating, imagining, that’s great, but be upfront about it. If you’re saying “Here I am, and this is what happened to me,” then you should be telling the truth as you see it. (Yes, yes, no such thing as objective truth, bla bla, that’s not the issue here. Telling the truth as you see it is hard enough, and a worthy goal.)
In short, I’m with Dorothea; I don’t have her personal history or set of fears and demands on herself, but I feel strongly that honesty is one of the most important things we expect and deserve from each other, and arguments to the contrary are usually covers for agendas that don’t look so appealing without the cover.
Posted by: language hat on April 18, 2003 11:48 AM
And from Jonathon Delacour:
“…when I read his stories it’s irrelevant whether the events occured exactly as he describes them, I simply wish to surrender to his narrative voice.”
But don’t you think it’s possible that it’s because of his commitment to truth that his narrative voice is so compelling?
Posted by: language hat on 16 April 2003 at 03:40 AM