About the Cover
Our cover design by Nanette Black features a detail from an 8” x 10” silver gelatin print by André Kertész titled Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe, Paris 1926. This is one of a series of images that Kertész created to communicate the fact that he understood and was sympathetic with Piet Mondrian’s non-representational paintings. At the time, they were limited in their ability to converse as they had no common language. Mondrian was Dutch and the Hungarian-born Kertész had only recently arrived in Paris.
Throughout his life, Kertész quietly influenced the development of photojournalism and the art of photography, serving as a mentor to the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. In 1925, Kertész moved to Paris where his pioneering vision soon brought him great success, defining the shape of photojournalism in Europe. During the next eleven years, Kertész built an extraordinary body of work, influenced by and influencing the many artists with whom he interacted in Paris between the wars. Kertész moved to New York in 1936 and later worked at House & Garden magazine—his “lost years”—creating architectural photographs. In 1962, Kertész broke his magazine contract to pursue his art. For the next twenty-three years, he reestablished himself as a major figure in fine art photography. By the time of his death in 1985, Kertész’s work was honored by artists and photographers, collected by major museums and galleries, and studied by scholars.
Photo and biographical information courtesy of Estate of Andre Kertesz © 2006. Special thanks to the International Center of Photography for their assistance.
We here introduce a new and regular feature for KR: “The Casual Reader” by André Bernard. André, who served as the long-time editor in chief at Harcourt before assuming the role of their publisher, will gather books he has been reading for his own pleasure, whether in bed or train or armchair, volumes newly arrived on the scene or old friends rediscovered, and spread them before us in unexpected juxtapositions. As you will see, his brief engagements are delightful in and of themselves. But they also strike sparks off each other. I trust you will find pleasure in these, as I do, and look forward to each new installment.
I was recently asked my reaction to the fuss and fury in recent months over memoirs that, exposed by a little curious sleuthing, have proved to be more fiction than non. From my point of view there is an irony here, because literary nonfiction is a loosely defined genre in which much of the most exciting writing today is being realized. Conventional fiction, on the other hand-stories and novels-must all too often struggle against its own conventions, not to mention the expectations of readers. I hate to say it, but fiction is a rather tired genre. It’s very hard to find stories or novels that are truly fresh and surprising and delightful.
Now, before you leap to your pen or e-mail account to lambaste me, there are, of course, countless exceptions to this claim. Every year sees marvelous new fiction appear. I immediately think of novels by Ian McEwan, or The March by E. L. Doctorow, which may well be his masterpiece, or Marilynne Robinson’s marvelous Gilead. And I won’t blush with the assertion that each issue of The Kenyon Review contains very fine short stories as well—last year alone, for example, our stories received two O. Henry awards.
But nonfiction—memoirs, essays, travelogues, meditations, and so on—is bound by no particular set of conventions or expectations. Just the variety of monikers is indicative—and inadequate. They leap and twist and go off on a thousand tangents. No one is looking for a simple dramatic trajectory or a neat denouement.
The real problem with the recent exposures of fraud with James Frey and JT LeRoy is, it seems to me, a matter of truth in advertising. The fact is that Frey wrote his book as a novel—that’s how he conceived it; that’s the guiding precept he used while writing it; that’s how he tried, over and over again, to find a publisher. It was only belatedly that the idea of labeling the manuscript as memoir came to him. Memoir, in other words, was more of a marketing decision than a literary one.
If A Million Little Pieces had been published as a novel there would have been no fuss (and probably none of the notoriety or financial success either). All writers, as is well known, draw to a greater or lesser degree on their own experience in crafting fiction. It nourishes the illusion of reality that they are striving to create. Had readers thus discovered that Frey had drawn on personal experience in writing a novel, no one would have blinked an eye.
JT LeRoy, it turns out, apparently never existed at all. Pure hoax and hokum. I rather like the chutzpah.
So why does it matter when the label “memoir” or “autobiography” is attached? Why do so many readers feel bamboozled, let down, betrayed? Partly, I suspect, it’s a matter of degree. The furor over Frey and JT really caught fire only when the public came to realize that so much of these vastly popular tales were fabricated. The very sinews of the sad stories were shown to be fraudulent. That’s rather different from a careful nip and tuck to make oneself look a little better or to enhance the drama or the moral lesson.
We also happen to live in a moment of deep skepticism. Some will try to make an easy political/philosophical point and say this is due to the sins of so-called post-modernism—that the notion of any stable truth has been mocked or shown to be an illusion. I really don’t think that’s it at all. Rather, our age doesn’t permit much in the way of secrecy. When politicians lie, they’re likely to be found out, sooner or later. When journalists pass off fabrications as stories that have been duly reported and checked, they too are likely to be exposed. (And know it, which begs a further question.) When businesses employ creative accounting to pass off fraud, well that too is likely to come to light, though not before many people are hurt. The point is, the public is all too weary of such stories of deceit, and when an author gains enormous popularity—and many sympathetic tears—by sharing the painful triumphs of what turns out not to have been his life at all, one can’t be too surprised that there’s a backlash. Though one can be a little appalled at the self-righteousness of the author’s and publisher’s defense.
But truth to tell, none of this troubles me greatly. After all, aren’t we always trying to train students to read “critically”? Certainly I want mine to treat texts with some skepticism, to stand back or to wrestle with them, not to accept claims of truth simply on the face of the claim itself.
Would we suggest that anyone accept Caesar’s versions of his triumphs as unvarnished and reliable? Saint Augustine certainly had a rhetorical point to his Confessions, and we should be wary of looking at the letter more than at the spirit of that narrative. Ben Franklin famously records the “errata” of his life, which he seeks to correct, in part, through his own confessions in the Autobiography, but there again, we shouldn’t imagine that plenty of fiction doesn’t go into the mix.
We human beings are truly creatures of language. We need stories, we use stories to help us understand our experience, both personally and as part of a larger community of readers, as well as from generation to generation. But as soon as a writer—any writer—puts the rough hurly-burly of human experience into language, that experience is fundamentally transformed. Fiction becomes part of the very fabric of truth.
So I return to where I began: I’m fascinated by those writers who seek to explore, openly and honestly, that gray, treacherous, marvelous border region where fiction and memoir and reportage blend together. W. G. Sebald, the remarkable German writer who lived for many years in England, is a prime exemplar with such books as Austerlitz, as is the art historian Simon Schama, in Dead Certainties. Truman Capote got it right when he called In Cold Blood a “nonfiction novel.” He was suggesting that the great strength of novels is precisely that they can give us, through the transformative magic of narrative and imagination, deeper insights into those human truths that matter most.
—David H. Lynn