09 March 2008

Magical Unrealism

I have some very unnice things to say about ongoing controversy over the Margaret Jones (Seltzer) "gangland memoir" Love and Consequences. There's plenty of blame to go around here; some of it involves irrational expectations, some of it involves corporate dynamics, some of it involves outright deception. The key to understanding this situation, though, is the uneasy relationship among the author/editorial relationship and process, the various corporate interests at stake... and magic.

First, a primer on one aspect of magic and supernatural power that cuts across all Western (and most non-Western) cultures, and a great deal of fiction. Most of us probably think of that aspect by denying it, through a misunderstood quotation from The Hard Bard.

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene 2 (emphasis added).1 Reading this passage as a whole — rather than just the boldfaced part most are familiar with — leads directly to my point. Although those two lines seem to be saying that the name doesn't matter to the substance, the whole passage says exactly the opposite, else there would be no need for Romeo to relinquish his name, or any childish hope that his name is not a part of him.

What we call things does matter. Political discourse is full of this sort of thing; the difference between "rigorous interrogation methods" and "torture", or between "liberal" and "progressive", or between "political influence" and "business as usual", seems to take up more time and energy than actually considering the underlying issues. Similarly, advertising and marketing are built directly upon semiotic application of signs (and portents) to change perceptions of products and services. This is hardly a new and improved theory of linguistic value; it comes from theories of magic. Ursula K. Le Guin's "Rule of Names" in her Earthsea books and stories is the most elegant modern example of this theory, but hardly the only one. Sapir and Whorf both tried to put the theory into scientific (or, at least, philosophical) context; my personal favorite is the exhaustive/exhausting protoanthropoligical approach in The Golden Bough.

So, for the two or three of you who have waded through this seeming non sequitur and are still reading, what does this have to do with keeping up with Margaret Jones? In fact, everything, because this is a story at all only because the book in question was marketed as "true." Had Love and Consequences — I'd provide a link to the book, but the publisher has withdrawn it from the market without considering the irony of doing so — been classified as "inspirational fiction," or a "literary experiment," it would have smelled far sweeter to everyone in question. By this time, however, the book cannot doff its marketing category.2

Thus, we question why misery memoirs are easy to write, why editors seem unable to spot faked memoirs or, perhaps, are downright gullible.3 We're busy trying to place "blame" for this entirely within the particular publisher (or, perhaps, the corporate hierarchy). We ignore the irony of the Heath Ledger "last day diary" in Esquire being published at virtually the same moment, excused because it is named "fictional." We ponder the need for, and burden of, fact-checking of the book in question without adequate consideration of the inglorious family tree of literary fakes.4

What we are not doing, though, is questioning the context that encouraged this particular fiasco. Of course there's plenty of blame to go around, but I have seen almost no consideration of the role that oligopolistic book distribution practices and "efficient" stocking of stores (which, in turn, is at least partially due to the returns system) played in fertilizing the soil in which this particular rosebush grew. And here, we get back to R&J, for we're really dealing with a century-long tradition of distinguishing between "fiction" and "nonfiction" in bookstores and libraries in a way that is virtually impossible to justify — and extraordinarily easy to undermine with counterexamples. From my own academic past, we should question whether Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, Voltaire's Candide, Butler's Erewhon, or Bellamy's awful Looking Backward would be treated as "fact" or "fiction" if published today... and the consequences if "misfiled" in the wrong part of the library or bookstore.

In the end, taking this fiasco out of context will inevitably lead to further mistakes. Publishing is not just about filling libraries with musty volumes to be rediscovered in twenty or two hundred years (although that is certainly an underestimated value); it is about selling books. By ignoring several of the steps in the commercial chain between author and reader, the industry's blather thus far will inevitably draw insupportable conclusions... and largely has. The key point, again, is this: The controversy is due to the label on this particular rosebush. Nobody is asking whether the flower smells sweet — only whether it was falsely advertised as thorn-free.

  1. Shakespeare himself was far from ignorant of magical lore; just consider The Tragedy of Macbeth, King of Scotland and The Tempest, let alone A Midsummer Night's Dream! Most readers — particularly in the virtually required sophomore-level high school reading of R&J here in the US — take Juliet's speech literally, without considering that she is an impulsive, ignorant child of twelve to fourteen years; that the play is a tragedy, and that therefore one must beware of interpreting virtually anything said by a title character without looking for ambiguity, irony, and double meanings; and that Juliet's speeches throughout the play provide more than enough caution against relying upon surface impressions.
  2. And for this, we can thank the New York courts, which got their decisions in the lawsuit on the Beardstown Ladies Massacre wrong. (The referenced article is an introduction only.) In short, the New York courts held that a proclamation of a 23% return, when the underlying figures were for a slightly-less-than-median 9% return, was not deceptive under consumer protection law — which is exactly the opposite of the result reached for the same books by the California courts and an egregious misreading of both the underlying common-law theory of the distinction between "deception" and "mere puffery" and the statutory history of federal false-advertising law. That argument, however, will have to continue at another time. Whether the New York courts made this mistake on their own, or were themselves deceived by the advocates before them and the quirks of the rules of evidence, must also wait for another time.
  3. A short defense of editors in this context: We only know about their failures. We don't know how many of these things get turned away at earlier stages of the process. Even for this book, we don't really know how many other editors turned it away, or for what reasons. It's very similar to so-called "intelligence failures": Perfection is both the standard of acceptability and impossible to achieve, usually meaning that someone is going to take the fall for the inevitable failure.
  4. I'm almost offended at two serious omissions from the dialogue: Clifford Irving's "biography" of Howard Hughes, and the political/rhetorical role of intentional deception as to origin, such as this notorious example. However, this is, after all, the "publishing news," so promising more with the headline than one actually has to say is business as usual.