Tag Archives: honesty

James Frey: A Lesson of Honesty in Writing

In 2003, James Frey published a widely acclaimed memoir, titled A Million Little Pieces, about his experiences as a young addict struggling to rehabilitate his life back to sobriety.  It is a dark and engaging account of the depth to which a person can fall as his inner demons–in this case, manifesting externally in the form of crack and booze–brings him to a crossroads in which the next handful of decisions could literary be the determining factor between life or death.

Needless to say, the reading public responded very well to the book, and Frey was heralded not just as a great writer and storyteller, but as somewhat of a hero for those who have been affected by the horrors of addiction (either personally, or vicariously), for whom he served as an eloquent communicator to the general public on how to emphasize with their less-than-sober counterparts in society.

As time went by, praise and attention continued to grow, and Frey’s star shined bright enough to even warrant attention from Oprah Winfrey’s coveted Book Club (surely, the hallmark of any author serious about actually selling her or his book in the industry).  Around this same time, however, a different sort of attention was also creeping up and casting a more accusatory shadow over Frey’s spotlight.  Eventually, after much push and pull, and pontificating about integrity and trust, it was revealed that a large chunk of the details concerning Frey’s lived experiences in the book, were not lived experiences at all.  Although we don’t know exactly to what extend things have been fabricated in the faux-memoir, we do know that just about every event detailed that ought to be verifiable (i.e. police records, specific people and interactions, etc.) simply aren’t.  So much so, that the book nowadays sits in the fiction section of your local bookstore, and serves as a case in point of a literary forgery.

Despite all the controversy, it needs to be said that James Frey is actually a decent writer, and A Million Little Pieces is not a badly written book, and given his knack for storytelling he has gone on to write several subsequent works that are equally engaging and enjoyable (though, since the incident, he has wisely kept both feet squarely within the realm of fiction; showing that a person truly can learn something from a degree of public shame).  Thus, the question I’m more interested in concerning this entire mess isn’t really about Frey’s stand alone role in this matter, but rests more on the issue regarding the extend to which the writing world (writ large) has a professional obligation to maintain honesty with its readers?

The question should be an easy one on first sight, for who would say out loud that writers need to be free to unabashedly lie to their audience?  This is especially true for writers whose prose rests in the realm of non-fiction.  Yet, although certainly true, I think just repeating a platitude on this matter does little to really convey the seriousness of an incident like this.

Sticking with the example at hand, I read Frey’s book after the drama had already unfolded, and was never in doubt about the faulty veracity of its claims as one might have been if they came to the work under the ruse of it being an honest memoir of a person’s private struggles.  I can see how someone who had become emotionally invested in the story of the flawed-yet-persistent person fighting to gain back some semblance of meaning and sanity in his chaotic life, would have felt more than a little betrayed on hearing that this “real” person was a mere sensationalized character in one authors hopeful attempt at circumnavigating through the competitive hoops of the publishing world.  They felt duped, and rightfully so, because in a very clear way they were.  And this one experience could very well sour the public and harden a cynical attitude towards the apparently appalling lack of a rigorous vetting process on the hands of publishers more concerned with making a buck of off people’s empathy, then researching on whether the “real-life” story they’re selling is in fact bunk.

This is where the responsibility lies, in my opinion.  The literary world as a whole has an obligation to at the very least accurately promote the product they are selling.  And to do so prior to publication, not post-public outcry, which (let’s be honest) will still push sales by virtue of secondhand curiosity alone.  I accept that I’m naive in my thinking to expect a business to prioritize integrity and honesty over financial imperatives, but seeing as how–if I’m inclined to share an opinion on the matter–I feel obligated it be an honest one; be it idealist, if it must.

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Lies We Tell Teenagers…and Ourselves

I spend a lot of time with teenagers.  Wait, that sounds possibly incriminating.  What I mean is, I spent a lot of time watching teenagers…Damn it!  That sounds much worse.  Okay, my time spent volunteering as a tutor with struggling middle school students places me in a position from wherein I can observe the day-to-day behavior of a large group of teenagers better than most adults.  (Yeah, that sounds sufficiently neutral and creepy-free).

And in my time with the up-and-coming minds of tomorrow, I have noticed that a lot of teens easily buy into a lot of fabrications we adults tell them to ease their pubescent angst; with some lies being more innocent than others.

Lie:  Acne clears up on its own with time.

  • HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!…No, just no.  Now, if you have like one or two zits on your face all throughout your adolescents, then sure, it’ll probably clear up.  But if you have a face with a noticeable amount of acne, getting some Neutrogena products now would be a wise investment for the future.

Lie:  Bullies will get what’s coming to them once they enter the real world.

  • Although it would make us all feel great to know how the asshole who used to tease us relentlessly in gym class is doomed to spent a lifetime performing degrading tasks in low-paying jobs, the truth is that in a lot of situations today’s bullies end up being tomorrow’s corporate leaders.  The reason being that the job sector often equates aggressive personalities with competence, so there is a reasonable chance that the sort of guy who used to bully you, will be the sort of guy who will be your boss one day (which goes to explain why so many of our employers come across as such douchebags all the time).

Lie:  To achieve, you just need to believe.

  • Believe what, exactly?  That you have the talent to make it in your chosen interests?  Sure, I can see that as an important factor, but it’s hardly ever the definitive ingredient to get you to your goal.  More than believing in yourself, you will need to know people.  Without proper connections you won’t go far in what ever it is you’re aiming to do.  But with the need to acquire connections, also comes the need to flatter said important connections.  In short, you have to be a bit of a kiss-ass politician, ready to adjust your views and positions to endear your possible contributors to your side.  Which also refutes another popular fib claiming that a person “must always stay true to her/himself”, with the missing qualifier being: except if you want to climb as high as possible on that social ladder).

Lie:  Wisdom comes with age.

  • Absolutely.  But so does senility, dementia, and an over-hyped feeling of self-righteousness.  Yes, I know a great deal of elderly people who are brilliant, knowledgeable, and insightful.  But by all accounts I have been given, they appear to have possessed all of those positive qualities as much in their 30s, as they do in their 60s, and 70s.  On the flip side, I have also known (as I’m sure all of you reading have, too) quite a lot of elderly people who were racist, ignorant, and hysterically paranoid about the world.  And, yes, I imagine they were all these things in their youths as well, but age hasn’t made them any wiser, it just seems to have amplified all of their bad personality quirks.  The simple truth is that organs decay with time; your brain being an organ, will eventually start decaying, taking your mind with it.  Age, by definition, is not a remedy to this dilemma.

I’m sure there are plenty of more examples of lies we tell teenagers out there (and if you have any good ones I would be more that happy to read them), but I think that I made my point.  And to any teenagers reading this, let me just say–in the spirit of honestly–that we adults lie to ourselves when we say that the reason we deceive you is to ease the social pressures you’re going through.  The greater reason is that we lie as a means of getting you to shut up about your problems (because shit if we know how you’re supposed to solve any of them).  But to make it up to you, hear is a picture of a cute koala bear.

On Honesty…

“Honesty is always the best policy.  Life and society would be much better if everyone was completely honest.”

Really?  All right, let us begin by acknowledging some truths as a baseline:

  • All laws ad authorities that we rely on to survive in society only exist as long as a majority of us are willing to go along with them.
  • There is a strong probability that when you are long dead 100 years from now, few will remember you, and your greatest personal accomplishments will be long forgotten.
  • It’s most likely that your significant other first noticed your sexual desirability prior to coming even close to caring about your intellect and personality.
  • Age will obliterate your sexual desirability.
  • All the flaws you notice in yourself, others notice, too.  They just don’t care, because your personal problems don’t affect their lives.
  • On average, your children have as good a chance of becoming failures in their lives, as they do of becoming successes.
  • Money can buy happiness.  But it’s just unlikely that you will ever make enough to really know it.

Is your life better off now that these truths have been pointed out to you?

The moral indignation people have about honesty is what makes lying such a dire necessity.  What makes the dubiousness of our collective social modesty all the more palatable to ourselves is preserving lies as a daily course on the menu, and honesty as a mere condiment that we can mistake for the meal.

Is Online Anonymity a Respectable Expectation, or an Escape from Accountability?

The push to discredit online anonymity has gained some traction since everyone and their grandmother jumped on the social media craze.   For us millennial old-timers who grew up loitering around–or, more aptly, dicking around–on BBS sites like TOTSE through the 90s and early 2000s, the idea of showing due deference to another’s online moniker is seen as an almost unbreachable right of the internet (in short, doxxing is the cardinal sin of the internet).

Nowadays, however, where our online activity is evermore linked in with the various areas of the internet we roam (both to facilitate personal comfort, as well as make it easier to be targeted by advertisers about our interests and potential purchasing preferences), the topic of online anonymity has morphed into a more shady issue for some.  The concept of trolling, which (for the two of you out there who don’t already know this overused term) is essentially trying to get a rise out of people online by leaving any comment that you believe will insult, demean, or hurt them.  For people who use the internet as a legit medium of communication, trolling is always used as a pejorative, and always frowned upon as a major downside (if not the downside) of the internet.

The argument for eliminating, or at the very least minimizing, the presence of anonymous contributors online can, I believe, be characterized most fairly as the following:

Don’t you think that if you wrote under your real name your opinions would be seen as more respectable? Some would say that by writing under a pseudonym you are afraid to attach your opinion to yourself as an individual, because you know that what you are posting online is either wrong, misleading, or outright malicious.

When I first started writing this blog I took a few moments to consider how much I wanted to reveal about myself to readers.  At first, I flirted with the idea of excluding any direct reference to my gender or nationality, but this seemed disingenuous on account that it denies the reader the opportunity to get an honest idea of the factors that shape my perceptions about my surroundings.  There is still a part of me that ultimately beliefs that if arguments and commentaries are to stand on their own, then the identity of the individual providing them should be irrelevant to the reader.  However, there is something to be said about building a rapport with one’s readers by trusting them enough to disclose something very personal with them (like one’s identity, even if on an impersonal medium, like a blog).

But an equally valued argument can be made about how pseudonyms allow an individual to feel safer about expressing her/his true opinions, free of the daily restraints s/he might feel inclined to adopt in real life.  When it comes to using online monikers, I consider this to be a very salient point, and would like to add that if someone is honestly willing to engage the points raised by a writer, then it shouldn’t matter under what name s/he chooses to go by in her/his cyber-life (after all, would not a rose by any other name smell just as sweet…).

But I understand that this can seem like a cop-out to some; a means by which to rationalize one’s unwillingness to cease hiding behind the relatively safe anonymity of the internet.  Nonetheless, despite understanding where this sentiment is coming from, it’s a point with which I will cordially have to disagree, as I think the reasons for a person’s decision to remain anonymous online are too varied to be so easily dismissed.  Also, even if the stated reason is the correct one, I don’t personally see anything inherently wrong with taking advantage of “the relatively safe anonymity of the internet” in and of itself, because in a world where so much of our online identity is so readily available for determined, potentially deranged individuals to found out life-threatening information about us for no other reason that some random opinion we shared online didn’t sit well with their delicate sensibilities, having a wall of separation in place between the person and her/his freedom of expression can be a valued tool of communication, rather a deterrent of it.

All the best,

Sascha

P.S. Yes, Sascha is my name.

P.S.S.  Yes, I am in fact male, and living with what is a predominantly female name in North America.  Very trendy of me, indeed.

Dale Carnegie Was Wrong

If you’ve ever taken a Communications or Business class, or sat in on any sort of marketing/networking seminar, there is a very good chance that Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was listed among the recommended readings on the syllabus.

In the book, Carnegie sets out to give a list of very basic advice on how to successfully interact with people, and increase your own potential by doing so.  The advice given seems very reasonable in a broad sense, and can be summed up in terms of being genuine and polite towards others, approaching everyone with a positive attitude, and reaping the personal satisfaction and interpersonal accolades that come from it.  All this is well and good, and I’ll be the first to tell people that if you wish for others to like you, not behaving like a complete dick towards them will go a long way in accomplishing this goal.  Moreover, if Carnegie’s book(s) help anyone achieve a mental state that makes them feel more empowered and confident in how s/he communicates and carries her/himself (not to mention, increases the person’s overall happiness), I have no qualms with that aspect of his method.

However, all that being said, it would be dishonest if I did not mention how there is something that always irked me about Carnegie’s writing, in particular this one book.  I think my problems with the self-help author are best summarized at the very beginning of Chapter One of Part Three titled, “You Can’t Win An Argument.”  In it, Carnegie tells the story of an event that occurred when an acquaintance he was having a conversation with mistakes an obvious quotation from Hamlet as being from the Bible.  Carnegie, aware of the error, corrects the man, and looks to his accompanying friend (an expert on the subject) to back him up in the correction.  Surprisingly, the friend sides with the gentleman who is in error, later telling Carnegie he did so because to correct the man would not accomplish anything positive.  Carnegie happily agrees with this reasoning, and advises readers to take it to heart that you should not correct such obvious mistakes made by others on account that it would make you argumentative, and being argumentative will not make people like you.  Presumably, the proper thing to do when confronted with such a situation is to be accommodating and refrain from saying anything that is not agreeable.

I take issue with this line of thinking.  Not because I see a great merit in being argumentative with people, but because I see something disturbingly manipulative in this tactic of communication, which I believe to be a problem at the core of much of the self-help market.  Carnegie asks us what good there is to stand firm and prove to the mistaken man that he is wrong, pointing to the desire to be held in high-esteem as the main priority.  But why should being liked be of a greater priority in this situation than being honest?  If it’s because it will be personally beneficial for you to always be seen in agreeable terms by those around you in case you need to call on them for favors down the road, then you are not looking to make real friends or honestly communicate with people at all; your interests lies in simply using people for your personal interests.  Because if this is not the case, and the stated goal is to form genuine relationships with people, then you should (as politely and lovingly as you can) seek to uphold a standard of honesty with those around you.  This includes being honest when you know that an acquaintance has made a minor mistake, such as mistaking the source of a quote.

I have made silly mistakes and the occasional faux pas on many occasions (and will undoubtedly make many more to come).  Sometimes, those around me correct said mistakes; other times, no correction is made and my ignorance remains unchecked until I happen to come across the truth of the matter first-hand.  Every time it happens, I felt like an idiot, and, yes, slightly resentful that my ignorance was in full view to the public.  But you know what definitely never happened again?  A repetition of that same display of ignorance on my part, on that same subject I was previously so wrong about.

I believe this is something Carnegie fails to address in his work.  And the reason this is a problem is that books like How to Win Friends & Influence People present themselves as being based on the principle that the fundamental way to succeed in getting what you want from others is to first be mindful of the wants and desires of other people.  In terms of building empathy, this is a principle I can truly get behind.  What I can’t get behind is the idea that pandering to the ignorance of those we wish to like us is something an honest person should strive for.  What I outright reject is the idea that communication skills ought to be built on chess-level moves of strategy and tactic, wherein the goal is to say just the right buzzwords to manipulate a desired outcome.

And no, despite what some self-appointed “straight-talkers” with a public platform wish to promote, standing up for what is true should not require you to disregard sensitivity towards others’ dignity and give you a license to be a total asshole in how you communicate with people under the guise of honesty.  To be honest is to simply be sincere with what you know to be true, and I believe making friends on the basis of such sincerity is a better approach, then looking to avoid making enemies by kissing the ass of anyone who might seem influential enough to give you a leg up in life simply for being their Yes-Man.