Sunday, February 12, 2006

Lies Like Truth

Caught longer than expected between flights, I finished Tobias Wolff's excellent Old School before I landed, and luggage containing my other books didn't land with me, so I went looking in a used bookstore for some other travel reading. Along with a Margaret Atwood and William Kennedy, I bought The Devil Wears Prada, a certified beach book which I imagined to be similar to the best-selling (and surprisingly funny social satire) The Nanny Diaries.

Guess which I read first?

Reading these books so soon after James Frey's A Million Little Pieces illuminated what disbeliefs we willingly suspend when reading fiction created from life experience. In both Old School and Devil, the narrators are aspiring writers who encounter celebrities and dishonestly attempt to use this connection to advance themselves. Wolff writes about the overheated world of an all-boys prep school, where students compete for the honor of a private audience with a visiting luminary, who selects the winning story. Lauren Weisberger's novel is about high fashion as seen by a young woman who dreams of writing for The New Yorker and hopes that serving as personal assistant of an extremely influential and abusive magazine editor — not actually writing anything — will somehow give her the inside track.

Right out of college, Weisberger spent a year as a personal assistant to Anna Wintour, editor in chief at Vogue, and turned the experience into a first novel. It gained readers — and a movie deal — entirely on the basis of the unrelenting portrait of the character widely presumed to be based closely on Wintour.

Wolff himself gained entry to an eastern prep school through deceptive means. He presents Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway as characters. He uses personal experience, elements from real people and actual events, readings remembered and forgotten, and throws them all in a tumbler of imagination. Because he is an artist, he creates a deep and layered story that we know is fiction, but we accept as showing us a kind of truth — about deception, including self-deception. Ultimately, it matters not whether Rand made such an appearance at a school or whether Wolff did either.

For all I know, Weisberger approached her first novel the same way — but we don't read it the same way. We read in hopes of discovering the reality behind the powerful Wintour's carefully crafted persona. Is she really such a bitch goddess on wheels? What indignity will she demand next? Is the villainess a comic invention or does she closely follow the real life editor? Doesn't matter. Neither the book, nor the movie starring Meryl Streep, would have gotten made without Weisberger's association with Wintour — and without our complicity in believing we're reading a true story masked as a novel. The other characters hold no interest at all.

Ironically, that's why Frey's book had no luck when it made the rounds as a novel. If you are going to make up a story, predictable plotting, cheesy melodrama and hollow characters won't cut it. Unless you know somebody. But the ex-frat boy didn't have even the semi-celebrity of a Lewis Libby or a Lynne Cheney, or the inside track of, say, Robert Downey, Junior's dealer. Even Jose Canseco's ex can land a book deal if it purports to give us the real dirt on the rich and famous.

Frey's life story, which had no market as non-fiction, got amped up into fiction and still couldn't sell — until he re-appropriated it as his own true story. Weisberger took a juicy story that was possibly true, but couldn't sell as non-fiction, because she had no standing as an author — and Wintour would've rained lawyers and intimidation all over her butt. But as a fiction writer, she could deny what she wrote was based on Wintour and wink all the way to Hollywood.

Long ago, I wrote a story about trying to make sense of an old photograph of a girl and her father, found in a house just before it's demolished to make way for a freeway exit. The photograph was real. The house was really taken. The man in the photo did die as I said. It was true and not true and true.

It said, in a search for hidden meaning, hidden meaning will be found.

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