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Post Truth and Memoir-Writing: Harper Lee and Truman Capote; from Gary Moore
Created by John Eipper on 08/16/17 3:00 AM

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Truth and Memoir-Writing: Harper Lee and Truman Capote; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA, 08/16/17 3:00 am)

Gary Moore writes:

My thanks to Boris Volodarsky (August 13) for his insistence on honesty in writing memoirs, while pointing out that discretion, not mendacity, should provide the wiggle room that protects confidences ("not the whole truth," as Boris mused). Nobody ever tells the whole truth, since selectivity is the essence of perception. But obviously, the omission process can become mendacious, too. The difference is in an imponderable: the writer's will to truth.

It would seem that to say memoirs have special exemption for tall tales is to cheapen the genre--and to cheapen discourse generally. If you say it's true and you know it's not, then the biggest message is that you're a liar, overtowering your overt messages, and raising the question of how much any of it should be believed. But to me a larger mystery is in Boris's further note about author Frederick Forsyth, and his "almost mesmeric ability to compel the reader to keep turning the pages." Here I beg to differ a bit, as to whether the page-turning magic is necessarily a sign of good writing. Without doubt it often is. But just as many times the hot page-turners seem to display unfortunate writing--in terms of syntax, logic, sloppiness, redundancy, or what have you. It would seem that the mystery is one of connecting with the audience--even if the connector despises the audience and is cynically manipulating them. Who can characterize this magic? Is it a gift, like perfect pitch? Is it often a mere matter of mechanical formula? I don't think it's exactly passion--but perhaps is the effective appearance of passion, and the knowledge of what engenders passion.

Take a look at To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the blockbusters of its century--in large part because it so perfectly compressed the passions of its age. Its page-turning magic seems almost like a liquid presence, and--to return to my original theme--this quality remains as the largest suggestion that the master page-turner himself, and not Harper Lee, had an unseen part in the book's gestation.

Mendacity seems never to have been much of an issue for Truman Capote, as he rode so deeply immersed in the intoxicating magic of being able to connect. Mendacity--or well-meaning sentiment--also distorted the real nature of the real-world events in south Alabama that were ostensibly enshrined in To Kill a Mockingbird's fiction. But the resulting message was perfectly attuned to nagging questions deep within a waiting audience, providing answers and images they perhaps didn't even know they yearned for. The overall evidence says that, yes, Nelle Harper Lee of Monroeville, Alabama ("Maycomb" in the book) really did write this masterpiece of childhood memoir (few fans thought of it as fiction), and that it was not written by her childhood friend, later colleague and sometime manipulator Truman Capote (Lee reportedly thought she was going to get a collaborator credit on In Cold Blood). But whoever was behind it, the intoxicating magic was distilled in full force--by its very power deepening the mystery.


(Careful, this reference too, turns out to be a descent into fiction--fenced off from mendacity only by sentiment.)

JE comments:  The NYT classifies Greg Neri's fictional account of the Lee-Capote childhood bond, Tru & Nelle, as "middle grade."  Talk about faint praise.  Has anyone in WAISworld read it?  What a coincidence that two of the South's absolute greatest authors would hail from the same small Alabama town.

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