On Fabulists and their Cultural Appropriation

In the Times, Daniel Mendelsohn nails what is so despicable about the latest spate of faux memoirs, which is basically the appropriation of the suffering of an “other” by a person of privilege. Cultural slumming and then pandering these made-up yarns for empathy; a “white negro” grift gone redemption tale. To wit:

Each of the new books commits a fraud far more reprehensible than Mr. Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. Both were written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II, the impoverished African-Americans of Los Angeles today), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes.

Ol’ whitey’s planting his flag in your culture and selling your pain as his!


In an era obsessed with ‘identity,’ it’s useful to remember that identity is precisely that quality in a person, or group, that cannot be appropriated by others; in a world in which theme-park-like simulacra of other places and experiences are increasingly available to anyone with the price of a ticket, the line dividing the authentic from the ersatz needs to be stressed, rather than blurred.

While Mendelsohn does get in a shot at the internet, “a Wild West of random self-expression in which anyone can say anything about anything (or anyone) and have it ‘published,’ and which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion [Ed. note –I’m doing it right now!]” his conclusions are sound. Of famed fabulist James Frey’s legacy, the problem, he says “was the feeling on the part of many readers that, true or false, his book had given them the feel-good, ‘redemptive’ experience they’d hoped for when they bought his novel — er, memoir.”

At least, unlike Misha Levy Defonseca and Margaret Seltzer, Frey didn’t attempt to convince us he was, like, a 1/2 Kenyan, 1/2 Native American with AIDS or something. No, he was just a white liar.

The reason these memoirs resonate, and are snapped up by publishers willy-nilly, is that, when true, they do offer a triumph of the will and a tangible sense of hope. “The cruelty of the fraudulent ones is that they will inevitably make us distrustful of the true ones — a result unbearable to think about when the Holocaust itself is increasingly dismissed by deniers as just another ‘amazing story.'”

Stolen Suffering [NYT]

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2 Responses to On Fabulists and their Cultural Appropriation

  1. Susan says:

    Well said — both you and Mendlesohn. That was what first hit me about both scandals; it wasn’t so bad they were lying (though that was, of course, bad), it was uber bad what they were lying about. I mean, c’mon. Living with wolves to escape Nazis? It was like Lemony Snicket meets Anne Frank meets Barbara Kingsolver. Jesus. You don’t get to pick your cultural identity. Life isn’t Facebook. You can’t fill in the blanks of your personality however you see fit. Especially if you plan on profiting from it.

  2. ephemerist says:

    “Lemony Snicket meets Anne Frank meets Barbara Kingsolver” — maybe my favorite line ever!

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