Authentic Fiction and Fake Reality

Narrative Magazine normally has more of a literary bent, but in their February issue they give it up to thriller writers as part of their “Four Great Novelists” feature. The aforementioned novelists are John Lescroart (who’s also interviewed), Andrew Gross, David Corbett and Daniel Woodrell. Both Gross and Corbett also contribute essays on writing, and one section from Corbett’s piece, where he talks about trying to depict a culture wholly different from his own, leaps out at me:

Admiring a culture, though, doesn’t grant me a right to depict it in
my own work. Musicians steal from each other at will—it’s almost lazy
not to—painters and sculptors too. But can fiction writers get away
with it?

All artists are outsiders to the extent that they observe more than
they participate, but we all join in to some degree, just as we all
reflect. Rather, the crucial question seems to be at what point does
observation fail us; that is, when do we begin to imagine, and why? 

This imagining is an act of presumption, even daring, yes, but also an
act of love. In a way we imagine each other every day—are we to believe
we never really know the difference, cannot know the difference,
between when we’re loved and when we’re misunderstood—or worse, getting

The whole essay, not just what I’ve excerpted, is especially apt after reading LIFE SENTENCES by Laura Lippman, which shoots an arrow through the memoir craze that still persists here even after untold revelations of fakery to varying degrees. But instead of resorting to nasty or over-the-top satire, Lippman is gentler with her subjects, able to show that the catastrophic errors of observation and judgment are borne less of spite or of attention-seeking, but of love – which makes them all the more catastrophic.

LIFE SENTENCES deals with the questions of what is real and what is singular perception on one plane, but consider also the recent debates about Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl performance, which the Chicago Reader’s Whet Moser handily sums up before coming to his own fascinating conclusion:

That's why this one sentence has been rubbing me raw for a day now:
"The whole affair turned into Broadway (or at least far more Atlantic
City than 'Atlantic City')." The lo-fi, rough, "folky" sound of Nebraska
is a simulacrum. It's fake. Springsteen was one of the most famous
musicians in the country with enormous amounts of money and talent at
his disposal. And he abandoned all that, abandoned the big, popular,
diverse sound of his previous and future recordings as an aesthetic
statement. And it's a great one, perhaps even a lie that tells the
truth. Robert Christgau puts it well:
"Still, this is a conceptual coup, especially since it's selling. What
better way to set right the misleading premise that rock and roll
equals liberation?"

But Authentic–or Springsteen–it ain't. And
I think the desire to call it that is a pernicious falsehood we tell
ourselves about American music, and American culture generally. At the
heart of this cult of authenticity is a desire to return to some sort
of Edenic state where music isn't a commodity, everyone plays an
instrument, and the people play the music of the People.

Now, I think “Nebraska” is a fantastic album. But I also enjoyed the hell out of Springsteen’s performance, which was so over the top and so blatantly entertaining that it was hard not to get sucked in (even if I shouted “WTF Bruce?!?” too many times to count.) But which is the real Springsteen? Especially when performance is a persona and a way of overriding whatever demons plague him personally? Who is anyone to say that a cheesy sax riff and 1980s sound is less “authentic” than faux bluegrass?

Which brings me back to Corbett: “Everybody wants the real dope, even the person who wouldn’t recognize it

if it sat on his head. But the authentic is an illusion; we never

possess the truth, we approach it—and, if we are wise like Coltrane, we

do so humbly. We do so in a spirit of love, not empowerment. And if we

are honest with ourselves, we know the difference.” Or if we are truly honest with ourselves, as readers, observers and imaginers, we know the line is blurry, but still visible.