“Virginia Woolf used the essay for literary exploration and discovered freedoms in it that she was unable to achieve in the seemingly freer world of her novels. She and other modern writers found that the desire for authenticity, for a way of experiencing reality most fully through representation, was answered in the essay, or in the essayistic mode, in ways it could not be elsewhere.”—Randi Saloman
The following post is by Randi Saloman, author of Virginia Woolf’s Essayism:
In January 2006, Oprah Winfrey lambasted James Frey, author of the bestselling A Million Little Pieces—a narrative of Frey’s life as an addict and his struggle for sobriety—telling the author that he had “betrayed millions of readers.” How had Frey, a recovering drug user whose memoir detailed the lowest points in his journey from addiction and crime to recovery, upset Winfrey to such a degree? And why was Random House, Frey’s publisher, reportedly offering refunds to those who had purchased the book, while Winfrey’s evisceration of the author was being hailed by journalists and critics alike as the “outing” of a liar? Only months earlier, Oprah had celebrated Frey as a hero, praising him for the inspirational quality of his work and declaring his book a must-read for her book club.
The answer, while apparently obvious to those who shared the talk show host’s sense of mistreatment, was surprising to me. Frey’s transgression, it seemed, was in taking a degree of poetic license (or too great a degree of poetic license) with his work. Certain details of his memoir had proven to be unverifiable. Those who had supported Frey and drawn strength from his story were indignant. The book that had offered meaning and inspiration to these readers when it was taken to be the “true” story of Frey’s struggles became valueless in their eyes when it could not be matched with an equivalent series of events in the life of the author. The claim, in its most basic form, was that the objective value of the work changed dramatically based on its generic classification. As a memoir, Frey’s work was successful and to be applauded. As a novel, it was without merit.
My own interest in the controversy was not wholly casual. These questions of representation and truth, and the contextual significance of genre, were at the forefront of my thinking at the time, as I worked on what would eventually become Virginia Woolf’s Essayism. Indeed, the starting point for my project was an instance of mistruth or false representation that might seem akin to Frey’s.
In “Experience,” one of his most famous essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a claim perhaps as startling as any made by Frey—namely, that the death of his four-year-old son Waldo has left him untouched, unable to feel the sorrow that he recognizes would rightly belong to it. His first-born son has fallen away from him, says Emerson, leaving no scar. Emerson’s deception in this case is even easier to document than Frey’s. The transcendentalist author’s own diaries and journal entries, along with the accounts of those around him at the time, reveal the fundamental untruth of the claim. Emerson was devastated in the wake of his child’s death, and his assertion to the contrary cannot be taken at face value. What then could Emerson’s intent have been in making such a claim? This moment is returned to again and again by Emerson’s readers, who work to unpack the meaning of such a deliberately perverse statement, but with nothing like the vitriol directed at Frey. Why?
A Million Little Pieces, published as a memoir—a genre that is in many ways close to the essay—had the obligation, according to Winfrey and her supporters, to stick strictly to facts, to avoid fictional elements in exchange for the mileage it got out of the idea that the story had “really” happened. But why should this be the case? Why should Frey have to apologize for using fictional elements in his memoir if his purpose in doing so (as he maintained, though in too confused and defensive a manner to be effective) was to communicate the truth of his life as he had experienced it? And how is it that the essay provides authors with the freedom to straddle this line, as Emerson does, asserting his account as truth, while avoiding the resentment stirred up by Frey?
Such questions have guided my own work on the essay. Specifically, I became fascinated by the ways in which Virginia Woolf used the essay for literary exploration and discovered freedoms in it that she was unable to achieve in the seemingly freer world of her novels. She and other modern writers found that the desire for authenticity, for a way of experiencing reality most fully through representation, was answered in the essay, or in the essayistic mode, in ways it could not be elsewhere. The 19th-century literary essay was a laboratory for experimental techniques that were off-limits to Victorian fiction. While the latter was largely constrained by the requirements of realism and mimesis, essayists were free to play with fragmentation of plot, unreliability of voice, dialogic engagement with the reader, and sheer improbability of situation. The essay, invented by Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century, and derived from the French essai, was a ‘trial’ or ‘attempt’, rather than a literal report or a prefabricated fiction. Frey’s problem was partly that he had chosen the wrong genre (hardly could he have been attacked in the same way had he produced a book of essays based on his experience!) and partly that he did not understand his own defense (that the essayistic elements of his work were an attempt to get at a larger truth rather than to conceal the smaller ones) well enough to mount it effectively.
These questions of truth and representation are important not only in thinking about our experiences as readers, but as consumers of pop culture as well. For instance, reality television has become all but omnipresent in today’s world. What is it about the artificially constructed spaces of these ‘reality’ shows that so appeals to viewers? What elements of truth or authenticity do we believe can be found (or do we find) in shows that are clearly contrived, but nonetheless made up of real people allowed a measure of freedom and arbitrariness, or chance, as they go about their experiences? The invitation to the audience to participate in or even influence the activity of these shows is markedly reminiscent of the essay’s desire for engagement and response from the reader. Yet in both the case of memoirs like Frey’s and of shows like Big Brother, there is an element of deception that can’t be gotten past and that ultimately leaves the reader or viewer in an uncomfortable, no-win situation. We know it can’t be entirely ‘real’ or true, but we feel cheated when we find incontrovertible evidence of this. We want it both ways—reality that is prepackaged, entertaining, and follows a clear narrative arc—but that is also (impossibly) unaltered and pure. It continues to fascinate me that only the essay can unapologetically straddle this line, offering truths that may not be true in Oprah’s sense, but are all the more true, paradoxically, because they are constructed and have powerful effects. Emerson knew this when he recorded his still-disturbing account of his young son’s death. So too did Virginia Woolf, who employed the tools and methods of the essay in order to leave behind her the realism of the 19th-century novel.