Tuesday, September 2, 2008

American psyche

It might be useful to look at those chapters of Mark Twain's endlessly reflective mirror of the American psyche. The irony of the Duke and the Dauphin is not how bad they are at what they claim to do, or how good they are at what they actually do, but rather the fact that their crimes -- faked pedigrees, a rotten show, a thwarted attempt at larceny -- provoke the moral outrage of a slaveholding society that finds it perfectly acceptable to buy and sell human beings.

On nearly every occasion when I've been invited to speak about both fiction and nonfiction writing, someone has asked my opinion of the scandalous disclosure that James Frey had fabricated sections of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. I reply that I'm puzzled that people seem more upset by a lie about how long a writer spent in rehab than a lie about whether Saddam Hussein had access to weapons of mass destruction. Inevitably, nervous laughter ripples through the room. In fact, I couldn't be more serious.

Is the steady barrage of Big Lies so terrifying and numbing that Americans can only respond to the Small Lies?

-- Francine Prose, in "The politics of literary scapegoating," Harper's (September 2008). Image source here.