A Perfectly Postmodern White House Book


The reviews of Fire and Fury are in, and they are pretty furious themselves. Michael Wolff, author of the best-selling expose of the Trump White House, has been accused of every kind of journalistic malfeasance: reconstructing scenes he couldn’t have witnessed, retelling gossip as if it were gospel, letting his sources’ agendas drive his portrayals. President Trump himself has attacked the book as “a work of fiction,” and many of the journalists who have weighed in on it basically agree. At least, they complain, there’s no way to tell if the stories Wolff retails are true.

To anyone who pays attention to actual American fiction, such attacks have a familiar ring. For the last 15 years—ever since the publication of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a book sold as a memoir that turned out to be heavily fictionalized—American literature has been obsessed with the blurriness of the line separating fact and fiction. When it comes to genre, most book-buyers are literalists: If it says memoir or nonfiction on the dust jacket, everything inside is supposed to be 100 percent accurate. If it turns out not to be, they feel defrauded. Frey’s publisher had to offer refunds to disgruntled readers who thought they were getting a transcript, but had to make do with a story.

Partly in response to this genre puritanism, literary writers have developed a much more playful and ambiguous relationship with truthfulness. One of the most influential recent books of literary criticism was David Shields’s 2010 Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which encouraged writers, and readers, to skip over the line between fiction and nonfiction with good conscience. “Reality,” for Shields, was not a holy grail but a stage effect, which writers ought to deploy playfully, in full awareness of its artificiality. Shields’s book itself took the form of a collage of unattributed quotations, as if to give a poke in the eye to conventions about plagiarism and originality.

And writers were ready for this message. One of the most vital and interesting schools of literary writing today has been called “auto-fiction”: stories that straddle the border between memoir and fiction, claiming to represent the life of the author but shaping that life in ways that are clearly fictional. Such books often incorporate “evidence,” such as transcripts of phone calls or texts of emails and letters, whose authenticity is impossible to verify, adding to the vertiginous sense that we could be reading fiction or nonfiction. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, a 1997 novel that became a cult classic in the 2000s, was one of the originators of this form. More recent examples include books by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and—most famously—the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose massive, six-volume My Struggle records in minute detail the life of a writer called Karl Ove.

If Michael Wolff is writing fiction in Fire and Fury, this is the kind of fiction he is writing. Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, in an author’s note, Wolff declares himself an unreliable narrator: …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Best of

      

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