Literature

The New York Times Groks The Trouble With Charley (and Bullshit Nobel Laureates)

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Yesterday's New Yawk Times carried a house editorial about Bill Steigerwald's recent Reason article documenting the lying and dissembling at the heart of Nobel Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck's supposedly non-fiction book, Travels with Charley (1962). Steinbeck, best known for the novels Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, set out to tour the country on the cheap with his pet dog but, as Steigerwald documents pretty brilliantly, the famous author misrepresented his itinerary and clearly made up many, if not all, of the book's memorable moments. The Times editorial board agrees, writing "Steinbeck's 'Travels With Charley in Search of America' is shot through with dubious anecdotes and impossible encounters":

This might not flabbergast anyone who has read the book lately. It is full of improbably colorful characters and hard-to-swallow dialogue straight out of a black-and-white 1960s TV show. "What's the matter with you, Mac, drunk?" says a red-faced New York cop. "You can just rot here," says a forlorn young man in the Rockies who wears a polka-dot ascot and dreams of being a beautician in New York. "Flops. Who hasn't known them hasn't played," says a traveling Shakespearean actor in North Dakota.

One especially incredible melodrama is set in New Orleans. It is a meditation on racism with a scary white bigot, a white moderate and two emblematic African-Americans: a timid, weather-beaten field hand and a bold young student who is tired of the boycotts and sit-ins.

It is irritating that some Steinbeck scholars seem not to care. "Does it really matter that much?" one of them asked a Times reporter.

Steinbeck insisted his book was reality-based. He aimed to "tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth." Books labeled "nonfiction" should not break faith with readers. Not now, and not in 1962, the year "Travels With Charley" came out and Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Whole Times editorial here.

A Nobel laureate being totally full of shit? Who'da thunk it!

An earlier Times piece quotes Steigerwald himself sounding like a Steinbeck character:

"Other than the fact that none of that is true, what can I tell you?" He added, "If scholars aren't concerned about this, what are they scholaring about?"

But the scholars are a depressingly jaded bunch, especially when it comes a fairly clear-cut line between non-fiction and fiction:

Susan Shillinglaw, who teaches English at San Jose State University and is a scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., said in a phone interview: "Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out. That doesn't make the book a lie."

Talking about the authenticity of the characters in "Travels With Charley," she said, "Whether or not Steinbeck met that actor where he says he did, he could have met such a figure at some point in his life. And perhaps he enhanced some of the anecdotes with the waitress. Does it really matter that much?"…

Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini tells the Times:

 "Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it's important to use the techniques of a fiction writer."

I must say that I question the Times account here, because I think the last person who says they "would say hooray" for anything died even before Travels With Charley was published. I'm a die-hard postmodernist, but let's not be retarded here: If a narrative's power pulls directly from its facticity rather than its fabulism, then it better be a defensible version of reality. Defensible in the sense of this pretty much happened the way I've tried to capture it.

When you think of the New Journalism, which is often accused of destroying objectivity in news, Tom Wolfe at his best wasn't bringing fictional techniques to reporting in order to make shit up; he was using them to better get at social reality. An essay like "Radical Chic" would be completely devoid of merit or meaning if it turned out that Wolfe simply made up quotes by Leonard Bernstein or Otto Preminger. If a novelist wants to write a non-fiction book and then makes stuff up "to get at the spirit of something," more power to 'em. Just don't call it non-fiction. The real insight of postmodernism is that we should show "incredulity toward metanarratives" and that our ability to understand reality without distortion is provisional and limited even when we're trying our best to get things right. That's got nothing to do with the grift that Steinbeck pulled and what his critical enablers are defending here.

Jesse Walker blogged the Times' coverage of Steigerwald's piece here.

Read Steigerwald's story here.