In English 135.301: Not Black. Not White. Mary Karr and Janet Malcolm on Writing Truth

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

This was the yard as we pulled up last evening, following a just-right birthday celebration for my dad. It was this black and white (I've done nothing to the photo). It was clear, and cold.

But real life isn't like that. Real life is ambiguity and surprise, rubbed away places where righteous rightness once made claims. Memoirists live inside the gray scale. We battle with ourselves. We rarely win.

Today, my Penn students will be discussing Mary Karr's memoir The Liars' Club, a classic "traumatic" memoir, to use Sven Birkerts' term—equally scathing and tender, explosive and cohering. They'll be learning about each other through a muffled-sense assignment that was inspired by a Greg Djanikian poem ("My Uncle's Eye"). And they'll be debating these two assertions—one from Karr herself and one from Janet Malcolm, who visited Penn last spring as part of Al Filreis's much-loved Fellows class. Karr is writing about the impact of her memoir—which certainly exposes the rough edges of people she loves. Malcolm is talking about journalists. The passages still stand side-by-side, ready to be dismantled.

As certain facts had once scalded all our insides and almost decimated our clan got broadcast a thousand times, we got oddly used to them. Call it aversion therapy, but the events seeped in a little deeper. We healed more—though that had never been the point—through exposure. Our distant catastrophes became somehow manageable. Catharsis, the Greeks call it.

Mary Karr, Introduction to The Liars' Club, anniversary edition

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer


  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by 2008

Back to TOP