"For all the guilt there is to go around in the "Angel at the Fence" debacle -- including the willful myopia of Rosenblat's champions and editors as well as the man himself -- a deeper blame may lie with an audience that demands so much treacle and sensationalism that apparently even the Holocaust requires narrative embellishment."
This from a good column this week by Meghan Daum, which explores why the need to brand a story "real" is so present today. I've been trying very hard to develop a position against this statement, but I can't; this is true of many readers. And readers of poetry, in particular.
Before Sharon Olds dropped the fourth wall and announced/admitted that much of the graphic detail in her poems is truthful to her own experience, she conducted an interview with Terry Gross for Fresh Air in which Gross - an experienced and literate interviewer, stated quite clearly that the assumed or expected truthfulness of the experience was part of her enjoyment of Olds' work. At last year's Dodge festival, most of the poets - at all levels of experience - felt the need to include the introductions to their poems a map to the parts of it that were true. How often is the first question we face after we present something to a new audience or share a new work with a trusted reader "Wow, when did that happen?"
I find that question intensely frustrating, not in the interaction with the reader, but in how it feeds my internal interaction - my fight with the editor in my head. I will always fictionalize to improve the poem and sacrifice the more "truthful" word for one which increases my satisfaction with the sound of the line. But, anticipating that first, itch-inducing question, I'll sometimes find myself wanting to sacrifice entire poems (bury them, neither share nor submit them) if I fear I'll have to explain away something that I wouldn't want assumed true about me.
This, of course, is self-limiting, and is part of the reason I'm a B+ poet. And I don't say that with any self-pity. In any endeavor where you're not willing to fully give yourself over to the effort, you cannot achieve the highest performance. It's true for professional/career development, for creating art, for snagging line drives at third base - everywhere. Alignment of the level of your ambition with the level of your investment is the key to satisfaction, and to realistic expectation. I know what I invest in my art. I know what I should expect of that investment.
And what of the C- audience? I've always been one to believe the artist must reach out the audience, that the elements of craft applied must engage not only those who understand them, but also those who cannot. But I have also always believed that the audience member must make an effort to engage the art, that there is an expectation - and a fair one - that the reader/listener/viewer bring enough energy to their engagement with the art to develop an informed opinion. Bring your own rules, and don't worry if you can tell pentameter from a pentathlon, but be able to explain what it is about the craft of the poem that you like. That "it's so true" or you've "been there" just isn't enough. Align ambition and investment with expectation.
And this is where the idea of the fake-memoir is flawed. The gross misalignment of effort with expectation. The thought that this interesting story that you thought up is intrinsically worthy of reward, so rather than invest in crafting it and recrafting it, you brand it "true" and cash in. It's like putting a cube of clay on a pedestal, calling it "Life", saying "Life is important" and passing the collection plate. But if the plate fills up, is it wrong?
Well, yes. There's nothing wrong with finding an audience and giving them what they want. But I don't believe that any audience wants to be lied to. Nor that any artist can ever trust a lie more his ability to practice that art.