Saturday, January 14, 2006

More History Blogging

The Federalist Papers are probably the most famous newspaper articles ever printed. Written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (with some contributions by John Jay), they made the case for the adoption of the US Constitution. They are rightly venerated - indeed, I believe the best essays are still relevant in explaining today's politics.

One thing that is overlooked, however, is the corpus of Anti-Federalist writing. While there were many difficulties for the Anti-Federalists to overcome - not least that there was no real central mechanism through which national opposition to the constitution could be organised - the several states produced a large number of writings against the constitution (some of which reached much further afield).

The essays of Philadelphiensis (not his real name) raised concerns with the freedom of the press - namely, that the editor of the Massachusetts Gazette was refusing to publish articles if the writer would not leave his real name with the printer, so that it could be given to anyone interested. Whilst signing articles now might seem a common practice, at a time when writing a controversial piece could see you set upon by an angry mob, using a pseudonym seems pretty understandable. As Philadelphiensis argued, it should be the merits of the argument, not the reputation of the author, which is used to inform your opinion.

I was reminded of this when I read Chris Ayres' piece in the Times this morning about the "fake memoirs" scandal that is breaking in America. Books claiming to be based on the real-life experiences of the authors have been demonstrated to be little more than glorified works of fiction - most amusingly, in one case, the (supposedly) male author was revealed as a female. The two books mentioned in the piece have one thing in common. They are both memoirs of turning your life around; gaining strength from adversity. But why does it matter whether these stories are 'real-life' or not?

If people have enjoyed the stories because of their writing, then their truth or otherwise is irrelveant. If people feel that the books have changed their attitudes towards "emotional truth", or have been inspirational, or revealed new depths to humanity, then I would contend their real-life accuracy is equally irrelevant. Indeed, I would say that it is a considerable feat of writing to be able to write convincingly on such topics without personal experience. The identity or experience of the author is surely inconsequential to the insights their gifts for writing can give?

Yes, it is regrettable that both authors should have chosen to deliberately misrepresent their identity to give the impression it was their own personal experience. But is the story really that different from a fictional book written with a first-person narrative? Without having read the books, I can't be sure, but I doubt it. Especially if it is someone who the reader has never met, and for whom the ordinary details of his/her life are totally meaningless except in the context of the book. The deceit may have been wrong, but it does not devalue the writing.