Memory and Truth(iness)

My friend, Yangsze Choo, recently came out with her third book, The Fox Wife. It’s a murder mystery set in early 20th century northern China, and it’s got some mystical elements as well. It’s entertaining and immersive, and it’s been racking up awards.

Last month, she gave a talk in San Francisco about the book, and someone in the audience asked about her writing process. She explained that there are two kinds of writers: Those who outline, and those who just write. She is apparently one of the latter.

I am astounded by folks who write novel-length works this way. Her revelation reminded me of something I read 30 years ago about Victor Hugo and his thousand page plus classic, Les Misérables. Victor Hugo was normally a consummate reviser, except for when he wrote Les Misérables. He was so passionate about the political statement he was making, he ended up writing the massive tome cover-to-cover over the course of 20 years. This feat seemed so extraordinary to me that I’ve remembered it clearly for three decades and have thought about it many times.

Too bad I remembered this incorrectly.

Yangsze’s talk and my (what-I-thought-was-correct) memory of what Victor Hugo had done had inspired me to blog about a tension I often see in my work between planning and “going with the flow.” Under normal circumstances, I might have just mentioned the connection and let my thoughts flow from there without doing any additional work. However, I’m generally anal about sourcing, and I’ve also found writing difficult recently, so I decided to see if I could find my original source.

First, I searched the Internet. Nothing, not even a different source repeating the claim. I thought for a moment about where I could have read this. It was definitely in high school, and I didn’t have access to exotic sources back in the day, so it had to be something relatively accessible. Then I pounded my forehead. Of course! It was in the foreword of my copy of Les Misérables!

Fortunately, I still have my original tattered copy on my bookshelf, so I picked it up and started re-reading the foreword, which was written by Lee Fahnestock, one of the translators. According to Fahnestock, Hugo started writing this novel in 1845, then stopped after three years, only to pick it up again a dozen years later.

In 1860 he finally returned to Les Misérables, the book he had never expected to complete, and wrote through to the end. Then, in a move quite uncharacteristic of this writer who preferred to move forward rather than revise, he went back to insert many sections that brought the book into line with his liberalized views and perspectives gained offshore.

I’m not sure if I mis-remembered or mis-read this. Most likely the latter.

I’m realizing that I’m quite fond of reading the front-matter in books. Maybe it’s because, upon actually completing the book, writers understand more clearly what they want to say. Maybe it’s because I start many more books than I actually finish. In any case, I recently started reading Marc Hamer’s, How to Catch a Mole: Wisdom from a Life Lived in Nature, who writes in his Prologue:

I wonder about truth and what it is as I chase it around and play with it. Recollections rarely come in chronological order. Memory wanders in the darkness, and the harder I try to remember, the more it seems to dissolve in front of me and take a different direction. As soon as I start to examine a story with anything more intense than a sidelong glance, it shifts in reaction to the scrutiny, reconstructs itself and then changes again, like looking into a kaleidoscope: the colours are identical, their patterns slightly different every time, their detail constantly changes yet the picture remains true to itself

Quote Investigator to the Rescue!

At the end of last year, I received a Christmas card from a friend with this lovely quote attributed to the great writer and thinker, James Baldwin:

Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.

As is my practice with quotes that I like, I did a quick search to see if I could confirm the source, and I came up empty. I saw this quote attributed to Baldwin hundreds of times with nary a citation. I then checked Wikiquote, which is invaluable for rooting out misattributed quotes, but had no luck there either.

Usually, at this point, I assume that the quote is misattributed, and I stop looking. But just a few weeks earlier, my friend, Kate, who knows about my hangup with misattributed quotes, sent me a link to Garson O’Toole’s website, the “Quote Investigator,” who “diligently seeks the truth about quotations.” I loved his website, and while it looked like he received more requests than he could handle, I decided to ask him for help on a whim.

Over two months had passed, and I had long figured that he had been too busy to respond. Then, this morning, to my surprise, I received an email from him! He had researched my request and had published his answer! In short, Garson was unable to find any evidence that James Baldwin said it. However, Garson’s story of the trail he followed was just as interesting. I’d encourage folks to read the whole story.

The virality of today’s Internet tools has its costs, as we’re recognizing more and more these days. But these same tools offer ways to counter to these problems… should we decide to leverage them (as Mike Caulfield passionately reminds us to do). I’m grateful for folks like Garson, and I’m grateful that the Internet — along with a good dose of real-life social connections — enabled me to find him. Seeing his research made my morning!

The Delightful Absurdity of Wikipedia

I was browsing my RSS feed today, and came across this open letter to Wikipedians by author, Philip Roth, published in The New Yorker, about the Wikipedia entry for his book, The Human Stain.

Here was the controversy, in brief:

  1. The Wikipedia page suggested that the book was “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”
  2. Roth noted that this was incorrect. He would know…
  3. … except that, according to Wikipedia’s No Original Research policy, it’s not clear that he would. One could argue that the administrators who interacted with Roth interpreted the policy too narrowly, or that the policy itself is too narrow. Regardless, as ridiculous as it may seem, a secondary source that supports Roth’s claim is a more “definitive” source.
  4. And so, Roth created that secondary source by publishing his letter in The New Yorker.

Problem solved. Here’s what the Wikipedia article says now (and this may change by the time you read this):

Roth wrote in 2012 that the book was inspired “by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years.”[4]

The footnote cites the letter in The New Yorker. The Wikipedia article also notes:

Roth was motivated to explain the inspiration for the book after noticing an error in the Wikipedia entry on The Human Stain. His efforts to correct the entry were thwarted by Wikipedia editors because he did not have a secondary source for his correction. Roth was responding to claims, given prominence in this entry, by Michiko Kakutani and other critics that the book was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times literary critic.[5][6][7] Roth has repeatedly said these speculations are false. In 2008 Roth explained that he had not learned about Broyard’s ancestry until “months and months after” starting to write the novel.[8]

Was it absurd that Roth had to go through such lengths to correct this mistake in Wikipedia? Perhaps. I definitely empathize with Roth and many others like him who have to undergo similarly frustrating ordeals, and I truly hope a better approach for handling these things evolves one day.

That said, I think the end result was delightful. Possibly delightfully absurd, but definitely delightful.