Bad Advice Wednesday:The Art of the Disclaimer

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The toxins from the snake bite from the Costa Rican jungle have briefly rendered Bill incapable of writing Bad Advice (and made him pronounce his Ss in a sibilant fashion.)  So I, heroically, must step in at the last minute……I’ve already picked at the carcass of this essay for my cartoon piece on nonfiction and my Truth essay, but, meager as it is, it’s all I got……

 The Art of the Disclaimer

            Before I begin this short, insignificant essay (which I only dashed off this morning) I must first tell you that what follows is only partly true, and that though I have tried my best to make it interesting, my imagination is weak and my powers humble.  Also, I tend to ramble.  

            The disclaimer or apologia or note to the reader, of which the above is an example, has a long, proud history in literary nonfiction, dating back to the cave no doubt, but best exemplified by Montaigne in the 1580s, whose rambling essays often read like one long disclaimer.   Of course James Frey recently tried his hand at this sub-genre, and with the note to the reader that his publishers have attached to the front of A Million Little Pieces, has demonstrated that there is yet another way in which he seems entirely incapable of telling the truth.   At best a disclaimer should be an eye-to-eye talk with the author before the story begins, an honest laying of cards on the table.  Though historically some courtly bowing and scraping have intruded on the form, and some excessive humility have falsified it, the one thing the writer of a disclaimer can’t do, above all, is posture. 

Sadly, this is just what we get from Frey, who having tossed aside his tough guy leather jacket, dons the robes of a New Age priest, telling us that he wanted “to write a book that would change lives, would help people who were struggling, would inspire them in some way.”   As a writer of memoir myself, this strikes me as false to the point of grandiose, and though of course anyone might hope that their book would eventually inspire, I’ve never known a writer who sits down to the hard work of excavating memory with that lofty goal in mind.   Nor have I known a writer who, as Frey claims, “didn’t initially think of what I was writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography”   In fact questions of form, or at the very least the question, “What is this thing I’m working on?” are almost obsessive concerns for anyone who has ever tried to write a book.  Even more to the point, disclaimers are historically supposed to come before we know anything about a book, as a kind of pre-emptive strike of honesty, the way some people who fear being criticized will criticize themselves to beat others to the punch.  They somehow lose their zing when you slap them on after you’ve been caught lying.

            Of course by criticizing poor Mr. Frey at this point, I feel a little like the last boy to throw a tomato at a man long in the stocks, and the fact is that those around him—Oprah, his agent, his publisher, and certain wildly moralistic columnists—seem more deserving of being splattered with fruit.  And today I come not to bury Frey but to extol the disclaimer.  Four hundred and twenty six years ago, Michel de Montaigne began his great book of essays by assuring readers that what followed was the product of his somewhat feeble memory, that he sometimes stretched the truth a little, and that he couldn’t always stick to his story.  Montaigne’s sentences were the closest thing the 16th century had to a reality TV show and he painstakingly revealed the particulars of his life, right down to his bowel movements, while still somehow coming across not as annoyingly revealing, but as downright chummy, a pal to the average reader.  He did this in part by being up front about his motives.  In his note to the reader he wrote:

 I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself I portrayMy defects will here be read…Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked. 


And Montagine is just getting started.  In essay after essay he admits to his own inadequacies, intellectual and otherwise, while creating the indelible self-portrait of the man as a kind of literary Columbo, apologizing, stuttering, forgetting, stumbling, but ultimately digging down to the truth.  It may be that Montaigne’s excessive humility sprung in part from stagefright about publishing his work, and he may have had second thoughts about the idea of appearing naked before friends and family.  But it’s the psychological striptease that counts, what the contemporary essayist Philip Lopate calls “the vertical dimension,” where the “plot” of the essay “consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.”  In Montaigne’s famous disclaimer, this descent begins even before the book does.

But back to our whipping boy.  What James Frey seemed to miss was the idea that the reader’s note, like a kind of mini-essay, is about the stripping away of defenses, not the building up of them.  If he’d snooped around a bit he would have discovered that we are in a kind of golden age of the disclaimer.   Take for example the excessive apologias of Dave Eggers, whose book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, self-consciously anticipates the backlash that Frey went whistling by, many of its pages devoted just to defending the author against imagined charges of self-aggrandizement and dishonesty.  Eggers, characteristically, goes on a little too long, but the effect of his confessions, in contrast to the secretive, Nixonian air of the guilt-ridden Frey, is refreshing, like talking with a friend who inspires trust by admitting past lies.  Right on the copyright page, Eggers admits, “This is a work of fiction, only in that many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in gaps as best he could.”   Here he echoes Hemingway’s preface to A Moveable Feast:  “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction.  But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been regarded as fact.”    

            Maybe one reason that disclaimers have proliferated recently is that we memoirists have a whole lot of explaining to do.  Oprah lectures that truth matters, but the truth is it’s not that simple.  Anyone who sits down to read a detailed account of a conversation a memoirist had when he was thirteen with his mother over the death of a goldfish, should know that what is on the page is made up, or as we say in the trade, re-created.  Astute readers also know that within the world of memoir there are lies and then there are acceptable lies.  As Bill Roorbach, a daring contemporary writer of nonfiction, says in Writing Life Stories: “Approximating the words from a lecture attended long ago at your modest college is something quite different from saying you studied under Robert Lowell atOxford.”   Historically “acceptable” lies include time compression, when a writer squashes or elongates time to novelistically frame a story, the way Henry David Thoreau squashed his two years and change at Walden into a single year.   Then we get to the messier issue of human beings, who inside our pages become something called characters.  Omission is one of the lesser crimes of character: I have an essayist friend who wrote a beautiful piece about experiencing a moment of euphoria after climbing a mountain alone.  The only problem was that the companion the writer had actually been hiking with read the essay and grumbled about being edited out.  Equally common is creating something called composite characters, when several real life people are smushed into one.  This is usually motivated by a desire for clarity and artistic neatness among minor characters: say you are writing about a time when you were in the hospital and you conflate three night nurses into one. 

Frey wanders this way and that in his own disclaimer, but at one point tries to wrap himself  in his memoirist’s cloak of “emotional truth”: “I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard.”   Sure, but while most readers accept that the memoristic contract is quite different than the journalistic one, they also know the difference between editing an “um” out of a line of dialogue and outright lying.  It will be interesting to see if publishers actually hold to the emerging (and slightly hysterical) belief that memoir should be held up to the rigorous journalistic standards of factual accuracy.

Of course the simplest way for an author to still use the techniques of “creative nonfiction” without upsetting readers is by simply fessing up.  And that is where the art of the disclaimer comes in.  The paradox within personal nonfiction, going back to Montaigne, is that while we may forgive a few misplaced facts, we never forgive an overall lack of honesty.  As it turns out one of the surest and most obvious ways to establish this honesty is by telling the reader right at the start that what follows may not all be exactly true.   In her reader’s note to her memoir Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl admits that in her family storytelling was prized over truth. “This book is absolutely in the family tradition,” she tells us.  “Everything here is true, but may not be entirely factual…I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story.”  And in the prefatory note to his classic memoir, This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff writes: “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology.  Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome.  I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell.  But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.” 

This last point is a vital one.  Intention may be hard to discern and somewhat vague, but intention matters.  Can readers be misled?  Of course.  Can candor be used as a parlor trick, the way really good liars use it in life?  Certainly.  But we also hope we can ultimately ferret out intention.  One of the reasons for the Frey backlash is the sense of many readers that he was manipulating them.  In the best essays or memoirs we feel just the opposite: that the writer is honestly wrestling with his or her past and then trying to present it to us as nakedly and frankly (and of course as artistically) as possible.  A good memoir or essay becomes great when we sense this honest effort to face life’s facts, and a good disclaimer has the job of laying out the plan of attack.   It says to the reader, look, here’s how it is.  Here’s who I am and what I did.  I may not have gotten all the facts exactly right, but I tried.  You can trust me.  Really. 




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