Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, March 16, 2012

Harmless little lies? Depends on who's telling them . . . .

I want to say a few more things about “stretching the truth,” about yourself or about your past. The credential-puffing of the slash-and-burn president of Kean University in NJ aside, who hasn’t exaggerated at least a bit on a resume, for instance? Can there be a uniform standard--for academic honesty, for professional honesty, for the borrowing of intellectual property--in a digital age? Of course David Shields and John D'Agata and others in their camp would laugh--have laughed--at questions like these.

I find that my standard goes something like this: It depends on whether I like, or deep-down trust, the person who’s doing the stretching or borrowing.

Next fall I’ll teach Helon Habila’s novel Oil on Water, which is going to be interesting to talk about for all kinds of reasons, but mostly for what it has to say about the various forms of complicity with the oil companies who have wrecked the Niger delta. One detail from the novel is particularly interesting to me though: the novel’s narrator, a journalist, gets his first big break after publishing a story in which he does not report on his father’s guilt in connection with a tragic pipeline fire (“No, it was not a pipeline accident, as I told the white man, as I wrote in my published piece. But it might easily have been one, as in countless other villages.”). 

This narrator is someone you trust completely, and feel for deeply. He has a journalist’s eye and a journalist’s objectivity  --and by the end of the novel, it seems completely beside the point that early on he published a less-than-truthful story. (It also seems absolutely right, and significant, that, as he has said, “it might easily have been [a pipeline accident]”--something that happened all the time.) You kind of forget this detail about the narrator, which appears quite early in the novel, and so when I read reviews of the book after finishing it, I found it surprising to see that detail mentioned; it seemed sort of irrelevant to my experience of reading the novel. And yet of course it wasn’t; it added to the morass of culpability, the air of real despair that the book evokes.

These kinds of questions are of particular interest to me because the character at the center of the novel I’m working on now routinely lies about her past; she even makes up fake academic credentials at one crucial point. It’s occurred to me that this could, in “real life,” make her someone that a lot of people would immediately write off as corrupt. But in my mind she’s quite moral, or at least ethical, and basically good. It seems central but also strangely insignificant to me, that she has told lies about herself and her past. 

But can any motive for doing this, for stretching the truth, for somehow cleaning your work, or yourself, up for public viewing (including the very human one of wanting to look healthy and rested and attractive and, yes, a few years younger, in FB photos or book jacket photos, for instance) be not just understandable, but okay? I’m curious about where most people would draw the line these days. (And I do know that I'm conflating several different things here--textual appropriation and the massaging of one's autobiography among them--yet it seems to me that these things are all connected, in our increasingly virtual world.)

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