January 29, 2006

When a judge writes a memoir.

Jeffrey Rosen writes about judicial memoirs, which are difficult to write, because they're either going to be bland -- like Justice O'Connor's, in his view, despite the incident with the testicles -- or embarrassingly revealing -- like Justice Douglas's:
From his boastful opening sentences ("While I have been blessed with a photographic mind...") to his concluding screed against President Nixon ("This attitude toward enemies ... marked the essence of Nixon's Mein Kampf"), Douglas offered a combination of political ranting and gossipy score-settling that still leaves readers slack-jawed. As his biographer, Bruce Allen Murphy, argued recently in "Wild Bill" (2003), many of Douglas's stories were made up, perhaps because his insatiable political ambition led him to write what were essentially campaign autobiographies for the presidential bid that never materialized. Douglas claimed to have had polio as a child, for example; in fact, Murphy writes, he had intestinal colic. And he claimed to have graduated second in his law school class, when, at best, he was fifth.
Ha. Too bad Douglas didn't have a chance to get chosen for Oprah's Book Club. It would have been cool to see her scold him on TV.

And now Justice Thomas is working on a memoir. The man has fabulous material -- he grew up in poverty and his confirmation battle was a political and cultural event unlike any other. Does he dare to really use this material, to risk his slowly accumulating somber reputation by writing a real book for us to read? Rosen cautions him not to:
[L]ike Douglas, Thomas may inadvertently harm his judicial reputation among moderates (which is, at the moment, unfairly underrated) by revealing more than he intends.

"Judges wear black robes because it doesn't matter who they are as individuals," John Roberts said during his confirmation hearings. "That's not going to shape their decision." Few people today, of course, believe that judges' personal experiences have no influence on their judicial decisions. But taken as a warning, Roberts's statement was prudent and wise. Too much revelation may undermine the public's respect for judges as apolitical authorities. And judicial celebrity can backfire: as any celebrity knows, those who live by publicity have to avoid overexposure, which can lead to the worst fate of all - oblivion.
I say: either write a book or don't write a book, but don't write a fake book. Don't put your name on a book-shaped object just because you're a celebrity and you can get publishers to publish it and publicists to get you on talk shows and lure readers to give up their money and time. If you're going to write a book, you owe your allegiance to the reader above all. If you've got a conflict of interest, recuse yourself!

(Please read David Foster Wallace's essay on Tracy Austin's memoir in "Consider the Lobster." He faults her for her allegiance to friends, family, and everyone else, and lays down the rule that the writer's duty is to the reader.)

It's one thing to embarrass yourself by making things up, like Justice Douglas and James Frey, quite another to put yourself out there and let readers see who you really are. I think the memoirist who fails to do that is the one who has embarrassed himself.

I said something similar back when Bill Clinton's book came out:
I see Clinton is getting a lot of grief for writing a boring book. But what did people expect? If you want to read a great memoir, read a memoir by someone who is in a position to follow the number one rule for writing a great memoir: tell your story without a trace of personal vanity. You have to be willing to make the character that is you look foolish, mean-spirited, selfish, petty, and everything else. There is simply no way that Clinton or any other political figure can follow this rule. So if you want to read a good memoir, read Augusten Burroughs' "Running With Scissors" or Mary Carr's "Liars' Club." If you want to read about grand historical events, don't read the story told by one of the key figures. How could that possibly be good? It would make more sense to read this as a memoir of the Lewinsky-impeachment events.
I guess, according to that, I don't really think there's much chance at all that Clarence Thomas will meet my standard. But wouldn't it be incredibly cool if he did?

And by the way, do you think all those things in "Running With Scissors" really happened?


Jenny said...

Regarding 'Running with Scissors', I grew up in Northampton and have moved back for a few months before starting law school. If you wonder if Running with Scissors really happened, it's only because you've never been here.

KN said...

It's been several years since I read "Liar's Club" but my memory is that I was very skeptical of some of her (Mary Carr's) anecdotes. They didn't ring true, seeming to be told for the entertainment value ("wouldn't this be better if Mom said this?"}

Dave said...

"Does he dare to really use this material, to risk his slowly accumulating somber reputation by writing a real book for us to read?"

What do you mean by Thomas' "slowly accumulating somber reputation"?

Do you mean that he's developed a reputation as a rather boring person? I don't necessarily disagree but it would seem that the temperament required to be a Supreme Court justice is a boring one, no?

Ann Althouse said...

Dave: I think if you're doing your job as a Supreme Court justice and not much else, people gradually get to see you as a bland, solid presence, no matter how outlandish the things they said about you at the confirmation hearings were.

amba said...

Well, obviously Thomas can't talk about enjoying pornography, if in fact he did. (Not an uncommon interest either.)

I haven't read Running with Scissors, but yesterday I read an interview with Burroughs in the online British Independent that sounded like it was going to expose a bunch of made-up stuff in his memoir, but then it didn't. In fact, the interview left me inclined to believe the most bizarre of it. Let's see if I can retrieve the link -- ah, here it is.

Maxine Weiss said...

The stakes were higher with James Frey's book....than the "Scissors" book.

Nobody read "Running with Scissors" as a primer on alcohol addiction. "Liar's Club" isn't a quasi self-help book.

No matter how his book was categorized, James Frey was held up as someone who solved his addiction without AA.

---The millions of people who disavowed 12-step programs, all because of a book, that we now find out is, based on complete lies.

That carries far greater impact than just the usual garden-variety fabricated memoir--"Liars Club".

Peace, Maxine

Ann Althouse said...

Maxine: Good point. But now I'm beginning to think Frey was kind of screwed. He offered up a memoir within the tradition of lying memoirs. He was in the memoir tradition. Was it wrong to call it a memoir if this is the tradition? He's not writing about historical matters, but just telling his personal story in whatever the hell terms he felt like. If Oprah cared that it all be true, she could have demanded that he assure her it was true before she picked it. Her people couldn't have been entirely naive about what the memoir tradition was.

As to Clarence Thomas and pornography: who with any sense at all cares if he like pornography? How insane and ridiculous it was to try to keep him off the Court because of that. I'd respect him even more if he came right out and said that in his memoir. How many of the Senators who voted against him do you think were porn fans? How many Senators now do you think use pornography? And who the hell cares? Thomas went up for confirmation at the height of the anti-pornography movement -- back when there was a common slogan "Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice." Porn was held up to mean all sorts of things about sexism and misogyny that don't seem at all true to most people anymore. I tend to think Thomas has some strong opinion on the subject and I'd love to see him put it in writing.

miklos rosza said...

On Frey: My understanding (based on gossip from a writer somewhat plugged-in) is that Frey and his agent tried to sell his book as a novel. It was turned down 17 times. Supposedly it was Doubleday who said "Let's market this as a memoir." Frey went along with the scam.

To his vast enrichment.

This also explains why Nan Talese was there with him on Oprah. It's because they didn't trust him not to spill the beans.

miklos rosza said...

As to pornography: SuicideGirls and Fatal Angel and the whole "alt.porn" movement say that if you're a young woman posing for porn (or at least: alt.porn) is good for you. It makes you feel better about your body. It "empowers" you.

The ancestor of this stuff is the Madonna "SEX" book.

Is the only target audience lesbians?

Uh, no.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Unintended sports pun: Wallace faults Tracy Austin [tennis player].

I love it.

Ronald Reagan said...
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