Monday, July 14, 2008

The fire this time

I have just read The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm again.
Ostensibly a book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes it is
actually a profound meditation on the nature of biography
and of journalism. I think it was one of Malcolm's other
books, perhaps The Journalist and the Murderer, that
began with the lapidary line "All journalists betray the
people they write about"; The Silent Woman goes further,
concluding, more or less, that no journalist or biographer
can hope to get anywhere near the "truth" about a person
or an event—so wholesale error can be added to betrayal
as the sine qua non of such work. It's no accident,
Malcolm says, that journalists call what they do "stories",
and that a fundamental rule is to tell a story and stick to
it. She goes on: “The narratives of those of
mythology and folklore, derive their power from their firm,
undeviating sympathies and antipathies. Cinderella must
remain good and the stepsisters bad. SECOND STEPSISTER
is not a good story.”

We see this pattern played out over and over in the news,
especially when a celebrity falls from our grace and favour.
Regardless, often, of the actual verifiable facts of a case, it
almost seems necessary that celebrity A or B must be cast in
a particular role that satisfies our need for all the usual
components of a good story—conflict, challenge, secrecy,
honour, risk, redemption etc. In that sense they perform the
parts once assigned to the great figures of myth and legend.
This is why we have them. Celebrities, I mean. And also, of
course, because they're a source of rich raw material for
that other deep human need: gossip.

Eventually, every major news story about a celebrity's
shame or disgrace burns itself out for lack of oxygen; it
consumes itself in its own fire. Sifted over and over, all the
known facts are reduced to a fine ash of speculation, and
there's no narrative spectacle in that. But how we love the
flames when they leap, we mass media consumers. We are
all arsonists now.

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