Monday, April 11, 2011

“Breaking faith with readers”

On Saturday, when I would rather be doing something else than reading it—okay, not a day goes by when I would not rather be doing almost anything else than reading it—the New York Times came out in editorial support of Bill Steigerwald’s indictment against Travels With Charley. The book, say the editors with barely suppressed anger, is “shot through with dubious anecdotes and impossible encounters.” They are outraged that Steinbeck “misrepresented dates and places and had not spent all that time alone with his dog.”

Their last phrase is precious. It performs the excellent service of establishing just how little is at stake in this whole phony controversy. The logic runs like this. If Steinbeck was not “alone with his dog,” as he claimed to be, how can he possibly be trusted on any other subject? And indeed, the Times headlined its editorial “The Truth About Charley.” The truth, in the paper’s eyes, is that Steinbeck’s book has been exposed for all time as nakedly untrue.

But has it? Here is a passage from Travels With Charley. Steinbeck describes his experience of driving U.S. 90, a “wide gash of a superhighway, multiple-lane carrier of the nation’s goods.” (Sometimes called the Southern 66, it is now identical to Interstate 10 for much of its length.) Although he says that he took this route to make up time, Steinbeck is rattled when the minimum posted speed is “greater than any [he] had previously driven”:

Instructions screamed at me from the road once: “Do not stop! No stopping. Maintain speed.” Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truth about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders.The passage contains another obvious untruth. Rociante, the truck that Steinbeck drove on the trip (pictured at right), did not even have a usable rear-view mirror! Steinbeck’s view of “the car behind” would have been blocked by the camper. When he goes on to complain, then, that there were “[n]o roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets” alongside the road, it must follow, I guess, that Steinbeck is not to be believed.

In truth, anyone who has driven America’s Interstate Highway System, created by an act of Congress in 1956, will agree with his prediction that, once the superhighways stretched “across the whole country” (the original plan was only completed in 1992, thirty years after Steinbeck wrote), “it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing.” Whether the poodle Charley was along for the ride when this thought first occurred to him, or whether he could see any cars in his rear-view mirror while thinking it, is utterly irrelevant. As Steinbeck wrote, as plainly as possible, the journey recorded in Travels With Charley was “designed for observation.” It was not written to leave a faithful “representation” of encounters, dates, and places. Remove the dog from the picture and its charm may be reduced, but not its faithfulness.

Take the following thought experiment. There is no such place as the United States of America, no road called U.S. 90, no coast-to-coast system of superhighways. In fact, there is no earth inhabited by human beings. A science-fiction novelist from Omega Centauri imagines the planet earth, human beings, a place known as the United States of America, a road called U.S. 90, a coast-to-coast highway system. If he writes that it will soon “be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing,” he really has (in the Times phrasing) “misrepresented dates and places.” The rest of his book is likely to be “shot through with dubious anecdotes and impossible encounters.” But what is the truth of his remark about driving across the country without seeing a thing?

In a novel—the systematic perfection of a make-believe world—the remark would have truthfulness only in relation to the whole. As I have said elsewhere, a novelist must keep faith with the conditions of his world. It is precisely Toni Morrison’s failure to do so in Beloved that many readers overlook in describing it, wrongly, as a great novel. Because they share her racial politics, they are prepared to forgive Morrison when she breaks faith with her fictional world.

But Travels With Charley is not a novel. And the editors of the Times hotly declare, “Books labeled ‘nonfiction’ should not break faith with readers.” Maybe so, but what the editors fail to grasp is that they take the existence of this country, U.S. 90, and Interstate highways so deeply for granted they fail to notice when Steinbeck keeps faith with them on these subjects. When he fibs to them about being alone with his dog, though—when, to use a more precise terminology, he resorts to a literary device to give shape to his amorphous observations—the editors are prepared to demand the return of his Nobel Prize in literature.

A book like Steinbeck’s depends for its truthfulness on the relation of its observations to the world that its readers already know. The flesh-and-blood poodle that Steinbeck named Charley, the actual poodle who found many things obscure, could have been known to only a few people who knew Steinbeck personally. The editors of the Times are so familiar, however, with the possibility of traveling alone with a poodle they are offended to learn that Steinbeck did not actually travel alone with Charley (or not all the time), instead of being grateful to him for bringing the possibility to life for them. Steinbeck did not break faith with them. What he may inadvertently have done is to expose the inconsequence of the things in which they are prepared to invest faith.


49erDweet said...

Your points are well made. I also see great irony in the hubris of the gray lady to lecture about "truth". IMO it's been decades since she knew what that meant. Her motto these days seems to be "All the views we think you need". Shame on her for broaching the subject.

Full disclosure compels me to admit I currently live in his former hometown.

Shelley said...

"Had not spent all that time alone with his dog"!

Really. That's a third-rate accuser of a first-rate writer.

Genius envy.