Should we care about Sarah Palin’s autobiography?

Literary critic Stanley Fish finds Sarah Palin’s autobiography to be authentic in its own way:

Do I believe any of this? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she does, and that her readers feel they are hearing an authentic voice. I find the voice undeniably authentic (yes, I know the book was written “with the help” of Lynn Vincent, but many books, including my most recent one, are put together by an editor). It is the voice of small-town America, with its folk wisdom, regional pride, common sense, distrust of rhetoric (itself a rhetorical trope), love of country and instinctive (not doctrinal) piety. It says, here are some of the great things that have happened to me, but they are not what makes my life great and American. (“An American life is an extraordinary life.”) It says, don’t you agree with me that family, freedom and the beauties of nature are what sustain us? And it also says, vote for me next time. For it is the voice of a politician, of the little girl who thought she could fly, tried it, scraped her knees, dusted herself off and “kept walking.”

Later, in response to commenters, he adds:

The distinction between biography and autobiography is really quite simple: the terms mark the difference between the effort of one person to get the details of another person’s life straight and the effort of one person to have her say about the kind of life she has led. In the writing of biography objectivity is both the goal and the standard for the biographer who stands at a distance from his subject. Autobiographers by definition have no distance from their subjects; they are in the business of expressing and revealing themselves, and while objectivity is often something they claim, failing to make good on that claim will not be regarded as fatal as it would be for a biographer. Instead it will be regarded as another piece of information about the personality whose portrait is being painted in words. To put in the simplest terms, a biographer is saying, “This is the way it was”; an autobiographer is saying, “This is the way I saw it and remember it.”

… the better course would be to interrogate the assumption that a book can be said to be an author’s only if he or she has written every word or at least written most of the words. Is it likely that Sarah Palin will disown the book’s statements or express surprise at them or stop saying in interviews, “As I wrote in my book . . . ”? I don’t think so. Her name is on it because, no matter how many of the words are literally hers, she is its presiding spirit. We must assume that, like a director who reviews the work of his editor, she had the right of approval at every moment and could have said (probably did say), “No, that’s not what I had in mind” or “Yes, that captures my sentiments and recollections entirely.”

Timothy Teeter  replies:

Yes, we can cut the autobiographer some slack. St Augustine’s friends might recall the pear stealing incident a bit differently. But we would indeed judge the Confessions differently if we discovered that the incident never happened, and we would judge it very differently if we discovered that St Augustine knew it never happened and just made it up to justify his theological convictions.

In any case, if the presentation of the self in an autobiography is all that matters, then, for the reader, part of judging that self-presentation is discovering the autobiographer’s capacity for accuracy and self-honesty. That is the standard we apply, after all, in all of our daily relationships. If Dr. Fish discovered that his wife, after saying for years that she had been faithful, had in fact been carrying on an affair, would he say, well what matters is that she said she was faithful, or that she was truthful? I know what I would think.

Is it relevant to our discussion about why the book was written and whether it was published at all?

I don’t think we should be surprised that a publisher should make a book by Sarah Palin to be readable or true sounding. Isn’t that what editors (and ghost writers) are paid to do? In a way, it should be no surprise that a politician who received a handsome "makeover" during the election should seek a literary makeover as well.

But does the commercial nature of the undertaking undermine the work’s value? I think we can assume that a public figure such as Palin would not normally spend the time to write an autobiography unless she received a generous offer. Publishers like Harper Collins are shaping the public perception of value; if people read (let’s say) 8 books a year, and 2 of them are heavily-promoted celebrity bios, how is that affecting the public’s attitude towards reading? Will the funding and production of these books bring a better understanding to future scholars about what this decade was all about?

A little authorial jealousy is showing here. I am an unknown writer in my forties. I have not made more than a hundred dollars for anything I have written. Although I don’t write primarily memoir, at times I have experimented in that genre. I have spent the last 20 years trying to find my own voice. It seems infuriating to me when mainstream media injects into the public discourse a discussion of a memoir by someone who has barely spent the time to ponder the aspects of writing it has taken me years to do.

As it happens I am writing a critical biography (sort of) about a distinguished but unknown fiction writer. The book is unlikely to have a wide audience (regardless of how much time and effort I spend on it). It is likely to be ignored by media sources overwhelmed with the triviality of celebritydom. The cynic in me says that I should ditch that project and instead pick the latest celebrity who has fallen out of grace and write about that. Such a project may not accomplish very much, but have a better chance of receiving the attention of today’s critics.

To  Mr. Fish: I understand the need to grab aspects of popular culture in order to talk about textual issues. But how easily can you absolve yourself of your role in the  buzz-making machinery?

To readers: I don’t read widely in the genre of memoir, but here are some texts that have grabbed me recently:

  1. Vivian Gornick’s Situation and the Story.
  2. Joy Castro’s The Truth Book
  3. Ted Solotaroff’s First Loves
  4. Travels with Lisbeth. by Lars Eighner
  5. R Crumb Coffee Table Art Book
  6. How to Learn Swedish in 1000 Difficult Lessons by Frances Strand (for comic relief).




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