Stanley Fish has some important things to say about Sarah Palin’s autobiography and about truth and fiction!
by Charlie Leck
Those of you who follow me closely here on this blog know that I often refer you to the writing of Stanley Fish (NY Times commentator and distinguished professor at Florida International University and formerly a professor at the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University and Duke University). Recently, Fish wrote two long and interesting columns about Sarah Palin – one of which was a response to the criticism and praise that the first one drew.
I don’t care much about Sara Palin. I think she is both a fraud and a lame-brain; but when Fish writes I enjoy reading what he has to say. So I worked my through both of his columns and took extraordinary pleasure from them.
The first column was published on 7 December 2009 and was titled “Sarah Palin is Coming to Town.” In it Fish explains a lot to us about the difference between biography (which Palin’s book is not) and autobiography (which Palin’s book is). Fish concludes that Palin’s book meets the test of autobiography and “the book is a good autobiographical read.” (An enormous amount of criticism came streaming in after that comment.)
A key paragraph in Fish’s column, which on first reading seems but a simple, unimportant statement is the following:
“The vice-presidential candidacy just happened to her; her account of it reads like an extended ‘what-I-did-on-my summer-and fall-vacation’ essay. For many politicians, family life is sandwiched in between long hours in public service. Palin wants us to know that for her it is the reverse. Political success is an accident that says nothing about you. Success as a wife, mother and citizen says everything.”Lots of people want to argue with that statement and accuse Palin of being dishonest. Fish won’t have it. Though he’s, by no means, a Palin fan, he respects the fact that it is autobiographical. One doesn’t lie in an autobiography, Fish explains, but one reveals oneself to the reader. If the writer says something that is inaccurate that doesn’t matter in the autobiography. Again, it is only revelatory about the author.
Dozens of readers responded to that with a fury. They don’t agree. I think it is because they don’t understand. Though Palin doesn’t say it in the book, she reveals herself as confused about her wider role and her political calling. She doesn’t really lie. She just sees things in a warped way. As Fish says...
“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.’”Fish gives us something to worry about when he warns us clearly about Palin’s future.
“The message is clear. America can’t be stopped. I can’t be stopped. I’ve stumbled and fallen, but I always get up and run again. Her political opponents, especially those who dismissed Ronald Reagan before he was elected, should take note. Wherever you are, you better watch out. Sarah Palin is coming to town.”Most of the responders who disagreed with Fish were most upset at his description of the differences between autobiography and biography. Fish tried to clarify and, I think, did very well.
“The difference between what we expect of biographers and autobiographers is matched by the difference in the obligations and responsibilities they accept at the beginning of their respective tasks. A biographer is committed to doing research, consulting archives, checking sources, seeking out alternative views. An autobiographer does not typically call up his schoolboy friends and enemies to see if they remember things as he does or spend hours reading old newspaper accounts of the football games he recalls having won single-handed. Different genres, different procedures, different standards of assessment.”One of my brothers, upon reading some of my autobiographical blogs about growing up, will often respond with notes scrawled across the printed blog, explaining that I ‘misremembered’ this or that – that sister, for example, was really living in another town when that happened. He is most likely correct most of the time. It doesn’t shut me down, however, as an autobiographer, because what I write are my ‘rememberings’ and not my brother’s. And that doesn’t mean I don’t want his corrections and refocusing of my memory. I do want those things and I most often will then go and edit and correct those memories, trusting that he is correct. He has extraordinary recall and I am pleased that he leaves as is 95 percent of what I write.
It is the reader who must bear the responsibility, when reading an autobiographical work, to keep in mind that memoirs are memories and remembering is not an act of perfection but is tainted and tinted by years, dreams, goals, failures, forks in the road of life and the just plain detritus of the mind. Autobiography should not be regarded as accurate history, but only a piece that explains its author.
I’m not going to accuse Palin of falsehoods. She is telling me something important about herself and it is not something I particularly like.
I had determined that I would not read her book, but now, after reading Fish’s columns, I’m going to pick it up on the cheap somewhere and make my way through it.
In replying to one of the most common criticisms from his readers, essentially that he was kissing Palin’s butt, Professor Fish has this to say:
“In saying this I am not, as a number of posters asserted, affirming and promoting her agenda. [One reader] complains that I have ‘written a love note to [Palin] in the New York Times,’ and she asks, ‘Do you have a sense of responsibility left?’ I have a sense of responsibility to the column I sat down to write, not to the columns some readers wanted me to write or thought I had in fact written. Why don’t I talk about her views on evolution, or the the charges that she abused the power of her office, or the racism some have accused her of, or the extent to which this is a ‘campaign brochure?’ Because that’s not what I was doing in the column. I wasn’t writing about Palin’s career or her future aspirations. I wasn’t commenting on or assessing her positions. I wasn’t taking a stand either for or against her. I was, as [as another reader] points out, analyzing a text, explaining how it works and speculating on its effectiveness. Celebrations and denunciations of Sarah Palin are a dime a dozen. I was after something else.”I get touchy when people criticize Fish without really trying to understand him. A lot of people on the right perused these columns and thought Professor Fish was endorsing Sarah Palin. They praised him and thanked him. Many people on the left thought the same thing and reviled Fish for it. In fact, Fish was just telling us some very interesting things about Palin and expressing his opinion that we might want to watch her career. He also seems to be forewarning us that we may not have seen the last of her.
The woman has a way of connecting with an awful lot of common, everyday, working stiffs in this nation. The brother who so often corrects my blogs is just nuts about her.
It appears there will be an Obama correction in the next Presidential election (although it is way too far out to say that with certainty) and, if there is, the result may be a move way to the right toward a simplistic, Palin type answer or, less likely, further toward the left for a more progressive response to Obama’s failures to live up to his campaign promises.
If you wish, the paragraph above may be elided without losing anything of substance!