Anecdote No. 1: A few years ago, while still a grad student in Tuscaloosa, AL, I heard an NPR story about Montana memoirist Judy Blunt, who’d written an account of her upbringing in and escape from a rough-skinned Montana ranch life. The book was called Breaking Clean, and when it came out her former in-laws complained that she’d misrepresented them.
Their main complaint stemmed from a miniature moment in the first chapter. Blunt, toiling at a typewriter against the wishes of her knuckle-dragging family, doesn’t get lunch on in time, and her father-in-law comes in, takes the typewriter, and “kills it with a sledgehammer.”
However, after in-law protestation and journalistic inquiry, Blunt admitted that the typewriter smashing did not occur; the father-in-law merely unplugged it. “There is truth in every scene in the essay,” she said, referring to the first chapter, which was the original piece that led to the entire book, “but the facts are less reliable.” It’s obvious that Blunt was yearning toward something more “symbolic,” an action that spoke to a larger significance.
Here in convenient anecdotal form is one of the most important literary dilemmas facing writers today: the writer’s relationship to the truth, whether she believes in it and how she chooses to handle it.
Anecdote No. 2: In the fall of 2005, the University of Georgia Press published The Bear Bryant Funeral Train by Brad Vice, one of its two annual winners of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for short fiction. (The other winner that year, perhaps ironically given what was to come, was Copy Cats by David Crouse.) A few weeks after publication, a local Tuscaloosa librarian—a “reading adviser” she is called in the newspapers—settled down to read the Vice book. She noted that a few passages were remarkably similar to portions of a book of local color and folk history from the 1930s called Stars Fell on Alabama by Carl Carmer, recently reissued by the University of Alabama Press.
The librarian told her boss, and they together told the UA press, which then told the UGA press, which then, in an effort to halt the proliferation of an obviously plagiarized book—and this was the same press that not too much earlier had suffered the online slings and arrows of Foetry regarding its book series in poetry—pulled all copies of the book and had them pulped. The entire episode took less than a month. Vice, when confronted by the media, kept mumbling about fair use and how he wasn’t totally clear on how it worked, etc. It all sounded fairly grim, the young, new author like a kid on a new bike without training wheels, kicked in the spokes before even left the driveway. UGA press severed ties with Vice; his employing institution, Mississippi State University in Starkville, convened a committee to contemplate whether he deserved to be punished. Even his Ph.D.-granting institution, the University of Cincinnati, where the book was his dissertation, began proceedings to see if they should rescind his degree.
Now the book is out for a second time, published by a small independent press in Alabama called River City, and it comes armed with an explanatory introduction by Vice, copious acknowledgments of primary sources, and four essays by other writers that follow the stories and try to explain a) what Vice was up to with his borrowings and b) just why he should not have been so quickly extinguished two years ago.
Here are two beginnings—one from Stars Fell on Alabama, the other from The Bear Bryant Funeral Train.
We heard them coming long before we saw them—three distant high blasts of a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note.
And that’s how it began. Three distant notes, high blasts on a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note.
This is the earliest clue to Vice’s use of Carmer within the collection. The text from Carmer’s book comes from a section called “Flaming Cross” within a larger chapter called “Tuscaloosa Nights.” The Vice story that contains these almost identical lines (along with others) is called “Tuscaloosa Knights.”
After reading Vice’s collection and then Carmer’s original chapter, a thought springs to mind: either Vice is the world’s worst plagiarist—cover thy tracks, sinner!—or he is doing something I learned about when I got my first Run DMC album: he’s sampling Carmer.
If this wasn’t obvious from the title of his story—a blatant homage if there ever was one—the rest of “Tuscaloosa Knights” completes the project. Vice is using Carmer’s historical anecdote as the prop for a story. Whereas Carmer’s vignette is interesting mostly as a fragment within a larger tour of the state, Vice gives the story subjectivity. He even gives the story a feminine mystique: the narrator in Vice’s version is a wife, left stranded in Tuscaloosa as her husband does psychiatric research overseas. Her local escort for the summer (named Knox in Carmer) here is named Pinion (and appropriately, he pins her later on in the evening). The story in Vice’s hands is much more interesting—a historical vignette imbued with spousal and spiritual malaise. There’s the same sense of Yankee tourism here—slumming with the southern freaks—but there’s actually a character’s sensibility embedded too. Or, in other words, where Carmer’s chapterlet is an amusing fragment, Vice’s story is a self-contained miniature tragedy. And though the use of Carmer’s text does give Vice’s story some historical veracity, the aesthetic urge doesn’t feel like the urge to copy. It feels like the urge to renovate. Vice is like a creative roomer moving into a furnished apartment.
Vice’s collection is divided into two sections, “Stalin’ and Other Children’s Stories” and “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train.” The first section is mostly about growing up and becoming accustomed to the specter of death. The second is similar to the first but also deals more particularly with Bear Bryant as a mythical figure. For those who aren’t familiar with Bryant, he was the winningest coach in college football, and his fame, in Alabama at least, approached Elvis heights; naturally, the University of Alabama’s city, Tuscaloosa, was the epicenter of that fame. In the collection, he’s never a main character, but instead appears now and again as a spectral figure, a monument that casts a shadow over the town.
As a whole the collection is enjoyable, if a bit lumpy. Like many collections, the individual stories suffer from being read side by side in a sitting. Their similarities start to rub sore spots into one another, and after a while one thinks Vice is working the same fictive ground a little too diligently. For instance, in two stories (“Stalin” and “Mule”) characters have almost identical jobs at the local high school. Two stories (“Report from Junction” and “Chickensnake”) have the same boy-from-a-farm main character, and all the characters seem to possess the same latent will-to-destroy that bubbles up in their mind from time to time. Most likely, if one read the collection at a more leisurely pace these similarities would not be a problem; or perhaps the stories are meant to function like individual cells in a film strip—each one a slight alteration moving across your field of vision, each accruing into something greater.
The only story that really feels like a non-starter is “Whatever Happens in the ‘Burg, Stay in the ‘Burg,” which has a narrator who is a creative writing teacher at a big state university in Mississippi and who sort of begins an affair with one of this students. (He does ultimately have the affair, but the affair itself doesn’t occur within the story. We’re only given the outer boroughs of this affair.) As a reader, I try to firewall as much biographical knowledge of the writer as I can in an attempt to enjoy a story or novel as an independent aesthetic object, but here it’s hard not to groan over the identical profession shared by the author and character. Although it’s true that (to my knowledge) Vice hasn’t had any affairs, I have a general allergy to stories about creative writing instructors written by creative writing instructors. Here especially, it doesn’t seem like an aesthetic dare. There’s none of Philip Roth’s cackling over the keyboard as new fictional Philips run across the pages. Here it feels like a failure of imagination.
But at the same time there are moments of real light. I’m thinking of the moment in “Chickensnake” when Haze, the main character, and his father kill a chickensnake that’s managed to crawl up into an elevated birdhouse made out of a gourd.
Haze’s daddy reached for the hoe. He pressed the flat of the blade down on the writhing snake and pressed until the corpse was relatively still. Then he picked up the open tube of snake and began squeezing and massaging it with both hands. A yellow beak emerged, and then the whole head of a martin fledgling, its purple downy feathers slick with chyme. It looked as if it could have been one of the snake’s own young. The fledgling fell to the ground near the snake’s severed head, then another and another.
This passage is indicative of Vice’s strengths. His prose is rather plain, but there are times of bright detail, especially in the farm stories. You can feel that the writer knows what he’s talking about, there’s clear energy in Vice’s effort to educate his audience about this life, and the details allow Vice to be macabre without falling into southern gothic shtick.
My favorite story might be “Artifacts,” which reminds me of David Gates’s collection The Wonders of the Invisible World, where Gates inhabits all manner of different personas (men, women; old, young; rural, urban). Here, Vice approaches the same accomplishment. Margaret, a middle-aged wife with a deceased son—another similarity: many stories drag the shadow of a missing brother or son—works on a recipe for Chocolate Duck for her second cooking book. The story is partly enjoyable just to see how she goes about cooking the meal; there are lots of interesting details sprinkled throughout. But Vice also manages to convey the woman’s decaying marriage, which has been gutted by the son’s death. By the story’s end, Vice accomplishes one of those seemingly standard symbolic short story endings in a way that’s still moving despite the heavy thematic weight being lifted. As a reader you feel the symbolic weight—the husband and wife are literally wrestling over a bloody, bludgeoned swan, an obvious stand-in for the son—without being pulled out of the story. Perhaps the trick again is how Vice moves through the scenes so quickly, so simply—”for a long time they struggled on the floor.” Here, plainness is a virtue.
So what, ultimately, was everyone so bothered about two years ago?
There was no indication in the initial University of Georgia Press edition that any of the stories contained text from other sources, though, interestingly, Vice’s dissertation contained an epigraph from Carmer—not an outright admission of use but at least a gesture in the right direction.
Vice made a blatant, unattributed appropriation of Carmer’s original work—a piece of plagiarism that is woven into the fabric of the book, but a plagiarism hidden in plain sight, an intentional, even friendly, plagiarism, which deals obviously and deliberately with the mythification of the author’s hometown. You don’t have to be from Alabama to recognize this, and in fact I feel a bit daft going to such lengths to defend Vice—his intent seems too sincerely out there for everyone to see, despite his failure to attribute his source properly. Should he have acknowledged his use of his primary sources? Yes. A simple sentence at the beginning of the book would have numbed all fears.
But now, two years out, I’m struck by the mass hysteria that led to the destruction of the original version, a sort of airborne flu of idiocy that spread from Tuscaloosa to Athens, GA, to Starkville. Did these reading and writing professionals read either book? Or at the sound of yet another fraudulent-author pseudo-scandal did they decide to napalm the entire village first and check for actual danger later? Also, why this draconian scholastic Puritanism that asks fiction to stop being fictive—that asks fiction to stop being a mosaic of the made-up and the real?
But then again, is the question that simple?
Although Vice’s theft is obvious, it still does pose problems. The first is the relative obscurity of Carmer’s book, which I’d hazard to guess is mostly unknown outside of Alabama. (I hadn’t heard of the book until the brouhaha and I’ve lived here five years, though I am admittedly no great scholar of the state.) The lesson here seems to be: if you’re going to perform an homage, make sure everyone knows the original. Make sure what you’re sampling is painfully obvious. If Vice had lifted lines whole cloth from the King James Bible, everyone would’ve yawned, but Carmer’s obscurity sabotaged the homage.
A corollary to this first point is that Vice incorporates individual lines and passages into his work; rather than just hinting at a previous work, he actually borrows its thunder. I think he does this for two reasons. First, he wants to borrow the authority of the original, to create a counterfactual second version of his own, splicing it at the root of the original. Second, he wants to borrow authentic detail: in a story like “Report from Junction,” Vice uses details from Jim Dent’s The Junction Boys, similar to how Ian McEwan used details from Lucilla Andrews’s wartime memoir in his book Atonement. The goal is to weld together a story out of artifacts of the past.
Why this explicit borrowing was not acknowledged is still a mystery. And more specifically, how the collection grew from Vice’s University of Cincinnati dissertation, complete with epigraphs, is an even greater mystery. How did this not come up during the editing process? How did the University of Georgia press not know about the borrowings? Vice had spoken in interviews about his indebtedness to Carmer. The website Thicket had even published Vice’s “Tuscaloosa Knights” alongside Carmer’s “Tuscaloosa Nights” as if to say, “Check this out. It’s cool.”
These questions are answered in part by a recent interview with Vice conducted by Dan Wickett, who runs the Emerging Writers Network. It’s certainly the most in-depth interview regarding this affair that I’ve seen, and while it clears away some mysteries, it generates even more. First of all, UGA press did know about Vice’s use of Carmer, at least provisionally. According to Vice, he told his literary adviser—what is it with all these advisers?—about basing his “Tuscaloosa Knights” on Carmer’s “Tuscaloosa Nights.” Vice says that he and the adviser, a former O’Connor winner contracted by the press, spent the least amount of time editing “Tuscaloosa Knights”: about “five minutes,” since the adviser thought it was the most complete story.
Why this first discussion did not lead to greater discussion between author, adviser, and press is a deeper mystery. In the interview, Vice also discusses the talks he had with UGA press after the plagiarism accusation broke, where they maintained that Stars was a work of fiction, meaning, I suppose, that Vice had not just copied some historical text but actually someone’s fictive story, the offense therefore worse. This is super odd, given that the first line of the author’s note in Stars is “All of the events related in this book happened substantially as I have recorded them.” This is what I mean—these answers just keep growing weedy with new questions.
However and all confusions considered, if this incident is a failure of authorship—and Vice’s initial comments about not understanding the concept of fair use are still a real head-slapper—it also seems to be a failure of editing and publishing.
The River City edition does not suffer these problems. It acknowledges sources clearly and frequently and explains with gusto, and the essays dealing with plagiarism are each interesting in their own way. Jake Adam York’s piece about appropriation in Vice is the most exegetical, while Don Noble’s is the most relaxed about the whole affair and possibly the most level-headed. The essays make an interesting supplement to the book, but they also create an interesting problem. The stories no longer come to the reader as individual pieces of art. Aside from their involvement in this mini-controversy, the stories have lost their independence from explication, which now comes neatly bundled alongside. Explanation has impinged on experience. Vice himself writes in the introduction:
Overall, this book attempts to marry two competing, continuous traditions: the modern realistic narrative often associated with regionalism, like the novels of William Faulkner and short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and postmodernism often associated with a more cosmopolitan culture of fragmentation and increased alienation caused by advances in technology, overwhelming amounts of information, and increasing spiritual relativism, as in the works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.
One understands why the book comes buoyed by these essays: they’re trying to clear a path. But at the same time, I wonder if the reader, if not Carmer’s estate or the lawyers, would not be better off without any kind of acknowledgement of sources or defensive explication. I remember what it was like thumbing through the annotated edition of Nabokov’s Lolita. After having read the regular version a couple of times, all of Alfred Appel Jr.’s plumbed allusions and homages bubbled in the margins of every page—a gift that keeps on giving. Shouldn’t Vice’s allusions/thefts be discovered after the fact by an intrigued reader? Wouldn’t that be part of the fun or charm, a secret that continually blooms? As it is now, all of the secrets are laid bare in the beginning. The joke is explained away. I partly wish Vice had combated all those inquisitive publishers, librarians, and reporters with an emphatic Of course I used the lines from Carmer. Duh.
It’s also hard to swallow some of Vice’s self-explications after reading the collection. He namechecks Pynchon and DeLillo and utters the dreaded P-word, but really only the title story at the very end approaches what we might call a playful postmodernism. Otherwise, the stories partake of a much more accurate Viceian self-description: “blood and hay” realism.
The final story, “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train,” feels like George Saunders in a quieter voice. It takes place in the future and concerns an engineer at the Mercedes-Benz factory in Vance, Alabama. (For those who’ve yet to make it down here to Dixie, yes, there is such a place, and it was and is a serious big deal.) The narrator is retiring, and for his going away project he has constructed a fake film of Bear Bryant’s funeral train, which consisted of an automobile procession that traveled from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham (approximately 50 miles). The story’s narrator is a Bear Bryant nut who creates an artificial artifact. He splices real Bear Bryant funeral footage with other historical figures who were in “attendance.” For example, he fits in some of the figures that also appeared within the collage cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, along with Idi Amin, Solzhenitsyn, oil sheiks from Yemen . . .
And actually, that Beatles cover is an approximation of what this film project is for the narrator—real history cut up into bits and combined into something new. (There’s other stuff in the story about a Tristero-ish rivalry between Disney and Daimler-Chrysler, and how Disney wants to steal the narrator’s film to use against D-C; it’s complicated.) The story serves as a statement of Vice’s overall aesthetic project, at least for those stories where appropriation is key (by my count, about half of the collection). He’s taking those bits of real life—lines from Carmer, bits of history—and creating a new film, manufactured to look old. But I think without the final story—and without the explanatory cushions that couch the collection on either side—one might not think of postmodernism at all. The stories would seem more of a straightforward evocation of a town, rather than a po-mo “investigation” of a town and its principal football hero. In short, this book seems more emblematic of how the pomo label creeps into anything that samples sources these days rather than a more typical, showy, aggressive postmodernism.
To return to my anecdotes. I believe Blunt’s fake smashed typewriter, in defining something as real that’s actually not, is a greater sin than Vice’s use of something real to strengthen a fake. Though I do believe in the idea of poetic truth—the idea that some events fit aesthetically better than others—I don’t believe the label of nonfiction allows for such mobility of the truth. I’m not trying to be a prude or a rube. I understand that memoirs are made of memory, that marshy substance, and that what and how we remember shakes and shifts through different brains, over different decades. It’s not as simple as my elementary school library where everything was divided into fiction and nonfiction. I know that this isn’t the way reality works, and I know that many of the genre labels and shelving labels we find at our local megastores are sometimes specific and helpful and sometimes moronic. (The “essays” shelf in any Barnes and Noble is usually a riot of unclassifiable wonder.)
But at the same time, I still respect the idea of truth—the destination of Truth, let’s call it, as if it were a small college town we’re trying to get to in our attempts to hold ourselves factually accountable. I believe that the writer commits a handshake agreement with the reader at the beginning of a piece, as to whether or not the following piece of prose is fictive or not. Both the writer and the reader benefit from this silent handshake. The reader gets to gauge her generosity of belief, and the writer now knows what kind of game she’s about to play. It’s sort of like shooting basketball. If it’s fiction, the writer must bounce her creation off the backboard of the real. Could this novel actually happen? Or, more elastically, what set of preconditions is in place to ensure that I could believe in this novel?
But nonfiction doesn’t need this spring in its step. Nonfiction’s power exists in the verifiability of its actual occurrence. It doesn’t ask for your faith. Yes, nonfiction is framed, sliced, julienned, refracted through the writer’s mushy mind. Yes, conversations are recalled from memory or notes—sweet John McPhee!—but by calling itself nonfiction, the prose relieves you, the reader, from having to believe in it. Nonfiction makes us all atheists of the Word. From this perspective, writing nonfiction is easier than writing fiction, just the way reading nonfiction is easier. Updike called it “hugging the shore.”
There’s also the issue of the writer’s responsibility toward the reader’s belief. The nonfiction writer can say, “Beats me what it means; I just know it happened,” while in a story or a novel, everything is there, should be there, is now forced to be there for a reason. Nonfiction is a Rubik’s Cube that can never be perfectly solved; fiction is a Rubik’s Cube that you, the reader, must solve again and again and again.
There was a recent piece in The New Republic by Alex Heard, who gently chided humorist David Sedaris for “exaggerating” events in his wacky family anecdotes. Lots of people online and in the press hammered Heard for being humorless, but I don’t think even Sedaris is immune from this, even if he’s writing humor. He gets readerly mileage by claiming this actually happened. Does the reader understand that the events have been exaggerated? Yes. But that’s not the same thing as bald invention, and invention dressed in the drag of fact seduces by a type of coercion; the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to say, You have not convinced me.
The novel and the short story, on the other hand, are the true fakes that partake of the real, verifiable world and procreate something new. Fiction is, as the saying goes, the lie that tells the truth, and it tells this new, fake truth by eating old truth. It is, as Bakhtin had it, the form that devours all other forms. It is, per Henry James, the loose, baggy monster. “Reading and writing professionals of the world,” I want to shout in the silence after the Carmer/Vice skirmish: “pull your books back from the incinerator. Open them up. Let the monster out; let the monster eat; let the monster live!”
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