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April 7, 2012 8:16 PM   Subscribe

Is there often public and legal backlash against authors who write confessional stories? How well do audiences typically receive confessional stories?

Have any of you written one? What was the personal experience like? I'm thinking of stories such as The Basketball Diaries. I'd think that some of the audience must hate that kind of author thereby giving the author a lot of stress. I'm also thinking that disguising non-fiction under fiction loses some of the stories power. How can authors discuss some of the bad things in life and some of their guilts while also mitigating public and legal backlash? Do people even want these kind of stories, or is it only the rarity?
posted by Knigel to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's a lot going on with this question.

Fictionalized confessional books are, in theory, heavily resistant to libel suits in the US. Libel by fiction cases are rare as hen's teeth, especially cases which aren't simply SLAPPs, but by no stretch of the imagination is fiction generally immune to such suits. Here's an interesting blog post about libel in fiction, and here's another. Here's an interesting blog post about an interesting defamation lawsuit regarding The Help.

As for how these books are received, people respond very well to fact-based fiction and romans à clef, but they respond very poorly to non-fiction works which turn out to have been fudged or forged. Readers would much rather have a high amount of non-fiction (or innuendo) in their fiction than even a small amount of fiction in their non-fiction.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:33 PM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have no experience writing confessional stories, but I do have a bookmark that might be helpful. This post discusses "outrage writing" and the different elements that go towards building public backlash. The take away seems to be it's not so much the confessional elements in and of themselves that cause backlash. It's that those elements are coupled with a desire for attention.

My personal opinion is that if you write in order to highlight some larger truth, you'll be fine. But if you confess just for attention, then there's usually a backlash.
posted by helloimjohnnycash at 7:23 AM on April 8, 2012

One of the most interesting scandals I remember around this issue was about Lorenzo Carcaterra's book Sleepers. But in this case, instead of backlash about "OMG look at all the illegal things he talks about open the floodgates" people lashed back with suggestions that he made things up.

Moving along to the kind of thing you're asking about, Sandler v. Calcagni is a relevant matter. Don't do that. Of course, the added aspect in that is that nobody who didn't know the parties in the brouhaha wanted to read the book anyway, so it was printed through a publish-on-demand service.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:14 AM on April 8, 2012

Specifically on The Basketball Diaries, there is a great Jim Carroll site that collects tons of interviews with him done at the time of the book's release and the movie's release.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:17 AM on April 8, 2012

Kathryn Harrison's writing is confessional and rather more shocking that Carroll's, I think.
I don't think many authors are stressed by audience reactions--critics maybe, but the average reader, not so much.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:49 AM on April 8, 2012

I can't speak to legal backlash, but re: public backlash - this is actually a huge topic of debate right this second! It's particularly an issue with female writers; on the one hand, you've got the demand for more and more provocative/shocking/titillating material from more and more private segments of one's life, for pageviews or sales or whatever, but on the other hand, you've got a longstanding stigma against women speaking about their experiences, and the two interact with one another in weird and often uncomfortable ways.

There are too many examples to even list, but (for example, and I know she's not a print author but still) Lena Dunham's getting a little of this right this second, Chris Kraus got some of it for I Love Dick, lots of bloggers get it, etc.
posted by dekathelon at 10:43 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, Bitch, and More, Now, Again, is a prime example of the conflict between the demand for titillating details versus the prejudice against outspoken that dekathelon just cited.

I'm at work and so cannot put up too many citations, but Google "elizabeth wurtzel criticism" and you'll find a lot of material.

For example, picked at random:

"Drug Trip," Entertainment Weekly, 2002:
Of course Elizabeth Wurtzel doesn't read reviews. They'd make anyone depressed, let alone the author who suffers from a malaise that fed the memoir ''Prozac Nation.'' The Washington Post calls her latest confessional, ''More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction,'' a ''literary fiasco'' while Esquire prays it's the ''final belch from a glutted decade.'' The Salon.com reviewer goes so far as to spit, ''Sorry, Elizabeth. Wake up dead next time and you might have a book on your hands.''

"Elizabeth Wurtzel went shopping... and bought Froot Loops, Ritalin and a porn mag. Is this the last word in addiction memoirs? Toby Young stares self-reflexive absurdity in the face in More, Now, Again," The Observer, 2002
To be fair to Wurtzel, More, Now, Again isn't simply a cynical exercise in seeing just how far a bestselling author can go before his or her publisher smells a rat. No, Wurtzel is clearly under the impression that this material is actually interesting. Her narcissism is so deep-seated she believes that because it's she, Elizabeth Wurtzel, doing these things, they can't help but be fascinating to the general reader.
"The Queen of Snark (Or, Whatever Happened to Elizabeth Wurtzel?)," The Book Snark, 2008 (with 131 comments)
It’s no secret that Wurtzel has an extreme personality. You either love her or loathe her, you’re either comfortably at one with her ideas or totally alienated from them. And a lot of people, especially critics, tend to loathe her.
posted by virago at 5:20 PM on April 8, 2012

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, Bitch, and More, Now, Again, is a prime example of the conflict between the demand for titillating details versus the prejudice against outspoken that dekathelon just cited.

Sigh. Rewritten (including the dropped word), that would say:

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, Bitch, and More, Now, Again, is a prime example of the conflict that dekathelon just cited: the one between the demand for titillating details versus the prejudice against outspoken women.
posted by virago at 5:23 PM on April 8, 2012

Public backlash? Might happen, to the extent that people might write negative reviews or snark about you in publishing industry gossip columns (which, hello, are read by about five people self included).

Private backlash from the individuals you talk about? May well happen. I know someone whose father stopped speaking to her after she published a memoir; the estrangement continued until his death.

Lawsuit? Not going to happen if you publish with a publisher unless you flat-out lie to their legal department, because the legal department won't let you publish anything libellous; if you self-publish, almost certainly not going to happen--but if you are self-publishing, get an opinion from an attorney familiar with publishing and libel law.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:46 PM on April 8, 2012

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