Sunday, 19 July 2015

Truth-telling and the right to publish

This piece has previously appeared in the Bangladesh Daily Star

The career of the British concert pianist James Rhodes has been anything but conventional. He was more or less self-taught until he was 13. He never attended music college. After leaving school, he gave up the piano for more than ten years. 

Driven to reconnect with music if only vicariously, he approached the agent of the renowned pianist Grigory Sokolov, not for an audition, but merely hoping to get a job representing musicians. At his first meeting with Panozzo, the agent, Rhodes admitted to having played piano a bit as a child. Panazzo asked him to play something and, astounded to hear an amateur perform so well, fixed him up with a teacher. A few years later, Rhodes was signing recording deals and winning prizes.

If that sounds like a fairy tale, it’s one with its full share of darkness. When Rhodes set out to write a memoir, he decided to give an uncensored account of the repeated sexual abuse he had suffered in childhood, the physical and mental suffering it had caused him, and the way music had saved his life. For almost a year its publication was prevented by a court ruling, after his ex-wife argued that the book would harm their 11-year old son. In May of this year, that ruling was overturned by the UK Supreme Court. Instrumental is now set to be published by Canongate.

Autobiography has a long history. Over the centuries, powerful men have often been moved to reflect on how they achieved greatness. A very different impulse towards confession is reflected in a tradition of conversion stories, such Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which John Bunyan wrote while in prison in the 1660s. Classic autobiographies have also been inspired by more material forms of salvation. Frederick Douglass, the African American orator and abolitionist, published his autobiography in 1845 with the subtitle: An American Slave.

Since the late twentieth century there has been an explosion in personal writing, often with an emphasis on stories of survival. These writers claim our attention because of what they endured rather than by the status they have subsequently achieved. Though there’s no shortage of celebrity memoirs, the interesting development has been these records of otherwise invisible lives.

The genre sometimes known as “misery lit” is open to satire. It’s also open to exploitation. When James Frey was discovered in 2006 to have exaggerated both his sins and his suffering in A Million Little Pieces, Oprah Winfrey expressed her outrage on behalf of the readers he had betrayed. The strength of this reaction was a reminder that, while we may require memoirs to engage us as novels do, their appeal rests on some level of factual accuracy. That is an essential part of their contract with the reader.

In the case of James Rhodes, the principle the Supreme Court upheld was the right of an individual to tell his or own story “in all its searing detail” for whoever wants to hear it.  

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