In All Honesty?

I have been reading books from bloggers who have gotten book deals because of their blogs. (Not just because I'm a bitter and jealous woman, either (much.)) Reading these books, though, has got me thinking about the trade-offs and the ethics and a whole raft of issues that I never think about when I sit down to write my blog.

The Cake Wrecks woman released a book which is hilarious. The only thing is --and I hate to be picky-- the editors have edited out a lot of her humor in order to make the book entirely non-offensive or non-actionable, whichever. I understand why they did it and as the book goes on, a little of her edge starts to show. All humor has a bit of an edge, in my not-so-humble opinion. (Another tiny complaint is that my 11-year-old really wanted to read the book and I let her, but I had to warn her that there is an entire chapter on icing that looks like penises. (Penisi?) This was not my favorite conversation of the day. There are already a lot of pages devoted to icing mistakes that resemble poop --maybe that was enough? Just, you know, sayin'.)

And then I did my version of going to the movies, which is when a movie comes out that is based on a book and instead of actually seeing the movie, I read the book. (Because leaving my house to see a movie would be unheard of.) So, I read a good movie when I read "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously." The book is a little depressing to me (probably an emotional echo of my own days of trying to find myself on no budget while living in semi-squalor and working a dead-end job) and Julie Powell has a seriously foul mouth, but it's an interesting premise. The thing I loved the best about the book was the depiction of her relationship with her husband, which sounds a lot like MY relationship with Coop.

So, then I got into full fan mode and I read the actual blog that the book is based on, and I read Julie's latest blog. I find her writing style a little all over the place, but it's entertaining and she's got a good turn of phrase and I got really interested in her story/success.

Unfortunately, in the course of reading all that, it turns out that Julie Powell has a new book coming out about how she had an extramarital affair.

Which just really made me...sad. And disappointed. In fact, I felt somewhat betrayed that this person in whom I'd become invested had turned out to be someone completely different from who I thought she was.

So, let me see if I am getting this right: I discovered a writer who is putting herself out there, blogging about cooking and life and marriage, who turned out to be someone different from the person she is IN MY MIND (since I've never met her) and I feel misled.

That is Crazy on Legs right there.

I mean, it happened after the time span covered by her book and the cooking blog and certainly, I wouldn't have read or wanted to read a blog about an extramarital affair.

It's just that I have this ...THING about honesty. And as I get older, the less tolerant I become of dishonest people, especially cheaters. Even little white lies make me re-evaluate my feelings for the person who just uttered them.

Then, of course, I started playing Devil's Advocate in my own mind because that's what I do--not content with being just generically crazy like most people. I started thinking about how honestly I portray my own life when I am writing on my blog. Because, you know, I don't detail every spat I have with my husband, or the times when our long marriage has gone through the doldrums. In the same way I don't post truly unflattering pictures of myself (much), or write in excruciating detail about my battle with depression and clutter and endless, endless dog hair. I do this purposefully because I feel like I don't want to add any more cynicism/bleakness to the world. But mostly, I try to practice gratitude and a sense of wonder as a way of life. It seems to me that the more you complain about your life and your spouse and your particular travails, the more common it becomes to see that and only that. My working theory is that the opposite is true, too--the more you exercise your Wonder Muscle (get your minds out of the icing), the more wondrous the world IS.

But is that dishonest? Would you feel betrayed if I reveal to you that things are not always so rose-colored in my world?

I don't know.

And more to the point, does it make for good reading? Because look what happened to Cake Wrecks when it got (mostly) sanitized for our protection --it lost some of its humor and interest.

Discuss amongst yourselves. I'll be over here cleaning up the dog hair...


I think that when we are reading a blog, we need to realize that the blogger is putting her best foot forward. That doesn't mean that she is not confessing to multiple faults (bratty kids, messy house, marital spats, etc.); but she is putting a storytelling spin on them. I wouldn't call it lying - I'd say that the happiest people are the ones who can take the raw material of their lives and put an interesting spin on it, wouldn't you? And really, do we want to read the blog if it isn't interesting/amusing/thought-provoking? As a writer yourself, you know that 2 people can take the exact same chain of events and only one of them will tell a good story out of it. The other totally messes it up. (Not that I, um, am talking about myself and my husband here...) Ahem.

This subject fascinates me (can you tell?). Really, it's part of a bigger subject - what is storytelling and what is its place/use/purpose in our lives? I've learned from certain bloggers (mrs. g, Minnesota Matron, Octamom, just to name a few) how to better tell a story. I've also seen how many different ways there are to tell the same story. Have you observed this, also?

Also, did the blogger (Julie?) actually lie? It could be that at one point in her life her marriage was a good one, etc. Then, suddenly, things changed. I don't know - I don't follow her. If she were keeping a secret, it can feel like a lie, I guess. I follow In The Trenches, and I guess Chris wanted to surprise people by not mentioning that she was moving across the country until she had actually done so. But I couldn't help feeling she had kept something from us for months ahead of time (not that we had a right to know, just like you didn't have a "right" to know Julie was having an affair), and it felt like betrayal. I feel silly admitting that, but I want to let you know I sort of know how you feel.

Well! I'm long-winded, aren't I? But, as I said before, it's one of my favorite subjects.
Unknown said…
I have felt the same way a few times when I read a true-life story book and then get an update on the author and they didn't continue the life or didn't seem to learn from their mistakes etc.

I try to be honest in my blog and say when I am feeling depressed or down becuase I see it as an outlet. The down times get made up for when I am feelign up and try to be funny.

I look for honesty in blogs and I would rather read that you are feeling blue or struggling than get something iced over in sweetness (or silence, unless you just do NOT feel like writing).It does add to the discontent in the world but it also lets others know they are not alone in feeling that way.

But one thing I do NOT do is discuss my marriage because it is about me, not my husband and he would not like it.
Ei said…
After reading Suburban Correspondent's comments I think I should probably just ditto her. But I have to say it bothers me that we as a society consitantly have no trouble "feeding" off of the stories of those who offer themselves up as artists, but then treat it as an affront that such people have actual lives that are messy. Life IS messy, and you can't just use someone else's as an escape an expect that there will never be a reminder of that.
Annabanana said…
It kind of reminds me of this. We have this family at our school. One very cool kid, who is usually brought to school by his amazing, cool, helpful and friendly dad. Dad usually brings him because mom is a professional comedian. And one time she was filming a new DVD of her live show and we got to go for free. So she gets up and starts telling these incredible HILARIOUS jokes about her husband, only not about the guy we know. She jokes about some imcompetent and bumbling guy that is NOTHING like the real husband we all know.

And I felt a little weird about all that. I mean, he was there in the audience and laughing along and we all know it's jokes and she writes them because her job is to be funny. But somehow it still felt like we were participating in some big lie to the audience.

I think it's really hard to draw the line about all that stuff. The goal is to entertain and/or enlighten, so some 'enhancement' is required. But a lot of times it feels like that one scene in The Crying Game, if you remember, when Forest Whitaker's character first finds out what is girlfriend has been hiding. Anyway, fun to ponder the ethics of it all!!!
Barb Matijevich said…
Ei, that's such a good point. Life IS messy and yet we are always surprised (and sometimes titillated) when we are reminded of it.

And you know, I may be being totally unfair because of this particular example. I have few moral absolutes --would cheerfully kill someone threatening my children despite my stance as a pacifist --but extramarital affairs are my hot button. I think people who can take that kind of energy away away from their families and put it into a new relationship and HIDING their actions are probably capable of any other type of deceit. But in the case of Julie Powell, it has no bearing on the work of hers that I read and it's actually beside the point of my initial point here. The question, for me, is how much information is too much? How much detail do we owe our readers? How AUTHENTIC do we need to be in order to sustain credibility and our connection to those who read us?

I don't know the answer. And maybe it varies with each blogger--some have an entire cast of characters who bear only a passing resemblance to their real lives and some, like me, are using our families and lives as the vehicles for our craft.

I dunno. Fiction is easier on some levels!
Ei said…
Yeah, I know Barb. Look who you are talking to, right?

But you know, I still love David Letterman too. But he won't be on my "Prince Charming" list. Because yeah, he'll be coming to Iowa looking for me soon. Snerk.
Miri said…
HAHAHHAHAH "penisi."


First (second?) I must say I see movies THE EXACT SAME WAY you see them. So much less driving and waiting in line too.

And after that. The disappointment with your image of someone? Totally justified. Especially if she made you like her with her humanity. Gah. How could she? I get so irrationally disappointed with celebrities who are unfaithful. And I'm not even a celebrity follower.

It just seems like an extramarital affair shouldn't be celebrated with a book deal.

Okay, maybe that was my green showing.

Finally, you deserve a book deal too. And they wouldn't even have to edit out the crass parts. Cuz, you, Barb, are funny AND family friendly.
Hannah said…
I haven't read Julie Powell, but I get what you're getting at and I totally agree. I hate when people come down of their pedestals with a crash! But about blogs, yes, I think a *certain* level of honesty is fine and welcome.

But wait. I'm really flustered about something. She WROTE A BOOK ABOUT HAVING AN EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIR???? Good grief, what next? Does every livin' person who does anything of mild significance get a book deal these days? And does that mean that I can go and cheat on my husband, destroy a marriage and others' lives, and then get paid big bucks to write about it? Sorry, I just have a problem with that level of exhibitionism.
I hope you'll forgive me for being a Movie Nazi, one who will again try to persuade you that seeing a film in the cinema provides one of life's best sauces. Julie and Julia, the film, was lovely, tho I I could have done with a lot more Julia. It was wonderful to relive a time when people smoked at the dinner table, to remember dining in France and being so transported by a morsel I could only grunt in appreciation. I loved watching Streep/Child discover what I, too, discovered long ago, that the French have Life Figured Out. Anyway, tho I'm now listening to the Audible download of Child's "My Life in France", and am enjoying it very much, I'm aware that my experience of the text is so much richer because the sights and sounds of 50s France were made vivid, for me, by the film.
Lynn said…
This is something I've thought a lot about, too. Harrison Ford used to be my favorite male actor. Meg Ryan used to be my favorite female actor. Not for years, [and I don't see myself ever paying money to see Russell Crowe]. Why? Because they built their film reputations portraying solid, decent human beings trying to figure out their place in the world. And I am just sufficiently old-fashioned that I believe people in the public eye have a responsibility to their public and should hold themselves to a high standard of behavior.

No, I don't like Wuthering Heights [two spoiled brats] or Scarlett O'Hara [now that I'm a grownup and can see past the gorgeous gowns]. Belle Watling had more integrity.
MadMad said…
I read this last night and kept thinking about it, and how I felt. I think you're too hard on yourself: as a writer you HAVE to filter some of the stuff out because it's not "reading material." If you wrote about every single thing that you thought of or did in one day, it would be quite boring. So you are, by necessity, picking what you find most interesting, and that becomes what is true. We don't read that you went to the supermarket, but it doesn't mean you didn't. We don't read about how you feel about x, y or z, but it doesn't mean you don't have the feelings. And readers often superimpose their own feelings on the writer... and then feel betrayed when the feelings are actually different.
L. Shepherd said…
Integrity and honesty are sooooo much more important to me than pretty much anything else. Making money off a blog, book, copywriting, etc., is of no use to me if it's not done honestly. I make less than people around me who blog and market their writing in a dishonest manner, but that's the way it will remain. Integrity is just not for sale.
Ian Thal said…
From your description, I'm not really clear that Powell betrayed the trust between author and audience. Even by your own description, her affair occurred after the periods in her life recounted in her books.

I respect that you have strong feelings regarding marital fidelity, but Powell wasn't married to you, and her books were primarily about food.
The Pet Chatter said…
I'm a whole lot more bothered by the lack of integrity and truth in today's "journalism." Gone are the days when you could trust Uncle Walter to give you the straight scoop. Now we must listen to multiple news outlets and compare the information then figure out what we think the truth is. That's a lot of hard work and I resent the heck out of it.

With regard to infidelity, I believe the rate is somewhere in the 60% range. That means that potentially two thirds of the people we know are cheating. While that may be repugnant to you and me it ultimately is between the parties involved and none of our business.

Part of growing up is recognizing that people have faults and foibles, including ourselves. As surely as you put someone on a pedestal they will do or say something to come crashing down. For me the truth is learning to accept the good qualities and valuing a person for them rather than turning my back on them when I discover they are not perfect.

BTW, I enjoyed Julie and Julia immensely. Meryl Streep was outstanding. Maybe you'll rent it when it comes out on DVD?
Barb Matijevich said…
Her book IS NOT primarily about food. (She is, by her own admission, a wretched cook.) Her book is about finding herself while cooking through Julia Child's book. She goes to great lengths to portray her husband as saintly and their relationship as the only thing that makes sense in a totally crazy world. She weighs in on the infidelity of her friends.

My POINT was actually that I read and related to her as she portrayed herself, especially to her good marriage. And that's really all she owed to her readers. But it left me feeling betrayed, nevertheless, when she proved to be less than her self portrayal. I did not assign judgment to her WRITING for this, but it did make me wonder if I am totally honest in how I portray my own life or if there are degrees. And then the other question is how much do I "owe" my readers. How much honesty is necessary to maintain an authentic voice?
Tiffany said…
I'm puzzled by the number of people focusing on infidelity and whether it's any of our business here. It's almost as if a white writer had written a series of "autobiographical" works about growing up black in America and then when someone questioned it, everyone had started shouting about how it was none of your business what race a person was and shouldn't matter.

There is, it seems to me, a significant difference between delving into something that a person hasn't thrown out on the table in front of us (For example, David Letterman. There's something that's truly none of our business.) and being able to rely on the core of a person's representations in her own work.

Whether or not we SHOULD be able to rely on that as readers, and whether or not we're obligated to make that reliable as writers (and, if so, how in the heck we do that) seems much more pertinent than how someone else feels about how you feel about infidelity. At least, that's what *I* thought you were getting at.
Vikram Karve said…
You are absolutely right about the positive thinking aspect - "the more you exercise your Wonder Muscle the more wondrous the world is" - the happiest persons are they who think the most interesting thoughts.
Ian Thal said…
It is entirely possible that as Powell was experiencing the things that she writes about in her books, she sincerely believed her marriage was wonderful, or that any problems within her marriage would soon be overcome. Disapproving of her infidelity does not mean one gets to judge her harshly for having had a loving and idealized view of her marriage before things fell apart (whether it is her fault or not.)

How many people think, "That's the person I'm going to marry, and several years into the marriage, I am going to suddenly find myself so unhappy with it that I am going to do something terribly hurtful to this person with whom I am currently deeply in love?' Does anyone believe that Powell was thinking this all along?

It was dishonest to her friends and family for her to cheat on her husband, but unless you have special access to her innermost thoughts and can say that Powell's discussion of her marriage was insincere at the time she wrote her previous books, she cannot be fairly accused of having been dishonest with you, the reader.
Tiffany said…
Ian, in your fixation on the writer Barb used for illustration, you've devoted a good bit of energy to this discussion without coming close to addressing the question at hand. Do you have an opinion on that? Is honesty important in personal essays and blogging? If so, what does honesty mean--does it require factual disclosure, or is an attempt at larger truth what matters? Or if it perfectly acceptable for the writer to lie if that's what suits her purpose? Do readers have a right to expect anything, or should every piece of creative non-fiction be read as fiction and taken or left for whatever theoretical value it offers?
Ian Thal said…

As best as I understand the situation I don't think Powell betrayed her readers' trust. I'm not clear that she was being dishonest about her relationship or feelings about her husband in her earlier books. I find it unlikely that many people fall in love and marry with the belief that they will have an affair.

Furthermore, genre of memoir is not like that of history, journalism, or the sciences where there is peer-review, annotations, and a bibliography. Expecting a memoir to have the same degree of rigor of truth contained in a peer-reviewed history text is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a memoir is: a personal account of but a facet of the author's life-- and the author may not be the one who best knows the contents of her heart.

So given that, I am not clear that Powell can be fairly accused of having lied to her readers. On the otherhand, if somebody were to publish a controversial book purporting to be about a certain battle in World War II, but the argument was not supported by the known evidence, then I would say that the author was a liar. My answer is because memoir and history are of radically different genres, even if both are generally referred to as "non-fiction."
ToyLady said…
I so understand your disappointment with Julie - you connected with her, in a way - you saw a bit of yourself in her.

I know a gentleman whom I respected very much - for a very long time. This person was the kind of parent, and spouse, I aspired to be. Always took the high road, never lost his temper - just an all around great guy.

Then I found out that he wasn't the great guy I thought he was - and certainly not the model husband! No, he didn't write a book about his infidelities, but he was nearly as blatant.

And it hurt me. I was disappointed and disgusted. Did he betray ME? No. But yes. I thought he was a decent, upstanding family man. Turns out he was just a big ol' horndog.

We all choose how much of ourselves we want to reveal to the outside world, and especially to the internet - it's only the people nearest to us who actually have to see us, warts and all, and often, not even they know everything.

What was the question again?
Mama Ava said…
Does anyone REALLY want to read the honest truth about someone's life? Because honestly, I think that would be so boring. Being a writer means having the ability to tell a story and that's a whole lot different than reciting what happened. The good blogs I read (and the good writers) don't sound like they're censoring themselves with an eye to what their readers might think. They don't sound pretentious or preachy. They write about themselves, their lives, their ups and downs...and have the gift of telling a story that is funnier/sadder/sweeter/more painful than we ourselves could tell it...and yet we recognize ourselves in every moment. When someone tries too hard to be something else, it shows and the result is not as good as it could be.
Ei said…
How can you compare telling stories about how a white person grew up black (which is a LIE unless it was written by Micheal Jackson, who is dead,so...still a lie, right?) to a person who has gone through a fundamental life change. The likelihood that this woman was lying about her feelings for her husband or her perspective of that relationship was a lie at all. But it was seen through a very specific lens. Tell you what I could have told you stories about my husband 5 years ago that would have turned you to a little sentimental puddle. Viewed in 2009 through the lens of a divorce and some mighty secrets revealed, our life together looks quite different.
Tiffany said…
Ei...sigh. The rampant misinterpretations continue. I wasn't comparing Julie Powell's situation to lying about being black because (like Barb) I wasn't really talking about Julie Powell. I was talking about a larger concept, and how people MISS the larger concept because they get all hung up on a specific detail of a specific case.

For example, Barb wrote here about honesty in writing, and to what degree a writer had an obligation to disclose, and what readers could reasonably be expect. Julie Powell was just a little jumping off point for that (much more significant) discussion, but a huge percentage of people commenting fixated on the passing example to the exclusion of the real issue.

That's what I was analogizing but, ironically, it appears that it wasn't clear due to fixation on the passing example to the exclusion of the real issue...
Mokihana said…
Hey, you know what, Barb? I must admit that when you post about dog hair and clutter and everything not being rosy, my immediate thought is that if a famous person/writer like you can have clutter and dog/cat hair and depression, then maybe I'm not so bad off. It's kinda hard to explain.

I just got home from a week away visiting an elderly auntie whom I will probably never get to see again (sniff). I really thought it only fair, since we put over 2000 miles on the car, that when we got home the butler should come unload the car and unpack the suitcases, the cook should have a meal waiting, and the maid should've cleaned up the entire house, including mounds of dog hair everywhere. It obviously didn't happen because those three people don't even think about coming here. Probably because I've never offered to pay them.

So bring on the dog hair, the clutter, and any whining you might like to do. It makes you much more readable, in my opinion.