"Remove the personal," someone recalled being advised here recently. "Readers want facts, not your life story or opinions." The same day, I received a letter from a retired professor grading down my latest book, "Most Outrageous," for two pages towards its end, set in my living room, which, he said, diverted attention from my story. "Keep your eye," he instructed, "on the ball."
The story from which the professor feared diversion was ostensibly that of Dwaine Tinsley, creator of the gag cartoon "Chester the Molester." These cartoons, about a middle aged man who lusts after pre-pubescent girls, which began running in "Hustler" magazine in the late seventies, had become of prosecutorial interest when, in 1989, Tinsley’s teenage daughter accused him of five years sexual abuse. I related how I came to write "Outrageous." I described Tinsley’s life and career. I recounted his arrest and trial and subsequent events. I touched upon climate of the times, the First Amendment, and theories behind character evidence. My book, a friend said, was neither a who-done-it nor a how-he-did-it but a did-he-do-it; and along its way, at various junctures, I provided my own thoughts about Tinsley’s guilt, until, to the professor’s distress, I stood in my living room, commenting upon my coffee table, my curtains, and what lay beyond.
I am always surprised to learn people still think writers can detach themselves from their stories. I thought, by now, everyone knew we were always there. Always deciding what stories to relate, what speech to quote, with what details of furniture or weather to punctuate them. Sometimes I think why someone chose what he wrote is more instructive than what it is he has written.
Writers, I believe, are always trying to sell readers something. It may be a position on Iraq or global warming. It may be a judgment about the richness or emptiness of a life. Writers use their experience and education to make these calls.
In litigation, courts are open to the testimony of witnesses whose education and experience has made them experts in their fields. Often each side has its own expert to offer contradictory conclusions for jurors to consider. To assist jurors in determining which expert to believe, attorneys are permitted cross-examinations to uncover bias and motive. How much were you paid, lawyers ask. How often do you testify for the prosecution and how often the defense? Readers do not have the opportunity to cross-examine writers. They are expected to uncover the bias or motive behind what they are being sold without assistance.
When I began writing (for want of a better term) "non-fiction," I quickly developed the habit of including myself in my stories. I believed this allowed me to more completely impart my accumulated (for want of a better term) "wisdom." I believed it permitted me to convey a more complete "truth" than if I maintained the fiction that I was unconnected to what appeared under my name. Than if I pretended my "life story" and "opinions" did not determine what lay upon my page. I included myself in a manner that lay me open for limited inspection. I administered a minor self cross-examination. I enabled readers to filter my tales and conclusions through the biases and motives I chose to expose.
In "Outrageous," the "ball" on which I ultimately had my eye was not what Tinsley had or had not done to his daughter but on the difficulty of making that determination and of making many determinations, of more or less consequence, and the implications this difficulty presented for the living of lives. I had provided my readers more information than Tinsley’s jurors had to consider, more, I believe, than either the prosecution or defense possessed; and I had provided myself pondering this evidence, as well as pondering my table and curtains, so readers could consider me, their trusty – or not so trusty – expert, when they cast the votes my telling asked of them. I believed I was providing a service, not creating a distraction out of ineptness or to pull off a sleight of hand.
Causes Bob Levin Supports
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, ACLU, PEN, Berkeley Emergency Food & Housing Project.