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WHEN DO WE NOT WANT TO KNOW? OR TELL?

April 18, 2008
 
                                   
    Can you be a fan and not want to hear the true personal life of the artist you love? Does your feeling for someone’s music change because you know more about their life? Is it a violation of an artist’s privacy to have her life exposed in an admiring but unauthorized biography? Or: Does it come with the territory of being a public person (and one who profits from that status) to become the subject of an unauthorized biography, like it or not? Was New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm right — or wrong — when she harshly stated, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible” by trying to get information out of others?
    I’ve been thinking of all these questions since the publication of GIRLS LIKE US, which, happily, landed on the New York Times Bestseller list as # 7 its first week out. Many, many people have told me they’ve loved the book, and that they found it “respectful.” I’m glad — I meant it to be. But others have used terms — or whole sentences — that have given me pause. Some fans on Carole’s website have decided to “boycott” the book because it was not authorized; they believe that what I wrote (after strenuous research and with sourcing on the page) about her personal life, especially in Idaho, was a violation of her privacy– one said that what’s in a book isn’t necessarily true; another spoke of having “vomit” in revulsion (toward me) after reading a passage. (Strong stuff!) Though another Carole fan on the same site said she “loved” the book and found it respectful, the original anti-book stalwarts weren’t swayed.
    In a more thoughtful example of the same phenomenon, an Amazon reviewer spoke of liking the book greatly — but she gave what she called “a dose of measured pan” — and she explained it this way: “The real question…is not whether Weller did a good job in compiling a historical, documentary style book explaining these three women, their art and their personas. The answer to this question is, for the most part, yes. However, the bigger question is when will the public ever be able to separate their interest in the art from a fascination with the artist, seemingly needing to know the intimate details of their lives? It is interesting, I admit, to know who inspired what songs, what circumstances sparked the creation of a certain piece. Still, two of the three women explored here ( Mitchell and King) may take issue with some of the information that is now available for public consumption. I fear we cease to respect our artists when we have such voracious appetites for knowing every aspect of their personal lives. I am guilty of partaking, it’s just a thought for us to consider as we devour the joys and tragedies of the talents we claim to honor.” Finally, New York Times book critic Janet Maslin, who, I’m grateful and delighted to report, called my book “captivating,” nevertheless thought it might be “crass” to wonder who a particular song was about (but she blurted the answer anyway!) — and called one of my tools “nosiness.” (Ouch! But…hmm…maybe she’s right.)
       It’s too easy to say, “If it’s true, you must tell it,” or “The more we know about someone, in all his or her complexity, the more we understand them.” It’s also too easy to say, “Fans shouldn’t be see-no-evil zealots. What artist even wants that?” Like super-string theory, there are strata — dimensions — we probably don’t see. (Okay. Bad analogy, super-string theory.) But they govern how we receive unbidden intimate information, and how we decide to write — or not write — it, and why.
       Most of us writers know when a fellow author has crossed the line — has delivered, with a little too much relish, a hatchet job, or has relentlessly pursued a specious hunch, purely for sensationalism’s sake. But, among ourselves, we are constantly weighing the things we need to say to paint a full picture against the tantalizing but nonessential things we can say because, on the basis of enough sources, we are confident that they are true. It’s a balancing act — you want to be empathic, but not cheerleaderly; you want to be objective and clear-eyed, but never cruel. You want to be substantial but also provocative.  You want to dispense — here’s my have-it-both-ways term for it — classy gossip.  You want to deliver the goods, but still be decent and dignified. You want to sell books but not sell out.  Even more to the point, I think — aside from any dispassionate weighing — we embrace our subjects; we take them to our heart, we become fervent about them, we try to see life through their eyes…and this passionate sheparding gets us past the presumptuosness of what we are doing: pretending to know another person (and–often–a brilliant, storied, iinfluential one at that) .
    Fans: What do you not want to know about someone whose artistry — whose existence — has
 sustained you?  Biography or magazine profile readers: When do you lose trust that a writer has fairly embraced a subject? Fellow (bedraggled, over-caffeinated, over-blamed, but often magnificently spot-on) journalists who specialize in profiles or authors, in biography: What information have you held back…and why? Or revealed, and regreted? (Speak in code, dears. Use alternate screen name.)
     Anyone…? Let’s start a conversation. Maybe, with cool heads, we’ll learn something.
    
    
     
     
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Welcome to Girls Like Us The Blog!

March 22, 2008

Hello!

 I wrote GIRLS LIKE US: CAROLE KING, JONI MITCHELL, CARLY SIMON — AND THE JOURNEY OF A GENERATION to not only explore these three remarkable singer-songwriters’ lives and work, but also to tell the rich, vivid story of their generation (my generation) of American women. When I’ve talked about this book — and its subjects, the comments I’ve gotten have, gratifyingly, told me I’ve — as several women have said — “hit a nerve.” A next blog will be devoted to the women of the generation (yay, team!) — and, after that, we’ll have many more topics (including my conversations with great guest-writers: I have a lot of talented friends), but this one is devoted to how important, in so many ways, these three women have been to so many.  How to count the ways? Well, for starters…  * A writer in her thirties said , “I absolutely worshipped Carole King in grade school and Joni Mitchell in high school. “ * A yoga teacher in her mid-40s said, I listened to lots of Carly Simon records when I was a kid.  She looked so cool, lanky and sexy on her covers — like someone I’d never run into in the suburbs of [my Midwestern city] When I was a freshman…and for some reason I cheated on an exam. — just couldn’t resist looking over the shoulder of one of my smarty pants classmates and copying down her answers.  Now, I think it was mostly a cry for attention.  I felt awful about it and really liked the teacher. He seemed approachable so I decided to confess and see how that
went.  At the time I was listening a lot to Simon’s `Boys in the Trees’
album and really liked the song “In a Small Moment”. The idea that it starts
with a small lie and then another and then another and that’s how it gets
out of hand.  I didn’t want to be one of those people.  So I packaged up a
note and recording of that song as an explanation and apology for my actions and dropped it off in his office.  I got the reaction I wanted.  He became curious about me and I knew that I’d never do it again.  And I didn’t.”
 * A psychotherapist of 62 said, “Joni Mitchell’s `Ladies of the Canyon’ got me through my first divorce.” * The head of a major 9/11 victims’ consortium fund — a woman in her 50s — said, “I loved Carole King — people told me when I played the piano I sounded like her.” * Countless women have said that Joni’s Blue “saved my life.” * A fact checker in Manhattan said: My older was always playing the piano when we were growing up….One of my best memories is sitting with her at the piano and singing songs together.  We’d sing lots of show tunes which my father loved and then she’d get the Carole King songbook out.  Carole’s songs were so singable and made you feel good when you sang them.  `Where You Lead,’ `Natural Woman,’ everything from Tapestry. I also felt very hip singing this with my sister.  When my sister turned 50 a few years ago I didn’t know what to get her for her birthday, but then I knew that I had to get her the Carole King songbook.  * A 44-year-old international women’s foundation worker in Berkeley said: “That picture of Carly on the cover of `No Secrets!’ — when I was in junior high and saw that, my friends and I thought we all wanted to look like her!” They’ve all looked behind, from where we came. Come on — you do, too! Go back through the rich and royal-hued tapestry of your life and, in comments to this blog, share your stories of how important these women, and their songs, were to you. After all: This blog, like this song, is about you! Cheers, Sheila 

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In Bookstores April 8th!

March 17, 2008

Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation

Girls Like Us jacket cover