The Reader’s Quest for Authenticity

by Samn Stockwell

Whether it’s about an appropriation of experience or an outright fabrication, the demand for authenticity frightens me. It’s the rightful concern of editors, and an ethical expectation of authors, but poems and memoirs appear and are embraced by readers because they are the authentic story of someone who has suffered greatly. Then the story turns out not to be true—it was written by an imposter—and the audience cries I wuz robbed and the work is discarded.

Writing is shaped by the intentions of the writer, regardless of the genre, and therefore, no matter how raw or immediate a work may appear, it’s a creation shaped by the tools of art.

It is not that authors should lie. It is reasonable to expect that writers represent themselves honestly. It is the idea of authenticity that troubles, as though the provenance of a work certified its value. I realize true is a far more difficult concept, but if the real story of Elmer Magoo was riveting and insightful before it was revealed to be fiction, isn’t it still riveting and insightful?

It is not that authors should trade on the status of being in a minority, for example, if they are not. Our origins determine the shape of our lives, with its attendant sufferings and grace. I am sure there is someone out there impersonating a lesbian to gain access to the tiny audience for lesbian poetry. However, if we as minorities claim sole ownership of experience, does that mean the experience is exclusive and beyond imagination? How authentic must oppression and suffering be to qualify? Oppression, violence, and exclusion are not rare experiences and not limited by class or race.

A friend from the Midwest told me about how successful selling dream-catchers was for a Indian tribe. They were so successful they kept selling out and had to farm out the work to some white women living nearby, white women with a serious meth problem. From the standpoint of authenticity, the safe assumption of the consumer was that, by buying directly on the reservation, they were buying an authentic product, certainly more so than a dream-catcher made in China and sold at a dollar store, although surely someone working in a factory in China might be imbued with the need to catch dreams and reveal them in twists of plastic beads?

In this case, authenticity is the idea that a defined group of people, by virtue of history and genetics, can create a talisman out of those entanglements of lineage that will transmit to the recipient some especially good aspect of that identity. It’s a borrowing of what seems like a richer, more powerful culture—the same impetus that makes us admiring tourists of other religions and lifestyles. It’s also profoundly sentimental.

Much to my disgust, in Vermont, photograph books appear of the ‘natives,’ which means elderly farmers. The photographs are carefully composed in front of old tractors and crumbling barns with not a cell phone in sight. And what casual skier from New York or Connecticut would not find that more ‘real’ than their own lives, and by this mean utterly foreign, a distance that could not be crossed?

A reader or a shopper wants an authentic property, even if the sense properties of the object are indistinguishable from the sense properties of similar products, whether it’s dream catchers or poetry from the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima. The desperate search for something true and enduring, one of the sweeter aspects of human nature, is diverted into shopping for pedigrees of experience.

The authentic work is also a presumption that the other has an identity formed in secret from the world that surrounds us, despite the works’ participation in contemporary discourse. Rousseau raises his head and finds this ideal in the description of subversive voices—a genuine voice subverting the dominant paradigm, a voice of someone poor, black, disenfranchised, queer, as close to the wilderness as possible. With all that subversion, surely the dominant paradigm should be completely reversed by now. How much subversion is needed to subvert?

(And that is an interesting hope, that someone is going to say something that will reveal/dismantle some existing stereotypes or sentimental constructions. Or perhaps it has been done already in a book languishing in the remainder bin. The truth will out, but it is likely to be slow and fitful.)

Because of this idea of authenticity, the voices a poet houses can be evaluated for their authenticity: a way of saying you can know this, but not that—the voice of your native speech, the voice of your ancestral lullabies and war songs: mined for in distant regions, weighed, and elevated. Authenticity is a search for dislocation by the reader, a work wrenching the present to another perspective because it offers an opposing face. Identity cannot be the marker of that kind of authenticity.

Voice is malleable, democratic, and expansionist. Identity does not come in discrete, bound units. Although personality tends to be largely stable over time, it does not have a single, fixed perspective. Identity shifts, mixes, absorbs and repackages. However much the fiction of an identity may warm us (my race/gender/religion never does That!), it does not develop in isolation. It is a mirage to search for a conversation comprised of one voice reared in isolation. Voice is the result of conversation.

And if some voices are authentic, and others are not, then some lives are more ‘real’ than others. I hear this said: he really knows, he’s real, she is so much more real than I am. I mean I hear this from people who teach English and it saddens me. The time when I was sleeping in a car was not more real than the times I was reading Middlemarch. Poverty is not more elemental than art, violence is not a more human act than caring.

Much of what motivates the search for the ‘authentic’ work is the search for authentic suffering. The abused child, child soldier, raped woman, the exiled, the enslaved, the oppressed of any flavor…the hunger for these narratives seems blinding and voyeuristic. And they happen ‘out there,’ so they need not disturb our lives. They may induce guilt, but guilt only changes behavior when the source of the guilt is close enough to touch. At the worst, they encourage the cheapest of emotions: outrage and pity.

Readers must value their own suffering and use it to understand themselves and others. It is not less real because it is less horrific. Life is lived in its dailyness and the constituents of that bear examining.

A deeper problem I have with some of the authentic poetry and prose is how cloying and easy it feels. Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle is thinly constructed—if you don’t believe she has nearly perfect recall of her 3rd year as recounted in the opening chapter, the memoir falls apart. The ideal of authenticity ends any discussion of value—the authentic work, no matter how simplistic or reductive, is valued because of its pedigree, a reversal of the old hierarchy, when the right pedigree was male, white, and preferably landed. It is the same mistake. Experience cannot sound one note and be true, however real it may be.

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Face shot 8 20Samn Stockwell has been widely published, and her two books of poetry, Theater of Animals and Recital, won the National Poetry Series and the Editor’s Prize at Elixir, respectively. She has an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College, and has taught poetry and English at the New England Young Writer’s Conference and Community College of Vermont. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.


One thought on “The Reader’s Quest for Authenticity

  1. I greatly enjoyed your insightful and thought-provoking essay. I find it incredibly disheartening (if not insulting) when someone says he or she likes a story I’ve written, immediately followed by, Is it based on a true story?


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