Monday, January 16, 2006

A Million Little Serpents and Rainbows

I hadn't intended to add to the buzz about James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (Oprah's Book Club). It looks like another mediocre (or worse) book getting too much attention. Truth or fiction, it'll decompose in the landfills by and by. Rebecca Blood's blog pointed me to The Smoking Gun's exhaustive demonstration that it is indeed fiction (or at least not true).

However, over at Via Negativa, Dave quotes a couple of bloggers who explain why it matters. To recovering addicts, Frey's dismissal of essential stages of recovery is an affront, and to writers of fiction, his sneaking fiction into the autobiography category is dishonest.

I'm still mad at Wade Davis for his voodoo fantasy, The Serpent and the Rainbow. I don't mind that he made lots of cash on the book and the movie rights. What galls me is that he got a PhD in ethnobotany from Harvard for a work of fiction. (Check out Robert Lawless's article for other reasons to be offended.) I had to present actual, factual data, and people checked up on me. Of course, I didn't go to Harvard.... And then there was Carlos Castenada. Whatever you think of his shaman's philosophy and insights, it seems like your informants ought to be real people if you're going to be awarded a PhD in anthropology. It all depends on how close to home the liar hits.


Dave said...

Thanks for the link. I'm sorry to hear that Davis' discovery is partly (mostly?) B.S., because i have enjoyed his books - especially One River, the one about Richard Evans Schultes and Tim Plowman. He's a very gifted storyteller.

The larger point I think is this: why do we persist in granting such fetishistic power to an Ivy League degree? Depending on the program, a state university degree can be as good or better. Also, I think it's unhealthy for a field of inquiry to be so dominated by a single authority - look at what's happened to linguistics under Chomsky's reign. Much as I respect Schultes, it seems to me that his overwhelming influence in the field of ethnobotany for so many decades must have served in part to elevate some of his prejudices to the level of unquestionable doctrine: for example, the notion that the New World tropics are the only areas realy worth the ethnobotanist's time.

Rebecca Clayton said...

I spent some time around Schultes (in the early 80's) when I was in grad school at the University of Connecticut--he was visiting the UConn ethnobotanist. He was more interested in his celebrity than in his science. Davis is the next logical step in the series--all hype, no science. Harvard has had quite a crop of celebrity biologists, to its eventual detriment. Ed Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Jay Lewontin.
The battle of the giant egos has severely damaged the Harvard organismal biology department. The "lesser" schools do better work.