There’s a famous behind-the-scenes story for Seinfeld. Jason Alexander read the script for the season two episode “The Revenge”, and in exasperation went to creator Larry David and complained that both the situation and George’s response were unrealistic. This would never happen and even if it did, no human being would react this way. To which Larry David responded “What are you talking about? This happened to me, and this is how I reacted.” “The Revenge” is based on David’s experience writing for Saturday Night Live, in which he loudly and angrily quit his job only to attempt to return the following week as if nothing happened, hoping against hope that nobody would take him seriously. Alexander found this a profound insight into George (and David) and shifted from doing a Woody Allen impression to a Larry David impression before gradually molding George into his own creature.
(It occurs to me that, for a guy who is open about his insecurities and neuroticism, I’ve never heard any horror stories about working with him from Seinfeld onward.)
There’s a bunch of similar stories around the webcomic Dumbing Of Age. One of the major criticisms that the comic kept getting in its first few years was that Joyce – the closest thing the soap-opera-like story has to a main character – was a cartoonish and unrealistic presentation of fundamentalist Christians. Nobody could be this childish or naive, so obviously Willis is just an atheist bashing Christians out of spite or a desire to look cool in front of other atheists. You can probably guess where this is going – Willis was raised fundamentalist Christian, and all the things Joyce feels and believes are things he actually felt and believed at the same age. If anything, the raw honesty and willingness to not only revisit what I assume are painful memories but put them on display is what makes it hard reading; Joyce’s development is slow and incredibly painful, never taking easy answers.
There’s a couple of things that are interesting about this. The first is that stories like this are why I’m wary of ‘realism’ as a critique – there are more things in heaven and earth and all that, and human behaviour in particular resolutely refuses to fit any kind of predictable pattern (this essay, after all, is written by an Australian man completely indifferent to sport). Hell, I think ‘realism’ is beside the point entirely – stories are inherently subjective and inherently going to flatter the point of view of the person telling them, and I still think there’s interest when the storyteller is flagrantly putting their thumb on the scale. This is the narrative people tell themselves, and they want to believe it so hard they’ll warp reality to get it. I’ve met plenty of people who, to my knowledge, have never seen an episode of Stargate but fully embody its attitudes and expectations of how the world works.
The second is that it raises the question of what purpose confessional stories have. To contradict myself entirely, I do have a kneejerk suspicion of people who use storytelling as personal therapy; the impulse to ‘fix’ reality and write not just what one wishes one had said but to force the results one wants at the expense of plausibility must be powerful, and yet the results of a well-done confessional work are right there in front of me. I suspect Willis used Joyce as a way of offering himself up as an anthropological study for others to understand who he was and where he was coming from; the theory being that people tend to be more sympathetic to fictional characters than real people. Meanwhile, David was clearly just trying to write something funny and chose a convenient funny event he happened to have intimate access to. Are these the things that draw audiences to confessional stories? I know I’m generally gawking at George like he’s an animal at the zoo. On the other hand, I look over to music – like that of Johnny Cash – and I see audiences drawn to his confessional songs because they identify with them and with the gravity he brings to his feelings.
What is the line between honesty and self-indulgence? How much of yourself should you put into your work? How much of yourself are you obligated to put into your work? Actually, I think about what the people of 2023 are telling me – one way of looking at the current culture war (which has been raging at least since I’ve been posting here) is that one group of people is demanding authentic representation of their experiences and feelings, and in this case the author has to be an extension of those feelings and experiences. In a way, it’s a reversal of the common expectation of Confessional Art – it’s not that art must express the author’s feelings, it’s that it must express the audience’s feelings. Given that I’m clearly talking about queer/POC/female audiences vs bigots actively suppressing expression of said groups here, I feel I should clarify that I’m not drawing any kind of moral equivalent – just observing that this is one expression of a more universal pattern.
Maybe that’s what confessional stories are for – a shared feeling. We share in Larry David’s contempt for himself; we share in David Willis’s hope for themself.