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David Maraniss on Barack Obama
June 29, 2012 9:58 AM   Subscribe

A perceptive audio interview with biographer David Maraniss on the life of Barack Obama, including detailed research on his friends and relatives. Pulitzer-prize winning biographer and associate editor of the Washington Post David Maraniss ...collected so much detailed information about the life of Barack Obama and his forbears that when he submitted his introduction and chapter titles to the White House to request an interview, the President himself was intrigued and surprised.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium (19 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just listened, really good interview. What struck me is how much of Obama's own book turns out to be less than truthful, is this normal in autobiographies? Am I naive? I was surprised how much of what Obama talked about turns out, according to Maraniss, to not have happened.
posted by Cosine at 10:06 AM on June 29, 2012


oh also, the bit where Maraniss takes apart the ridiculous "birther" crap was great.
posted by Cosine at 10:08 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never expected autobiographies to be that accurate. To me, they are the stories of how someone sees themselves, and it's largely based on memory, not research. Frank Lloyd Wright's autobiography was notoriously inaccurate, but it still tells a story of the man and how he views the world.

Biographies are based on research; autobiographies on memory.
posted by petrilli at 10:14 AM on June 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


The podcast says that Obama made no secret that he reported the stories of his family as they had been told to him, compressed the timelines and the people (composites) to advance the themes in his book, and that the fact is mentioned in the introduction. I wouldn't call that "less than truthful."
posted by Houstonian at 10:15 AM on June 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I wouldn't call that "less than truthful."

Yeah, that wasn't quite what I was going for, poor word choice, my bad (vocabulary).
posted by Cosine at 10:21 AM on June 29, 2012


the President himself was intrigued and surprised.

SEE HE DOESN'T EVEN KNOW FOR SURE HIMSELF IF HE'S FROM TASMANIA!

In all seriousness, there is tons of lore in my family that doesn't stand up to serious geneological research, much less competing interviews. Not Big Fish style tall tales, but certainly timelines and anecdotes that are reversed or spurious. I, too, would be intrigued and surprised by detailed family research. In fact, I recently was surprised by somebody writing a book about my family.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:27 AM on June 29, 2012


The podcast says that Obama made no secret that he reported the stories of his family as they had been told to him, compressed the timelines and the people (composites) to advance the themes in his book, and that the fact is mentioned in the introduction. I wouldn't call that "less than truthful."

Yeah this is common for memoirs because a memoir is pretty much always an attempt to address some ideas or themes or larger narratives, rather than a piece of journalism or reportage like a biography.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:32 AM on June 29, 2012


I believe that Obama explicitly said in the preface to his book(s?) that some figures were composites. Obviously, that won't stop Obama's enemies from running with it.
posted by goethean at 10:45 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


t some figures were composites.

ZOMG!
Obama communes with Imaginary People!
posted by Mezentian at 10:56 AM on June 29, 2012


What struck me is how much of Obama's own book turns out to be less than truthful, is this normal in autobiographies?

I sure hope it would be in mine ...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:42 AM on June 29, 2012


My autobiography will have some composite characters, and compress some of the timelines, and overstate my successes, and involve me in a torrid romance with some hot movie star I haven't actually met. But, hey, all of that is only to advance the theme of me being pretty darn great. And because I am announcing it, nobody can come back and accuse me of anything. As Ken Kesey wrote, "It is the truth even if it didn't happen."
posted by Longtime Listener at 1:57 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's interesting how often reductio ad absurdum makes the user appear incapable of differentiating between any two things.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:59 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Was I too oblique for you, Shakespeherian? I'll spell it out: When you fictionalize parts of your life to make a point, you have left the realm of autobiography. It still might be a good read. It still might have a worthy message. But let's not call it something it is not. The fact that a lot of people make stuff up when they write about themselves doesn't make it OK. (Calling it a memoir doesn't get the writer off the hook either.)

I'm not talking about an author's fuzzy memory here, or family folklore, or poor research, or sins of omission. I'm talking about putting down in writing something that the writer acknowledges is not so, with the excuse that depictions of real people and real timelines get in the way of the narrative. I don't accept that excuse.

Frank Capra wrote one of my favorite autobiographies. Joseph McBride wrote a book showing how Capra made a lot of it up out of thin air, and did so intentionally. I keep the books next to each other on my shelves. I still like both books. But I consider Capra's to be a work of fiction loosely based on his experiences. Unfortunately, a lot of film historians have used Capra's book as primary source material.

I suppose it gets down to where one wants to draw the line. If reality is inconvenient, then write it as close as you care to, and call it a roman à clef. Don't present it as something you know it's not. I don't think that's too much to ask of any writer.
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:53 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


So what's the standard? Should a memoirist only include dialogue if he or she can remember verbatim everything that was said?
posted by shakespeherian at 3:12 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Longtime Listener: Obama's book isn't and has never been classified as autobiography, though. It's always been promoted as a memoir to my knowledge.

And even Wikipedia gets that detail right: "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is a memoir by United States President Barack Obama. It was first published in July 1995 as he was preparing to launch his political career, five years after being elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990."

Well, that is, until some conservative edits that to read autobiography in order to call the president out on his lack of integrity for not having called his book what it really was: a dishonest autobiography deceptively marketed as a memoir to further confound his enemies.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:49 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Memoir is a literary genre literally defined by its mix of personal, emotionally/poetically but not necessarily literally honest personal fable and truth, just as it was in Mark Twain's day and has ever been. So what's your confusion here?
posted by saulgoodman at 3:51 PM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Memoirs may be looser in organization than formal autobiographies. They may cover only a portion of the person's life. They might be done entirely from memory rather than checked against research. I've never seen a definition that says memoirs can include fictionalized events and characters. Memoir is a subset of autobiography, not of fiction. This is why I said calling something a memoir doesn't get the writer off the hook. Even Mark Twain, if you are reading for history instead of entertainment.

But I seem to be in a minority here. If nobody else cares whether the stuff is made up, I guess I shouldn't either. True, made up, whatever. I'll go back to my easy chair and finish reading the Tom Sawyer memoir I started before I got caught up in this thread.
posted by Longtime Listener at 4:26 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Compressing timelines and compositing characters isn't making stuff up, it's streamlining for clarity. We're not talking about Obama inserting a chapter where he wrestles a bear or something.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:59 PM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


You obviously havnt read the secret lost draft.

Dreams of My Father Chapter 6: California to Columbia

I made my way from California to Columbia with my Pakistani dope dealer. We had mega weed and a van full of white chicks. I had this idea to have them each wear different colors of lipstick because they all look the same. They'd take turns doing crack and giving me blowjobs and my dick looked like a rainbow. We just started calling them the rainbow girls.
We stopped off in Yellowstone and I got out to take a picture of a Grizley bear. He charged me. First I tried to win him over with my unbelievable singing voice. When that didn't work I gave him my grin Grizley Adams style. One day as President I will use the same mad style to convince republicans of the merits of socialism.
Anyway the bear seemed swayed by my winning personality. We brought it into the van and let it stay with us until just outside Chicago when the bear ate one of the girls. we asked him to leave after that. He agreed but only if he could eat another girl. We compromised and let him take two. Later on we stopped at Jessie Jackson's house to chill out. Bill Ayers was there and he told me that I'd need to forge my birthplace because otherwise I wouldn't be able to be elected President as Saul Alinsky prophesized. The remaining rainbow girls decided to stay with Jackson and inspired him to launch a new coalition to advocate for communism and racial justice.
posted by humanfont at 7:04 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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