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October 1, 2013

6 Rationalizations for the Horrible Things I Do to the People that I Put in My Books





I am become Jason, destroyer of innocent people's dignity.

I read this article on Salon when it was published in August and it has haunted me since. Don’t you go read it just yet—that would mean you would come back to this piece afterward, reducing me to sloppy seconds. Permit me to summarize:

This lady had really, really wanted to publish a book for the longest time, see. And unlike me, she had standards: she insisted that this publishing take place by conventional means, through an agent and a legitimate publisher. So she whipped up a memoir about her crappy marriage and finally found herself a publisher. Then she got cold feet for a number of reasons, one of which was an unwillingness to embarrass her ex, turd though he allegedly was and is, given his non-cooperation in the project. She fake-named the husband, of course, and changed a few descriptive details. But still. Her conscience balked; she opted not to publish.

As I said, this has haunted me, and not just because it’s another reminder of how utterly soaked the world is in unread memoirs by hobby-writers about problematic relationships.

You see, my first two books were memoirs which I peopled with fake-named versions of dozens of acquaintances. I deigned to contact and get the permission of only a few of my victims, and those were the easy ones: friends well aware of what I’m up to anyway, or people who appear only fleetingly in the background of my stories—in other words, no one significant enough to merit a description of her breasts. Even my sole non-memoir book is dotted with anecdotes that rope in still more unwitting characters, including a high school classmate whose most searing and humiliating memory is played for laughs. If the dignity and privacy of my old friends could be incarnated as a group of Camp Crystal Lake counselors, I would be their Jason Vorhees.

And like Jason, I will rise again for another even gorier sequel one of these days when I finally put forth my next memoir, a follow-up to How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul. * In the new bloodbath, I commit even more unauthorized quoting from my email exchanges with friendly Japanese females than I did last time out. Time and again, I will take a vibrant, fully-formed, sophisticated contributor to society, and reduce her to, at best, a two-dimensional stick-figure revealed to the world mainly through salacious excerpts from her email, a few zany episodes from her college days, and, of course, a description of her tits.

Of course, the right thing to do would be to delete the entire vile document here and now, as the Salon lady seems to have done with hers, and start over on something more wholesome. Instead, I think I’ll try to rationalize the choice to publish. And no time like the present, eh?

Below are my best stabs at it, followed by how I would react if the tables were turned and I were being two-dimensionalized in the memoir of a Japanese chick or a high school classmate, along with a score on a zero-to-five scale with five representing a fully effective rationalization.


Rationalization 1: The Fake-Name Buffer
Unlike Salon Lady, I fake-name not only my “characters” but my whole universe—even unto myself. By God, I fake-name the shit out of that place! Why, you would need the sleuthing skills of James O’Keefe himself to unravel this enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by what-have-you. So you see, all my exploited old friends are as safe in my book as they would be with a Mormon gigolo.

How I would react if someone pulled this shit on me
That’s it? That’s all the protection I get? Let’s cut to the chase here: It’s not mass media exposure that worries one. Who cares if Barbara Walters unmasks me as, say, “Professor Higgins” in an opus titled My Cleavage-Obsessed English Teacher by Natsumi X? By now her brain is too fried to know where Japan is. I’m much more concerned about mutual acquaintances of Natsumi and me here in Japan, still-youthful women with robust life expectancies. Will they be able to unmask me?

Presumably, many of the other characters in this hypothetical memoir are such mutual acquaintances, so if just one of them learns about the book and starts tweeting away, the whole façade collapses faster than Pawlenty for President. Before long, you're reading “Check out p.177 for hilarious descrip of ‘Higgins’ character!” #Josh Muggins #lecherous jackass

Effectiveness score: 1


Rationalization 2: The Goodwill Buffer
I always try to show people in a good light. I “exaggerate them up.”

How I would react if someone pulled this shit on me
“Exaggerate people up” is a Sedaris phrase, so enough said there. #Allegedly narcissistic, homophobic midget guitar teacher who by all other accounts was a really nice guy**

Effectiveness score: 0.5. This rationalization sucks, but I give it half a point because at least I’m safe from being written about by the abominable Augusten Burroughs, whose sole purpose on earth seems to be to make Sedaris seem relatively virtuous.


Rationalization 3: The Time-lapse Buffer
Most of my yarns describe events that took place at least a decade prior to publication and some of them (like the historically awful high school drama performance of my classmate, hinted at above) several decades ago. Tragedy plus time equals comedy, right?

How I would react if someone pulled this shit on me
This one does gain a bit of traction. Look, I’m the guy who, in Summer of Marv, described 1975 me as “a self-absorbed, vagina-phobic dweeb,” and I stand by it. If somebody else wants to kick around the 1975 Muggins, not only can I not object to it, but I can highly recommend it as a fun afternoon for all the kids.

Ten years is a good rule, I guess. Any version of me up to ten years ago is fair game. It wasn’t until about 3.5 years ago that I evolved into the infallible human being that I am today, fully capable of passing judgment on the likes of Sedaris and Burroughs, and a saint about whom anything negative published must by definition be libel.

Score: 3


Rationalization 4: The Bullshit Buffer
It’s all bullshit, anyway. I publish all my books as “fiction” owing to the simple fact that I have no documentary proof of events beyond my spotty journal and my long-standing habit of hoarding emails. The precise circumstances of any anecdote—exactly what someone said, what they were wearing at the time, etc.—are all just the filling in of massive blanks.

Good heavens, I’ve devoted an entire page on this site to a tabulation of the lies that manure my first book—and could easily have come up with similar pages for the other books had I not grown old and soft and somewhat dotty.

How I would react if someone pulled this shit on me
That’s a bit disingenuous. There’s a difference between a writer pulling stories out of his butt (cf. Sedaris, Burroughs) and one doing his sweaty-browed best to recreate the past honestly from memory while falling short of the standard for nonfiction.

As protection from lawsuits, this rationalization is a home run. But if litigation were the only concern, my defense would be “I’m poor,” and there an end. But conscience-wise? No, I wouldn’t stand for anyone pulling this shit on me.

Score: 1


Rationalization 5: The Language Buffer
I mostly write about Japanese people in English. So, you see, they just won’t know about it, unless you tell them. And then it’s all on your conscience, not mine.***

How I would react if someone pulled this shit on me
This actually works well, as far as it relates to, say, a former student sticking me in a memoir written in Japanese. It would be like someone trashing me on Twitter: I’d never be any the wiser. No harm, no foul, as the young folks say.

If, however, it were a former English-teaching colleague, using our shared language and addressing our countrymen…well, that is another kettle of fish, as folks my age say. And colleagues are a real concern, memoir-writing-wise. Allow me an aside:

Many years ago, when I suffered delusions of becoming a legitimately published writer, I purchased a listing of American literary agents. Each entry included the agent’s contact information and his or her preferred genres. A typical entry might read:

Looking for: General fiction, gay/lesbian, historical fiction, horror, romance, women’s fiction, biography
Other: No religious works or memoirs, please.


And then there was this odd proviso, which came up not once, but twice:

No accounts of conflicts with faculty colleagues, please.

Who’d have thought that that constituted a genre? And yet, there it was. Somewhere, a bookshelf groans under the weight of tomes composed by disgruntled faculty members—and by once-gruntled faculty members who read those accounts, recognized themselves in them, and then felt compelled to fire off their own books in response.

Anyway, I’ve mostly foregone the temptation to write about colleagues…although in HTPUJCADYIS, I did describe a former supervisor as “dwarfish and stealthy” and explained—twice—a fantasy that involved paralyzing him and shitting into his mouth. And then there is the upcoming book, with brief sketches of several colleagues and their respective foibles and paranoias…

Come to think of it, this rationalization “sucks ass,” as maybe no one says anymore.

Score: 0


Rationalization 6: The Nobody-Likes-Me Buffer
Check out the current rankings of all my books on Amazon. I’ll wait…

So you see, anybody complaining about my characterization of her in a book, no matter the format or quietude of the complaint—even if she were just whispering it to her cats—would to some subtle degree be raising the profile of a work that was otherwise sailing happily toward what the great Ayatollah Khomeini called “the Dustbin of History.” It would thus be her own fault if an embarrassing description of her behavior became known to her friends. Yes, you heard me: It would be the victim’s fault. Death to the victims! Burn them!

How I would react if someone pulled this shit on me
Heck, this one works for me! If someone bothers to write a memoir about me and then fails to sell as spectacularly as I have failed, then trash away! Lay on, Macduff, and damned be he, etc., etc!

Unpopularity rules! Rationalization achieved!

I think we’re done here.

Score: 5





* Maybe in 2014 if I can fend off the rabies.




** I don’t tweet so I’m almost certainly butchering the whole “hashtag” protocol. Sorry.




*** I was contacted by a Japanese agent once who repped a publisher interested in bringing out a Japanese version of HTPUJCADYIS, and, darn it, I turned her down. Never got into figures with her, still sort of wonder how much they might have paid…but I just couldn’t do that to the people I wrote about. You see, I do have some principles—that, along with an assload of wussitude.

But as for you—you, who would disturb innocent, happy folk with tales of my memoirs—my God, what kind of monster are you?