An [Imagined] Oral History of Oral Histories

Annie Coreno -- September 3rd, 2013

To mark today’s publication of the much-anticipated Salinger biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno and the release of the accompanying documentary later this week, I decided it was time to further explore the book’s format and the “oral history” book fad.

As those who have taken on the topic before know, it begs to stay true to form. So here is how I imagine a written oral history of oral history books might sound–errr–read.

PW EDITOR: It was the summer of 2011 that I really started to see this trend emerge. At first we were all a little confused by it. An oral history in written format? Is that even possible—it sounds like an oxymoron. But as it turns out, it can be done and actually has been around for a while—more so in magazines and eventually the blogosphere. But it wasn’t until 2011 that it really started to pick up in the book publishing world. First came the the ESPN book, then I Want My MTV the following year.

REVIEWER: It seemed to be especially popular for music and television related books. Please Kill Me and Live From New York being the books that really lead the way for the ESPN, MTV and Nickelodeon histories. They often take on a gossipy, behind-the-scenes feel.

READER: I’ve read several of them. Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests is definitely one of my favorites. They are always entertaining though sometimes a bit long. Usually pretty easy to get through—because you’ve got all those different voices in there.

HISTORIAN: Good history books usually incorporate multiple first-person account—and in a more authoritative fashion. These so called oral histories aren’t exactly books in my opinion! They are more like a bunch of transcripts copied and pasted together, no coherent voice, not enough analysis. If you want to read a history book, read one of Robert Caro’s book–now there’s a man who can write history.

CULTURAL CRITIC: I personally love the format. It feels very fitting for the times. The internet provides an avenue for anyone and everyone to have a voice.

POST-STRUCTURALIST: It’s easy to forget that the interviews are taken out of context and woven together. Every response is directed by an answer that is not always made obvious in the narrative. Remember there is no truth. Everything is a social construct…

HISTORIAN: Sighs Here we go again…

REVIEWER: They definitely tend to cater toward trade publication, less academically focused. The author is not defining history as much sewing together a narrative. It’s up to reader to assess story along with the credibility of its sources.

READER: I plan on reading the biography and seeing the documentary and then comparing the two!

Of course, this is all heavily based in my imagination, but who knows with the publication of Salinger and Slimed! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age among others in the upcoming weeks, there may be some REAL voices to form this narrative.

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