Reviewed by Linda Steiner (Rutgers University)
Published on Jhistory (February, 2003)
Oriana Fallaci is famous as a journalist for her interviews with Indira Gandhi, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Haile Selassie, Lech Walesa, the Shah of Iran, and scores of other political giants, as well as a fair number of popular-culture and Hollywood celebrities. Some of them talked to her after avoiding talking to more conventional journalists. Some of them came to regret talking to Fallaci. Henry Kissinger admitted in his memoir that he had talked to her out of vanity, wanting to be included in her journalistic pantheon; if he had read her work beforehand and understood her penchant for eviscerating her victims, he suggested, he never would have granted the interview. Fallaci minced words neither during interviews nor in her writing, which put Fallaci herself--her body, her views, her feelings--at the center of every story.
The book jacket for what is described as a "definitive biography" of Fallaci claims, "Internationally acclaimed as a journalist, war correspondent, interviewer, and novelist, Oriana Fallaci has achieved almost mythic proportions in the eyes of the public."
This goes too far. Fallaci, who lives and works in New York, despite surgery for breast cancer more than ten years ago, is still a personality of some interest, given her aggressive writing and belligerent personal style. As recently as February 2, 2003, The New York Times Magazine ran a page-long interview with Fallaci, thus giving her an opportunity to say that she is too busy to interview Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. Fallaci attributes her cancer to sudden inhaling of a huge amount of soot in Kuwait in 1991, when Suddam Hussein ordered incineration of 635 oil rigs. But the cancer, which she personalizes as "The Alien," has not stopped her from working on her current novel. Nonetheless, her efforts at mythic self-promotion and her biographer^Òs claims to the contrary, Fallaci is at this point a minor figure, at least in her adoptive country. Her most recent book, a denunciation of Islamic fundamentalism, sold a million copies in her native Italy, and 500,000 in the rest of Europe. Indeed, a French group sought to have The Rage and the Pride banned; and apparently as a result of the controversy, Fallaci^Òs homes in Tuscany and Florence, where Fallaci was born in 1929, require armed guards. Yet, in the United States, which she accuses of remaining dangerously blind to the threat of Islam, her diatribe has sold 40,000 copies.
More to the point, Fallaci does not seem to have made an impact on literary journalism or literary journalists. Her biographer positions Fallaci--with her borrowing from and application of literary approaches, her rejection of objectivity, and, again, her enthusiasm for inserting herself into her reportage--in the tradition of literary journalism. Indeed, Arico^Òs critique is limited to a one-note song: how Fallaci calls attention to herself, always putting herself at the center of her narrative. In the case of her coverage of the 1968 student uprisings in Mexico City, even the titles of her articles dramatize the egoism: "Oriana Fallaci Relates: The Night of Bloodshed in Which I was Wounded" and "Here is the Article That I had Lost." Accompanying photographs show Fallaci. But it is worth saying that Fallaci did have a real scare there. Getting caught up in a rally to oppose the Mexican government^Òs decision to spend enormous amount of money on the Olympics, Fallaci was shot at by police (not that they recognized her), with bullet fragments entering her shoulder, back, and knee. Nonetheless, her obsession with self-dramatizing not only may have failed to imbue her with "mythic proportions," but also arguably is not at the heart of New Journalism.
For me, the biography^Òs most interesting section is the introduction, in which Arico, a professor of French and Italian at the University of Mississippi, explains the "intimate, emotional, and highly strained relationship" that led to this book. Soon after Arico discovered Fallaci^Òs work, he says, "explicating her books became a personal compulsion and led me to discover an intimate connection between them and her journalism." This "insight," he adds, already on the first page of this book, led to an essay on her journalistic novels, which he then included in his edited volume, Contemporary Women Writers in Italy. Arico says: "The writer^Òs magic had cast its spell and changed the rhythm of life of one individual living in America^Òs Deep South. When she sent me a copy of Insciallah--no power on earth could have prevented my picking up a pen to ask whether she would assist me in researching her life."
Fallaci agreed--but her way of assisting was to control the content and writing, apparently in order to promote a particular "authorized" portrait of an intellectual and novelist. She insisted that the biography include nothing about her personal life or family. And Arico agreed to respect her wishes, or at least not to use stories that she intended to put into her own next book. But, according to Arico, Fallaci was not only unreasonable but also inconsistent in her demands. She rejected several drafts that Arico wrote according to her specific, but mutually contradictory demands. Finally, he balked. Arico showed her no additional drafts, and the book was published in 1998. Arico says, "I have evolved from a devotee, who would have gone to China and back to satisfy her slightest whim, to a disenchanted researcher, determined to speak truthfully and to tell my version of her professional life as I have discovered it--not as she wants me to tell it."
As committed as Arico is to showing how Fallaci built her own myth--he notes that she did the hard labor herself, not some agent or Hollywood producer--he does not explain why he considered acceding to her requests. Moreover, disenchanted as Arico describes himself, he wrote with a passionately purple pen. Here is another example: "In the case of Fallaci, she uses literary journalism as her communicative mode and projects herself into her own content. Her ritualistic performances allow readers to discover her, to watch her, and to experience pleasure as she takes delight in self-revelation." The chapter about her youth asserts, "An entire childhood laid the foundation for an exceptional career." Her parents are also "exceptional," apparently because they "never allowed anything less than near perfection in her scholarship and aroused in her holy awe before the accomplishments of authors."
Fallaci^Òs memorable experiences began already in her early teens. Her father was a craftsman active first in the antifascist movement and then, during World War II, in the Resistance movement in Tuscany. Fallaci was able to help her father escort American and British soldiers to safety. As a student at the University of Florence, she intended to study medicine. But she did not enjoy the rote memorization required in her medical classes. After her father was severely injured in a car accident and could not work, she left school to work full-time for a newspaper. She lied about her age and, on the basis of a trial assignment about a nightclub, was hired as a police and hospital reporter. Arico waxes rhapsodic about her first forays in literary journalism--writing short stories rather than conventional news reports. After six years, she told Arico, she was fired after refusing her editor's demands to make fun of a Communist Party rally. She worked briefly for a magazine then edited by her uncle Bruno Fallaci, and then joined the staff of Europeo, which, to her deep pleasure, sent her to Hollywood. The resulting series of articles--from interviews with Arthur Miller and Orson Welles to critiques of the entertainment industry, all featuring Fallaci in a starring role--later appeared as a book, The Seven Sins of Hollywood. A whirlwind trip around the world for Europeo in 1959 resulted in a second book, translated as The Useless Sex. Years later, when Fallaci was cultivating her reputation as a novelist, she acknowledged the superficiality of these collections and even denounced journalists who published such anthologies, but over the years, several more collections have appeared, including a set of articles about the U.S. space program. She freely expresses her own judgments about the people, and her biases. Arico notes that her sympathy for the Vietcong often surfaced in the articles and book she wrote about the Vietnam War.
Generally her profiles explain how she obtained the interviews and how they went. Often there were fireworks. She called H. Rap Brown a racist, and Federico Fellini called her a "rude little bitch." She openly insulted the Ayatollah Khomeini during her interview, tearing off the chador she had worn to be respectful, and throwing it at him. Apparently some of the powerful people she confronted admired her pugnacious prosecutorial stance; for example, her profile of General Ariel Sharon quotes him saying he enjoyed talking to this courageous, faithful, and highly prepared journalist, despite knowing that she was trying to add another scalp to her collection.
One of her fiercest critics, Robert Scheer, has accused Fallaci of character assassination and cheap shots. Scheer points to her profile of Yassir Arafat, whose appearance and apparent sexual orientation she mocked. As it turns out, Scheer has proven to be Fallaci^Òs only effective nemesis, reporting in his own 1981 Playboy interview with Fallaci how she regretted spouting off about her dislike of homosexuals, and how she begged Scheer--to no effect--to erase or ignore that part of the interview. Ironically, Fallaci denies that she fabricates quotations, merely conceding that she cuts and splices in the service of personal and narrative honesty.
Fallaci^Òs first novel, Penelope at War, published in 1962, featured a career-minded young journalist who refuses her boyfriend's pleas to stay home and have a family. In going off to New York, in other words, the heroine acted more like Ulysses than Penelope. That said, Arico notes that the never-married Fallaci resists being tagged "a woman writer" and vehemently distances herself from feminism, perhaps because of the disinterest of Ms. magazine in her novel A Man (1979). After publication of Interview with History, which includes some of the profiles of the major political figures, Fallaci turned to writing novels, including Letter to a Child Never Born (1975). Inshallah (the Arabic word Insciallah means "as God wills") appeared in 1990. Arico devotes a chapter to each of these novels.
Even if she had not turned away from journalism, Oriana Fallaci^Òs significance for journalism history and journalism studies or journalism theorizing is unclear. Still this may be an interesting book for journalism students sympathetic to flamboyant writers who produce both novels and reportage, and willing to tolerate a biography heavily freighted with psychological speculation.
Linda Steiner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.
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Linda Steiner. Review of AricÖ², Santo L., Oriana Fallaci: The Woman and the Myth.
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