In earlier blogs, I have mentioned that Tony Parker was a man of strong personal principles and self-imposed ethics. Parker’s position was made evident in his books. Bella Bathurst argues that Parker’s point in writing was always, “to grant” the reader “insight into the hidden corners of human existence” by offering up “the lives and characters of ordinary people” without judgement (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p. 289). In line with his stated aims in writing (to give his informants a voice in works that appealed to readers), Parker wrote Lighthouse to open a closed community to public view. Lighthouse is written in such a way that the reader is encouraged by the text to believe that what they are reading is the actual in every detail. Yet at the end of Lighthouse, in the acknowledgements, Parker tells the reader that because of his personal promise to his informants, and as a mark of gratitude to them, he masks their identities and all other identifying factors in various ways: “Innumerable lighthouse keepers, keepers’ wives, and others connected in other ways with the service all talked willingly and without reservation; and in return had the assurance that they would not be identified” (Parker, Acknowledgements, Lighthouse 2006, p.p.287-88).
Lyn Smith describes Parker as a “very skilled pen-portraitist” who was “determined to be faithful to the person and setting” and equally determined to adhere strictly “to his principle of confidentiality” (Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 251). Further to this, Lyn Smith reveals that in keeping with his self-imposed ethics, together with his desire to be honest with his readers, Parker kept detailed resource books on each informants physical features and observable behaviours and characteristics, but then, when crafting his books, “because of his promise of confidentiality,” Parker would “change each informant’s height, hair and eye colour,” and “hone these pen-portraits to economic perfection” (Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 251). With Lighthouse, Parker went one step further–he endowed one character with various physical attributes gleaned from others. In his Acknowledgements to Lighthouse, Parker reveals that the lighthouses in the book are composites of the actual, and that the informants are also composites of the real, and, “Additionally, the interviews themselves are composites of conversations with different people, transcribed from tape-recordings. But this is what was said; and I hope it conveys some impression of the world of those in the lighthouse service” (Parker, Acknowledgements, Lighthouse 1999, p. 288). These sudden revelations highlight elemental flaws within the narrative. By framing the work as authentic and faithful to the truth when it is in fact a construction based on composites, Parker somewhat fictionalises a work that is supposedly nonfiction to the point where he possibly strays beyond the bounds of ethics for nonfiction (and creative nonfiction) writers. Parker’s methods create problems for the integrity of the voice because what was said by an informant could have been equally “said” by other people. In this sense Parker honours the contract with his subject, but breaks the contract between the writer and reader. For Parker, these ethical concerns were not a consideration. Rather his concerns were less academic.
Parker was concerned with dispelling myths: in this sense, myths are popularly held misconceptions, and mysteries. His purpose in writing was always to allow the subject to speak for her- or him-self, and in so doing dispel misconception and broaden people’s knowledge and understanding. In relation to the informants, Parker “was looking for the essence of each person and to give them the opportunity to express this essence” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen…” 1999, p. 247). In relation to the readers, Parker’s aim was to capture the essence of life in the lighthouse community in a work that was both enjoyable and informative for the “ordinary everyday reader.” It could be suggested that Parker, in Lighthouse, tries to serve two masters, confidentiality and vividness, to fulfil his personal promises to his informants and his stated aims in interviewing concomitant with his expressed wish to foster understanding by broadening his readers’ perceptions of a marginalised world. In his need to find a way in which to do this, Parker invented a new form.
About Parker’s methods and his way of writing lives, Lyn Smith says:
His artistry was conveying in words not only the integrity of original speech but the deep emotion—anguish, regret, loss—that he had shared during the intimacy of an interview. One of Parker’s most cherished skills was that of editing: of selecting and of shaping his oral material into something more readable and of just the right length that it left the reader wanting more [….] throughout the whole process of interviewing. It was the written result which was his goal. It was a pattern, a structure, not a story-line he was after and given the variety of projects he worked on there were few rules to follow. Parker had no role model; his style was entirely his own invention. (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p.p. 249-50)
Lyn Smith points out that Parker’s methods and the new genre he invented “came under attack” from “members of criminological research establishments and academe”; his reply to his critics was, “This is what I want to do, and if it doesn’t fit any neat methodology—no problem for me [….] I’m not appealing to scientists and academics. I’m trying to get through to your ordinary everyday reader who doesn’t know anything about statistics and doesn’t want to know” (Smith “Only Listen…” 1999, p.p. 252-53).
In his works dealing with community and groups, Parker’s seemingly straightforward, honest works present the reader with a dilemma in that they are written to open closed communities to public view, by a writer who is determined to protect his informants’ privacy. All Parker’s works are built on this dichotomy which, within his books, creates a paradox—an uneasy unity which is inseparable from, and intrinsic to, each of his works. Ultimately, all Parker’s works are experiments with his invention of a new way of life writing that arose from his strong socialist belief and his perception of himself as a pacifist, a new way of writing that can be called literary docu-memoir.
Bathurst, Bella. Afterword. In Lighthouse. By Tony Parker. London: Eland, 2006. p.p. 289-296. Print.
Parker, Tony. Lighthouse. London: Eland, 2006. Print.
Smith, Lyn. “Only Listen … Some reflections on Tony Parker’s methodology.” In Criminal Conversations: An anthology of the work of Tony Parker. Ed. Keith Soothill. Introduction by Terence Morris. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Thompson, Paul.”Tony Parker: Writer and Historian interviewed by Paul Thompson.” Oral History Vol. 22: No. 2. 25th Anniversary Issue (Autumn, 1994)). 64-73. Web. 3 Aug. 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40179366