Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Now You Can Add Yet Another Name to the List of Fake-Memoir Writers

So the big Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island primaries start up in about 15 minutes, but before I glue myself to CNN, I wanted to direct your attention to something completely non-political.

Last week I read this review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani for a new memoir entitled "Love and Consequences." The review is accompanied by a disorienting photo of the author, Margaret P. Jones (pictured left) taken, no doubt, from the book jacket. I say disorienting because the woman pictured is white (actually half-white and half-Indian), and the memoir describes a rough-and-tumble childhood as a foster kid on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Her experience runs the gamut on the issues one might expect to find in a memoir set in this milieu: gangs, racism, poverty, drugs, etc.. According to Kakutani, the memoir is "amazing." Jones "write[s] with a novelist’s eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist’s eye for social rituals and routines." She also said the book was "deeply affecting" and "humane."

Turns out, as the New York Times reported today, Margaret B. Jones, whose real name is Margaret Seltzer, made it all up.

"Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed."
As a result of Seltzer's "mendacity", her book tour, which was to start today, is no longer happening, and all copies of her book have been recalled.

After Seltzer had been profiled in the Times' House & Home section last Thursday, Seltzer's older sister called the publisher to say the author of "Love and Consequences" had made the whole thing up. To make it all the sweeter, Gawker had some choice quotes from an interview Jones/Seltzer gave prior to her outing. Here's a taste:

"Q: How did this book originate?

A: During my senior year of college one of my professors told me a friend of hers was working on a book and wanted to interview me. I declined. I wasn’t interested in the whole “South-Central-as-petting-zoo” thing. Then my home girl said the teacher might mess around and fail me for rejecting her friend, so I ended up calling the author and doing the interview. She was real nice and asked me if I had ever written anything. I ended up giving her one of a number of short stories I had written for my brothers’ kids and for the kids of my homies serving life sentences."

Wow. Seltzer sounds egregiously white. It's a wonder that her agent heard Seltzer slinging those "homies" and "home girl"'s around at lunch meetings and thought to herself, "she is completely authentic and her story is perfectly believable."

I think the fact that this book hasn't been out for more than few days makes this fake memoir scandal less impactful than the James Frey debacle a couple years back, or the J.T. Leroy/Laura Albert brouhaha last year. Frey, as you'll remember, fooled Oprah and millions of readers, and Albert conned dozens of cool "indie" writers as well as thousands of readers, myself included. But where Frey exaggerated to the point of lying, and Albert created a dreamily horrific hard-luck life out of whole cloth and then wrote stories supposedly informed by that life, Seltzer imagined a hard-scrabble childhood that, one might safely assume, is actually being lived/endured in cities all over the country by, mostly, minorities. Of course she's not the first privileged white person to invent a poorer, more ethno-centric past for themselves to lend themselves a little "street cred" (Vanilla Ice, anyone?), but it's just as off-putting in this instance as it's ever been. It's like the rich stealing the character they lack from the poor.

But the publisher of "Love and Consequences", Riverhead Books, is also, I think, equally culpable in this half-perpetrated con. One would think that after James Frey was exposed as a fabulist, and after Oprah shamed the industry (or attempted to shame) into fact-checking their would-be memoirists, that the least publishers could do was verify the most easily-verifiable claims made in the memoirs they publish. A fact-checker could easily find out, for example, whether or not a woman named Margaret B. Jones graduated from the University of Oregon in the year Jones claims she did. Jones/Seltzer did not go to that school, but because no one asked this question (or any other), Seltzer managed to string her agent, her editor, and her publisher along for 3 years while they all worked on "Love and Consequences." With their help, Seltzer very nearly duped thousands of readers.

If publishers continue to insist that fact-checking is not their responsibility, the credibility of memoirs as authentic and reasonably truthful works of art is diminished, and this in turn hurts those memoirists who aren't making up the facts of their lives for the sake of book sales. But some of these more outlandish memoirs don't seem to require a lengthy and exhaustive fact-checking to find those first telling cracks in their stories. Like the woman who recently admitted her memoir, in which she is raised, in part, by wolves, was made up. How hard is it really to guess that that lady's whole goal was to tell lies? And when a white, 33-year old, U. of Oregon alum says she was a drug-runner for gangs in South Central Los Angeles when she was growing up, don't you, the publisher, at the very least, make a phone call? If the corporations who own all the publishers don't want to employ fact-checkers, that's one thing, but when agents and editors won't even use their own god-given common sense to separate the talented liars from the merely talented, then maybe the publishing industry's doomed to be forever disconnected from the readers they're supposed to be selling to. And they wonder why they're not selling more books.

Admittedly, I'm not a big memoir guy, but reading about Seltzer's fabrications so soon after Frey and Albert were exposed for theirs, makes me think the publishing industry needs to address what looks like a growing problem sooner than later.


LauraJean said...

I agree with your admonition for fact checking and can't help but wonder about a different problem -- that publisher's would rather publish these stories as memoir than fiction anyway. They seem to assume that a good story won't be read by the public unless it is "true" or "based on a true story."

Much of the writing of Thomas Wolfe was "based on a true story" but is counted as some of the best American fiction.

I think it comes down to a fundamental questioning of the role that publishing houses should play: is a publishing house in existence to make money off of books? or is a publishing house in existence to publish good stories?

While these two things aren't necessarily opposed to each other, I'm afraid that if the emphasis continues to be on profits, profits, profits, there will be many more such "fake memoir" scandals in the future.

Silk said...

That broad could really stand some make-up, huh?

blankfist said...

Waaaaa! My name is Crane and I cry all the time about books and things. :)

Is it just me or does the whole memoir thing seem to be turning into Reality TV. All of it's fake and lazily produced.