Monday, March 17, 2008

The Power of Fake Memoirs

Another week, another fake memoir.

It's a trend that just won't die, much to the chagrin, no doubt, of publications like The New York Times, who repeatedly fall prey to these overripe and under-fact-checked tales of woe. In yesterday's Sunday Times, the Public Editor alerted readers not already in the know to the Margaret B. Jones scandal. Ms. Jones, who is really Ms. Seltzer, penned a memoir called "Love and Consequences," which, as it turns out, should have been titled, "Lies and Consequences." The "memoir" was about a mixed-race girl growing up in foster care with an African-American family, getting involved in gangs and running drugs, losing her foster brothers to gang violence, and so on.

Aside from the possibility that the author may have met a gang member or two, apparently none of it is true. After a glowing review of the memoir in the Times by Michiko Kakutani and a long profile of the author's current life (giant sales-boosters both), the fictions of the tale were brought to light by Ms. Seltzer's actual sister, causing major embarrassment for the book's publisher, Riverhead Books, the book's editor, Sarah McGrath (who, complicating things further, is the daughter of Charles McGrath, a Times writer-at-large), Michiko Kakutani and The New York Times, not to mention Ms. Seltzer herself, who's been tearfully confessing since the exposé. A planned book tour has been canceled and all copies of the book have been recalled. Oops. At least she got caught before having to get bitch-slapped by Oprah.

Reading Kakutani's review in hindsight, along with the sappy author profile and an excerpt of the book itself, is an exercise in the absurd.

Take this eye-rolling praise from Kakutani's gullible review: What sets Ms. Jones’s humane and deeply affecting memoir apart is not just that it’s told from the point of view of a young girl coming of age in this world, but also that it focuses on the bonds of love and loyalty that can bind relatives and gang members together, and the craving after safety and escape that haunts so many lives in the ’hood. She goes on to say, Although some of the scenes she has recreated from her youth (which are told in colorful, streetwise argot) can feel self-consciously novelistic at times, Ms. Jones has done an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood. Amazing, indeed!

The profile--with its details of homemade jam, weeping pit bull tattoos, buying a burial plot with drug money, and "Big Mom" (the fictional foster mother) soul food recipes bubbling away on the stove--is, once you know the score, equally amazing. The "brutal realities" of the book come across as slightly less than real when you read Chapter One (while the link lasts) with a knowing eye. You'd think publishers and newspapers would have learned their lessons and have thought to ask tougher questions after all the memoir mishaps, but such is not the case.

One question is, why wasn't this published as a novel to begin with? If it had been labeled a novel, there would have been no problem. There also might have been no attention. Because novels, in this "reality" age, simply don't have the allure of real-life otherness melodramas. Readers and reviewers, most of whom are far removed from these tales of abuse of one kind or another, want their walks on the wild side authentic, even if they're incapable of discerning the authentic from the manufactured. Would Kakutani have reviewed this as a novel? Likely not. Would it even have been published at a time when fiction risks obsolescence? Likely not. And what message does this send to people who are struggling to write a real memoir, truthfully, one perhaps lacking the requisite shock value we so eagerly lap up? Interestingly, several people responding to Ms. Seltzer's downfall on an online forum felt that, if the book was "entertaining" and a "good read," its truthfulness was irrelevant. A couple of people even called the whistle-blowing sister a "traitor," as if she were the bad apple in this saga.

The who-cares-if-it's-real-or-not question does bring up another question, what about the writing? After all, these glowing reviews of memoirs that turn out to be fictions often praise the prose itself. I can't remember how many reviews of James Frey's "memoir" described the writing as raw or harrowing or electrifying or some equally hyperbolic adjective. (Annoying was my first response.) Even when a memoir is revealed to be a partial or total fraud, the prose style is still the prose style. Fake or not, good writing should be good writing, right? Which may be the most embarrassing thing for the duped reviewers. Not only can they not recognize an authentic story, they can't recognize an authentic writer. Unless these authors are innocent scribes who've lost their way in the cutthroat publishing industry, true talents who were duped into playing the faux-memoir card because it sells? Perhaps they are the victims, after all? But scandal sells and debates about literary merit do not, so the focus is on the falling from grace rather than on any deeper literary implications.

Soon enough we can surely look forward to a raft of memoirs chronicling the harrowing real-life suffering of the post-memoirist. As a fiction writer, I'm considering marketing my in-progress novel as a memoir (a, shhhh, fake one) so that I can eventually bask in the attention that only comes from getting busted.

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