Saturday, March 8, 2008

Repost - L.A. Times: Why would author label fiction as fact?

Thanks to Perez Hilton for the photo annotation inspiration ;)

Update 1: March 12, 2008 @ 5:40pm

A proposal re fake memoirs from Stephen J. Dubner over at the Freakonomics blog.

1. A true story gets a lot more media coverage than a lifelike novel.

2. A true story generates more buzz in general, including potential film sales, lecture opportunities, etc.

3. The reader is engaged with the story on a more visceral level if a book is a memoir rather than fictional.

Every time a memoir is exposed as a fake, you hear people say, “Well, if it’s such a good story, why didn’t they just publish it as a novel instead?” But I think reasons 1-3 above, and maybe many more, incentivize authors, publishers, and others to favor the memoir over the novel.

With No. 3 in mind, and having read recently about how an expensive sugar-pill placebo works better than a cheap sugar-pill placebo, I thought of a fun memoir/novel experiment. If anyone would like to go to the trouble to carry this out, please let us know and we will post the results. Here’s what you do:

Take an unpublished manuscript that tells an intense and harrowing story from a first-person perspective. Something along the lines of A Million Little Pieces or Love and Consequences. Assemble a group of 100 volunteers for the experiment. Give a copy of the manuscript to 50 of them with a cover letter describing the memoir they are about to read. Give a copy of the manuscript to the the other 50 with a cover letter describing the novel they are about to read. In each case, write and attach an extensive questionnaire about the reader’s reaction to the book. Sit back, let them read, and compile the results. Does the “memoir” truly beat the “novel”?

Okay, that sounds great because the first excuse most people make for Seltzer is it would have been hard if not impossible to market this as a work of fiction. Someone test this theory, please.

I'm fatigued at this point. Seltzer's lies are so huge that the payoff of paying anymore attention to it is close to nil.

However, I got this from Kate over at FishBowlLA. It's written by Sandy Banks, who has a weekly column in the L.A. Times. I think she sums it up well.

Why would author label fiction as fact?

Why should it take a white author's "gripping memoir" to cast the problems of ghetto blacks in a sympathetic light?

March 8, 2008

I cringed as I read the book jacket blurb calling the recently unmasked fake memoir "an unvarnished look at inner-city life beyond the statistics and stereotypes."

On the back cover were tributes to the author's "pitiless intelligence and scathing honesty."

"Margaret Jones uses her own life to tear down the walls between South Central and the world beyond," wrote one. Said another, "My God, Margaret is brave."

Turns out Margaret is neither brave nor honest. Nor is she a half-white, half-Native American girl raised among black gang members in a South Los Angeles foster home.

Margaret Jones is actually Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer, who grew up white and middle-class on a cul-de-sac in Sherman Oaks. Her education didn't come on the streets, but in a private school that counts Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen (and my oldest daughter) among its graduates.

Seltzer's book "Love and Consequences" is a fabrication. The hoax, which came to light this week, is a big-time scandal among the literati. Seltzer's agent and editor said they were duped. Readers wondered why the publisher didn't fact-check.

I read the book this week with the luxury of knowing it was fiction. I found it superficial and melodramatic.

I give Seltzer credit for being curious enough to care about gang life and diligent enough to get the details right -- the clothes, the language, the recipe for turning powder cocaine into crack. And I give her props, as her fake homies might say, for trying to show that some gang members we fear are struggling brothers, fathers and sons, caught up in a mindless cycle of destruction.

So why am I so offended?

In "Love and Consequences" Seltzer describes a startling life -- rife with stereotypes -- as a white foster child sent to the "urban Third World country" of South Los Angeles.

Her "Big Mom" is a stoic, hard-working grandmother struggling to raise her crack-addicted daughter's four kids. Her "homies" are lovable rogues with hearts of gold who carry her backpack, escort her to the homecoming dance and enlist her to deliver their cocaine.

Seltzer was outed by her sister, who read a profile of her in the New York Times and called the book's publisher to say it was all a lie.

In a tearful apology, before she went into hiding, Seltzer defended herself, saying she was trying to help people she cared about by showing readers the harshness of their lives.

But what ticks me off is the notion that it takes a white author's "gripping memoir" to cast the problems of ghetto blacks in a sympathetic light. I suspect what really intrigued publishers, promoters and reviewers was not the story but the storyteller -- the image of this tough little white girl cooking up a batch of crack on the kitchen stove. She's got to get the utility bill paid and the water turned back on before Big Mom gets home from one job and leaves for the next, cleaning offices for "CEOs and their white secretaries."

It's the race card being played by a white person.

Eso Won bookstore in South Los Angeles was supposed to host the author at a book-signing Friday night but canceled and sent the books back. No customers have asked about the book or mentioned the scandal, said owner Tom Hamilton.

"There's been too much going on," he said "The 6-year-old shot in the car, the high school football player killed outside his house."

In other words, it's been the kind of dispiriting week in South Los Angeles that makes hand-wringing over a suburban girl's play-acting laughable.

I stopped at Eso Won while cruising by places mentioned in the book -- First AME Church and Baldwin Village apartments -- as if finding some kind of physical sign to link her to the community would make the hoax less offensive.

But it became pointless after a while. The story is fake, so what does it matter? The gang prevention group she said she now works with doesn't seem to exist either, beyond a website created last fall by her agent.

Even her list of acknowledgments is suspect. "I never heard of her, never met her," said gang counselor Khalid Shah, mentioned in the book and thanked by its author.

Is he angry about the charade? He laughed. "If I got pissed off every time somebody makes their name using [South Los Angeles], I'd be angry all the time."

I know he's right. I'll get over it. But I'm still wondering what made her do it.

In what may be the truest statement in her book, she disparaged a social worker for trying to understand her life. "Seeing and living," she said, "are separated by a big, maybe even uncrossable divide."

If she understood that, then why did she lie?
And there you have it.

For all of the criticism blacks get for playing the race card, the publishing industry fell over themselves to put forth a white girl who'd lived the life of a gangsta. They wanted it and the stereotypes that flowed from it so bad that they couldn't be bothered to check if her story was true.

It's not about playing the race card. It's about some wanting to cherry pick who can and can't play it.


Links that summarize this farce:
FishBowlLA: Margaret Jones/Peggy Seltzer Toteboard
Get Lost With Easy Writer: More on Miss Jones

And analysis from the Christopher Caldwell at the Financial Times that breaks it down nicely: Tall tales of the would-be victim

Two good comical commentaries:
University Diaries: Et Tu, Cyndi?
Get Lost With Easy Writer: Of No Consequence: The Fictional Diaries of Margaret B. Jones (link to the same piece at

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