Saturday, March 8, 2008

Repost - Native Intelligence: Clueless in New York

Oh my, I'm having fun reading this stuff on Seltzer.

This one is great because it's written by a native New Yorker who used to live in L.A. She comments on how New Yorkers are really much more provincial than they want to admit and how that sort of smugness probably factored into this going way too far.

It's worth publishing again in full, so here it is.

When I moved from New York to Los Angeles, the man I moved here for affixed a pin to his cap that read, “WE DON’T CARE HOW THEY DO IT IN NEW YORK.” Evidently, he’d had enough of what I considered my unassailable rightness. As someone who spent her first 24 years in New York City, I assumed I knew everything: how to cross the street, what pizza is supposed to taste like, the worth of anything worth knowing, and wasn’t my boyfriend fortunate I’d shown up to save him from his ignorance. The pin was his response.

SeltzerThe ensuing years in Los Angeles taught me there is no one more provincial than a native New Yorker, a point driven home in 2001, when I cruised the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books with my editor from St. Martin’s Press, a stylish, pregnant Manhattanite who, as we passed the hundreds of book-booths snaking the UCLA campus, with some perplexity commented, “I had no idea people in Los Angeles read so many books.” It seemed to trouble her, vaguely, and I knew I’d become at least a quasi-Angeleno when I needed to stop myself from replying, “Why, yes, the Wells Fargo wagon drops them off with the provisions, and have you heard of this one called The Good Earth?”

The book, based on the review by Michiku Kakutani, strained all credibility; the characters, dialogue, heartbreaks and denouement were stereotypical to the point of cartoonish. It eluded me how Kakutani could characterize the work as, “humane and deeply effecting.” Reading a follow-up piece in the Times, by Mimi Read, who with a straight face quoted Jones as saying, “One of the first things I did once I started making drug money was to buy a burial plot,” I thought, how is it possible that a New York Times reporter believes this?

And so, I am taking some not small glee in the tsunami-like fallout over "Love and Consequences," the latest faked memoir by one Peggy Seltzer – a white girl raised by her family in Sherman Oaks and graduate of the private school Campbell Hall – who published under the name Margaret B. Jones, a half Native-American, half-white girl fostered out at age five, to a black family in gang-infested South Central Los Angeles.

I read the review of this book last week in the New York Times, and within an hour, emailed my editor at the LA Weekly:

I know I've been in the trenches with Laura Albert but:

· Signs of sexual abuse discovered when she arrives at school with blood on her panties?

· Moves into South-Central with a foster mother named Big Mom?

· Grows up amidst and is schooled by the Bloods but “finds love with, of all men, a Crip,” with whom she lives in a small Oregon town?

· One of her many friends in prison writes her: “So few of us will ever get the chance to see what it's like outside LA... be our eyes”? (!!!)

Has Jones at all been on your radar?

This last, because Jones would have been on his radar. Had this girl fought her way up and out through her writing, someone with his or her eye on the book scene in Los Angeles would have heard about her, at a party, a conference, via a tip from a writer; the newspaper. But there’d been nothing, and my editor agreed, it sounded a lot like Navahoax.

When the book was exposed, nearly in real time, as a hoax, I figured out at least one of the reasons why those in New York who’d bought and published and lauded "Love and Consequences" were able to do so with a clear-ish conscience: the stories did not sound made-up to them. To a New Yorker, black foster mothers in South Central are, naturally, called Big Mom. Little girls who’ve been sexually abused show up with blood on their panties. And do 13-year-olds buy their own burial plots? In LA, they do. And if those pesky things called “facts” couldn’t be checked, it’s not their fault, but the fault of Jones’s family members and friends all being dead or in prison. Duh.

Of course, we’re now seeing the back peddling, the second-guessing; the mea culpas. The book’s editor, Sarah McGrath, did not in three years of working on the book meet Seltzer. The book’s literary agent, Faye Bender, was quoted this week as saying, “There was no reason to doubt [Seltzer], ever.” This, though Seltzer lied about her race, family, education; about life, death, sexual abuse, guns, and drugs. Ira Silverberg, the agent who represents the under-fire Ishmael Beah and who also represented JT LeRoy, whom he never met (but who told me he would not have represented Laura Albert, whom he did meet, “because I find her unpleasant”), feels, “It is not an industry capable of checking every last detail.”

And Nan A. Talese, who published the sine qua non of the genre, James Frey’s "A Million Little Pieces," doesn’t like the idea of double-checking an author. “I don’t think there is any way you can fact-check every single book,” she told the Times. “It would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship.”

Funny, I’ve never been insulted when asked by an editor to check facts, but anyway, this is not really about fact checking; I don’t personally care if someone writes he ate a Pink’s hot dog with grilled onions in March, when actually it was a chili dog in May. What I care about is that the writer – of fiction or memoir – is telling the truth as best he or she can, and I think this is what editors care about, too, or should. Those in New York who do, in fact, wield so much influence; who have such a vast range of culture to choose from and to disseminate, need to have the guts and aptitude to admit, they might not know enough about a subject or region to know whether what they’re reading is the truth, and then, summon the curiosity to find out.

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  1. Excellent article, Jane.
    I think the issue with this latest hoax covers a lot of ground. Seltzer didn't just "pad" her identity as some have suggested, she made an entire one up and passed it off as the truth.

    Just as painful is how much it tells about the inadequacies of the publishing industry.

  2. Yeah. I think this one hits one big problem to its core. Speaking of privilege, you've got the privileged in the publishing world who seem to not know much about the world outside of NYC. These people are the gatekeepers of the publishing world?

    It's pretty clear that both her agent and the people at her publishers had not a clue. This fraud would have gone on if it weren't for the cushy coverage by the NY Times being spotted by Seltzer's sister.

    That's amazing to me that no one picked up the phone to try to verify even the most easy stuff like degrees, foster care and court records, addresses, family members, etc. Now everyone but the New Yorkers partially responsible for this mess can be a bit smug.

  3. I think there's another component. It's not just the provincialism of some New Yorkers. It's also a belief in a certain kind of black pathology on the part of some white people.

    Yes, these folks didn't do their jobs and yes, some of us New Yorkers can be provincial, but this moves into the realm of flat out stupid and no place has the monopoly on stupidity.

    That book sold quite a few copies. What does that say about all the folks who bought it?

  4. Yeah, there was quite a bit of stupidity flowing out of Riverhead Books in NYC.

    As for people who bought the book? I don't know because I didn't hear about this until AFTER it blew up. I've got two minds about it. If you ordered the book did you do so based on Kakutani's review? If so, maybe you aren't stupid and maybe you just trust her reviews. However, did you do so based on reading that House and Garden hooey from the NY Times? If so, I've got to say, yeah, you believed that? Reading that is really laughable. "A Refugee from Gangland?" No, not quite.

  5. I tell you it's astonishing to me that anyone could be that clueless. I guess when you are breathing rarefied air (LOL)you don't have to bother with us regular folks.

    Stupid publishers and The NY Times lost any credibility they had a long time ago.

  6. Yeah, it's unfortunate. I like NYC. I think I like New Yorkers. I did when I was there four weeks ago at least ;)

    The NYC publishing scene seems to be a very insular and exclusive set of people. That's why it's so hard to get a publishing job, connections, nepotism, and classism seem to be rife within the industry. Forget talent and skill! Now that's not to say there aren't some skilled people in the industry - I'm sure there are some well connected and well educated people who also actually might have some genuine talent. Too bad none of them were on this Love and Consequences memoir project.

    That's why people who do manage to cleverly weave their way in get talked about. Example, Laurel Touby who got $12 million of the $23 million price tag for her company, MediaBistro. Well, how did she manage that? I mean she's from Florida, is alleged to be a bit rough around the edges socially and isn't a publishing legacy? Well, maybe it's because she had a great idea and both her timing and strategy was right. Unfortunately, such mavericks are rare and more are needed in publishing.

    This fake memoir mess is happening too often for this to be just an oddity. I know someone from the British upper classes who brags about his status quite a bit. However, good Lord, his understanding of the world was incredibly limited for all of his high priced education and privilege. I think the same thing is going on with a lot of people in publishing. They've spent too many summers in the Hamptons, too much time locked up in the Hearst Tower (Hearst Publication's HQ in NYC) and not enough seeing the rest of the world to have anything close to a clue.

    It's just that this particular mess deals with my race and where I grew up, so I feel it more intensely. They screwed up and they will again unless they open up their industry and change how they do business.

  7. I hear you. It's my race as well though it isn't my hometown. I don't like black folk being exploited, used or disrespected in anyway.

    I will say this, the publishing industry and its elitist aspirations is hardly indicative of all NYers.

    It pisses me off when the broad brush is used to define over 12 million people. That just isn't correct in the same way it wasn't cool that the depiction of LA was ok for these publishers

    This is a specific, clueless, elite and monied group of people who let their class and racial prejudices allow them to drop the ball instead of doing their jobs.

    I'll speak for all us regular NYers and say it's a disgrace.

  8. Yeah! I knew there was hope for New Yorkers in general ;)


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