Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Memoirs and Street Cred

You know this story just burns me up. It seems that Riverhead Books just has a thing for signing memoir writers who, in fact, are just good novel writers and great liars.

You'd think that after the James Frey mess they'd invest in a bit of background and fact checking before going all out on another memoir.

However, no, let's not bother with such attention to detail. Let's just sign the white people with the amazing stories of triumph over adversity in the ghettos and drug dens because those triumph over adversity stories by blacks, Latinos and Asians are just passé.

Here we go again. Good this one got cut off before it could make it to Oprah's Book Club.

...“Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.
That made me laugh as soon as I read it because it's NOT TRUE. My thing is who the hell would believe it without some sort of proof?

I heard about this on Facebook when Miles Marshall Lewis posted the NY Times article: Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction.

My thing is I grew up in South Central L.A. Who would believe that social services put a white child in the care of black foster mother in the middle of South Central L.A.? "Not I" said the raised-in-the-city fly.
She said that even after she moved to Oregon, she would often venture to South-Central Los Angeles to spend time with friends in the gang world.
I'm sorry, that to me is just funny and quite insulting. You know what? When I flew home for vacation a few weeks ago, the first place I went after picking up my red Mini Cooper S was to my parents graves at Inglewood Park Cemetery and then I went to visit an aunt of mine who lives in South Central which is smack in the middle of "gang world".

What the hell is it now? An amusement park? They make it sound like that.

I still don't see why lying and saying it was a memoir was the way to go.

Market it as fiction. Yeah, that's less drama when it comes to the book tour circuit, but she could have given a voice to the people she heard these stories from. Market it as non-fiction; not as a memoir but a collection of stories written by someone whose perspective was totally changed when she got to know people who lived in "gang world". That's worth something too. She clearly has a good ear and the ability to translate those experiences into a story that people want to read. It's just unfortunate that Seltzer's ethics don't match the high level of her writing.

I actually don't care so much that she lied. She's not the only person who angles to get street cred. That's a common white singer or musician m.o.

What this points to, however, is something a bit more disturbing. What's more disturbing is what about the real memoirs from people who've had real experiences?

As I said, there are some great triumph over adversity stories. I'm sure there are some great stories by people of all races from white to black. However, editors are so busy looking for a unique angle that they're neglecting the triumph over adversity stories from a white woman who grew up in the Appalachians, the Latina who grew up in East L.A. and the black woman who struggled in Harlem.

No, now you want the white person with street cred. You gotta have Chip or Becky struggling with the gang bangers and crack heads in the ghetto instead of whiling away in the suburbs to make it worth signing. To bring up the music comparison again, it's similar to having a white singer with soulful pipes bust out and become a huge star when you know there are thousands upon thousands of black artists who sound exactly the same if not better. Yet, the appeal of blue-eyed soul gets the white artist hit songs, Grammy nominations and a bunch of black singers in his or her backup section.

Like the blue-eyed soul singers, I'm not saying those stories don't exist or that they shouldn't exist. In the neighborhood that I grew up in there was one white guy who wore colors and ran in that pack. But he probably got shot years ago like most of them did. If he did make it, I'm honestly not sure how literate the guy is. If he did put his story to paper, he'd probably need someone to write it for him. I'm sorry to say there just aren't many that make it out, make it to college or university and then have manuscripts that land on the desk of a literary agent.

Maybe publishers ought to look for real stories instead of sensationalist ones. If they take the sensationalist ones, then just call it what it is, fiction. Most of the time, that's exactly what it is.

More links:

Thanks for the link Fishbowl LA: Margaret B Jones, Margaret Seltzer, Peggy --Aw to Hell With It!

Update 1: March 7, 2008 @ 6:20am

The blogs over at MediaBistro are keeping up with this story very well (and one linked to me, so I like them.)

The GalleyCat blog brought up this point:
"This whole thing underscores the problem with having so few people of color in the industry," emails a Latina author who feels publishing can exhibit "a one-dimensional perception of race." She reports that the manuscript she's trying to sell now is being rejected by white editors who don't think her story is "urban" enough ("number of drive-by shootings: zero," she comments drily) and was actually turned down by another imprint because her then-agent, when asked about her ethnic background, assumed that "a brown-skinned girl with an Anglo name" must be African-American.

(emphasis added because it's beyond ridiculous.)
I wonder. Maybe I'll try for a job as a literary agent or editor and see how far I get when I return home. Honestly, the publishing industry got ganked by this one.

Just looking at a picture of Seltzer is enough to set your "liar" radar off.

Half white, half native American? My ass. Yes, I know, sometimes it's hard to tell by looking at someone that they're half this or half that, but considering the tall tale she was spinning complete with a big black mammy, I'd get suspicious.

I actually think that had they had someone who was from L.A. on this they would have picked up on something too. The publishing industry seems to be a nice derivative of the white shoe East Coast tradition where legacies and nepotism dominate the industry.

Let's just see what the next fake memoir will be. You know there have to be more in the works.

Update 2: March 8, 2008 @ 7:16am

Ahahahahahaha. I got the link to the cache of the Love and Consequences MySpace page from ideefixe. Oh, it's complete with "I Always Knew" a hip hop track by Bishop Lamont and tons of gangsta lookin' black people as friends.

Oh, gangstas on MySpace! Well, damn, her story has got to be real!

Give me a break...check it out before it disappears.

Oh here are some MySpace tidbits:
Love and Consequences's Blurbs

About me:
I'm just a simple girl. I used to think I didn't have a lot to say, until one day I was blessed with an opportunity to share my experiences. The concrete things:I am a mother, an aunty, a godmother, a participant in the gang truce process, a loyal friend to those within my circle, someone's future wife ;)and one of the best cooks you could ever meet. Basically, although I may have seen and experienced things many couldn't ever imagine, I am not to different from anyone else. The less concrete things:I believe in God. I believe that life doesn't always make sense, but that if you just put one foot in front of the other and turn right each time you hit a wall, you will in the end be successful. I believe that Bloods and CRIPS are not each others enemies. We are just in a long standing conflict with one another. We share the same social conditions and problems.

Who I'd like to meet:
When its all said and done, I hope I get to meet God.

Love and Consequences's Interests

General: My family, my homies, my pit bulls, good books, good music..what else is there?


Heroes: Malcolm X, Madd Ronald, Audre Lorde, Sherman Alexie, Jayna Brown, God, my best-friend Steven Moore aka Vinyl Richie, Martin L King, Madd Ronald, my other best-friend Romeo, Marcus Garvey, and anyone out there in this cold world doing their part to make a difference....
She can add "lying mofos" to that list of heros.

I'm saving the HTML code just 'cause it's damn funny. There is no way she's probably accepting friends, but I did try ;) Here is a .pdf file of the now private Love and Consequences MySpace page. Here is a link to it that you can view online rather than download at PDFMeNot. Thanks to Steve from the True Crimes Blog for sending this to me.

Seltzer is clearly a liar of pathological proportions. It's really a shame because she could have channeled that story telling into, well, story telling.

Here is FishbowlLA's latest on this mess: Peggy Seltzer: Foundation a Fake, But What About Her Tattoo?

Another goodie from the True Crime Weblog: Faux Memoirist Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer: So I turned over some rocks.... What an awesome scoop ;)

Here it is on Radar: Seltzer Honed Homegirl Hosejob on AOL.

What a mess of lies.

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  1. I read about this so-called "life story" and it is the biggest load of horse caca I've seen in quite some time. How in the hell could anyone be fooled is beyond me.

    Who the hell is she to be telling lies and acting as if it is some kind of authentic black experience? The arrogance of some white people never ceases to amaze me.

  2. Here's a question--could she have gotten published as a white woman writing a novel about African-Americans? I'm not trying to be controversial, but I wonder if she would have been rejected long before she got to the publisher. It's a tough sell.

  3. Hey Danielle,

    It's mos def horse caca. I didn't catch the initial buzz on the book and I do wonder whether I would have thought "she's a fraud" had I heard about it before this news came out.

    It's pretty easy to say it's crap now, but I do wonder with all my cynicism would I have been fooled too.

    But I do agree that her arrogance is amazing. She could have approached it from a different angle for sure.

  4. ideefixe...

    Maybe, maybe not.

    I'm barely weaving my way into the publishing industry and I mean barely.

    I honestly don't know if she would have been rejected. I don't think so if the story was as good as the reviewers say it was. When Michiko Kakutani praises your work that's significant. I think it means Seltzer IS a good writer and I think I'd be interested in reading the story framed differently.

    I do think had she framed it as "white girl from the 'burbs gets schooled" that it could have sold. Would it have had the same drama to it? No, but I said as much when I suggested she could have written it as fiction too. Fiction doesn't have the same punch as non-fiction for sure.

    However, did you read the NY Times article? According to that article, she spent a good three years of intentionally lying to her publisher. Not that the publisher is guilt-free on this considering the Frey mess, but Seltzer lied. Making up a story and saying you it up is fiction and is the makings of a good novel. Making up a story and selling it as your own is unethical and it's lying.

    I'm glad she got caught.

  5. Ideefixe asked: "Could she have gotten published as a white woman writing a novel about African-Americans?"

    I think so; it hasn't hurt Susan Straight. There are probably white and black folks who don't read Susan for that reason, but she seems to be doing fine. Then again, she's not writing a "white girl gets schooled" sort of fiction.

    Margaret just sounds like a punk.

  6. Yeah, I can't say, but I'm glad you can.

    I think there IS a market for what Seltzer had to say without it being packaged as a lie. Since I'm from the area and I went to school in the Sherman Oaks area of the San Fernando Valley, I would have been interested in seeing the opposite perspective.

    I think it's awfully nihilistic point of view to think the only way this could have been sold was as a memoir.

  7. My thing is I grew up in South Central L.A. Who would believe that social services put a white child in the care of black foster mother in the middle of South Central L.A.? "Not I" said the raised-in-the-city fly.

    Heh, I grew up on the East Coast, and I admit I scratched my head over the South Central LA location. (I'm doing good to remember the ocean is on the OTHER side of the city than what I was raised to expect...)

    I will admit something twinged in my head at the description of coming from an abusive situation and then being fostered. Something in how she transitioned just didn't sit right with this former abused child. The rest of it, though, I said to myself: well, publishing houses have fact-checkers and copy-editors, and of course they would've vetted this thoroughly to make sure they're not Freyed... right?

    This is where I don't pass Go and I don't get $200, hunh.

  8. well, publishing houses have fact-checkers and copy-editors, and of course they would've vetted this thoroughly to make sure they're not Freyed... right?
    Yeah, you'd think that after Frey these fools would TAKE THE TIME TO CHECK THIS STUFF OUT.

    Clearly not.

    Well, I do plan on moving back to the States next year and NYC is a possible location. Maybe I ought to send in my resume to Riverhead Books. I'm pretty good at the fact checking stuff ;)

  9. Sick.
    Let's just say, I hope this woman's career has started and ended with this book.

  10. Love your E-Thug graphic at the top. LOL.

    One article I read (it may have been Kevin's actually) pointed out that a cursory Google Map search looking for a certain "South Central" intersection that features heavily in her writing, but turns out *does not exist,* would have been all it would take to bust her. In three years, no one thought to check out even the most easily verifiable parts of her story.

    It makes me wonder why publishers are so hungry to publish these sensational, salacious memoirs that they will turn a blind eye to the most obvious crap from a pathalogical liar.

    And, I think you asked the most interesting question, here:

    No, now you want the white person with street cred. You gotta have Chip or Becky struggling with the gang bangers and crack heads in the ghetto instead of whiling away in the suburbs to make it worth signing.

    I feel this way also about the newly published father-son dual memoirs (from David and Nic Sheff) about drug addiction that are currently making the rounds. (They're a two-fer!) I don't doubt either of those authors' veracity, but it did make me wonder why people are falling all over themselves with adulation and sympathy for a white upper-class kid who got addicted to meth and ended up living on the streets, prostituting himself.

    While Nic Sheff reads his "memoir" in coffeehouses all over the country on his book tour, lots of poor people of color are doing long stretches in prison for exactly the same thing.

    Is it just 'cause he's such an amazing writer? Don't think so...

  11. Kanani,


    But I'm thinking someone is going to approach her to the rights to make this into a TV movie ;)

  12. Cat,

    I think one problem is these stories sell. In the black community for sure there are discussions about the differences in how things work.

    A white kids hit on hard times and make it through the storm and it's book tour worthy. A black kids hit on hard times and make it through the storm, well, who gives a shit? They probably got a handout, they're ungrateful and, goodness no, don't let them talk about it lest they bring up the "race card".

    I mean this story and the parallel I drew to music made me think about a certain white soul singer who is very popular right now. She's got a well publicized drug problem and has been seen all over the tabloids in all manner of disarray. I wonder if she would black how far this scandal and those pictures would have taken her.

    These white folks and their problems sell. And I'm not trying to say that anyone's struggle is more or less valuable. We've all got crosses to bear.

    It's just clear that when the person who suffers is white, their story is worth much more. That's why they get published, but the Terrells and Tayes don't. It's a societal problem which is brought into focus when you see how the publishing industry works.

  13. A white kids hit on hard times and make it through the storm and it's book tour worthy. A black kids hit on hard times and make it through the storm, well, who gives a shit?

    You forgot the other half of the equation: "middle class." Assumption of being protestant and heterosexual taken for granted; extra points if either photogenic or at least photographed while in a football uniform.

    My biggest freaking irritant when it comes to some journalistic cliches is the "wow, such a promising young person, why did s/he choose to become a police officer / firefighter / soldier instead?" Y'know, as though such civic-minded roles are a sign that one is somehow not living up to potential -- but the only times I've seen that question asked is when the person is white. Like for everyone else, such a civic sacrifice isn't actually depriving society of the benefits the person could've provided elsewhere. (Plus, as a military brat, I don't like the idea that 'being a soldier' is, in itself, something that "isn't using one's potential" as much as what, being a shoe salesman?)

    It's all part of the same "only see some suffering" myopia as the breast-beating when some tiny midwest community or sprawling middle-class suburb loses its high school quarterback in Iraq. I have yet to see anyone solemnly tell a reporter, "yes, it was a terrible blow to lose that Lakota kid from the trailer park, who grew up on a diet of nothing but commodity peanut butter..."

    It's just clear that when the person who suffers is white, their story is worth much more. That's why they get published, but the Terrells and Tayes don't.

    Someone middleclass+white isn't supposed to fall, anymore than lowerclass+nonwhite is expected to rise. Losing a LCNW to the drug war isn't any more of a tearjerker to "most folks out there" than losing an LCNW to Iraq: they probably weren't going to live past their 21st birthday anyway, and if they did, they'd be on the dole, so no big loss. It's just an extra kick to the teeth that the MCW who falls is "a saleable story" while the LCNW who does manage to rise... isn't.

    Sometimes, the publishing world -- and the consumers that, well, consume what they're handed -- really irritate me.

  14. KL,

    You're completely right. I'm writing with speed and a definite lack of precision because I'm doing it between classes and on very little sleep (read that as over-generalizing and sloppy analysis.)

    Class factors in big time. An rich or upper middle class white person isn't supposed to fall. But they do, and when they do people want to know about it so much that they'll pay for it.

    Like I said, for me, that IS the problem. Yeah, yeah Seltzer lied.

    What irks me is her story, her lie was set to make her rich. She picked some of the most obvious stereotypes in our society and ran with them for her gain (I don't for one minute buy her line about "giving a voice" to an otherwise ignored group of people.)

    What about this story made it worthy? Her race. A poor neglected white girl (well, half white) raised by a stereotypical strong, long-suffering black matriarch. Talk about stereotype...geez, can't black women ever NEED and GET support?

    It's common knowledge that memoirs sell and that other stories don't sell as well. However, I still don't see that as a reason to lie. She could have possibly had a valuable and long-term writing career had she told the truth. I think her gains over time versus the quick gain of a fake memoir might actually be equal.

  15. Yeah i agree with you Expat Jane here we go again gang-bangers in South Central LA oh boy no comment but anyway there was Japanese/black lady named Vivian Hsu who tried to have her play be seen on either an Asian-American and an African-American stage and both of them turned her down. I was like what? So you have to be one or the other to tell a good and powerful story?

  16. Well, the scandal here is she wasn't half anything. She is a white woman who is a liar.

    As for Vivian, yeah, that's what I mean. What about these real stories? Those can't see the light of fucking day, but let a white girl have some hardship and she gets a bloody book deal.

    Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit...

  17. I think there are very stereotypical expectations when it comes to agents.

    Two weeks ago, my friend (from Cambodia) and I were talking about the problem with agents who are looking for "ethnic fiction."

    Do they want the whole experience? Or do they want the one they think people should have had? In other words, would my Cambodian friend have an easier time getting a query accepted for a book about the struggles of a Cambodian who moves to Long Beach and wants to overcome his times in the camps and wade through the American morass to be successful? Frankly, all he wants to do is write science fiction and not have to submit under the name, "James Smith." He does not want to submit under the "ethnic fiction" genre... thank you very much!

    could she have gotten published as a white woman writing a novel about African-Americans

    Bottom line: you have to tell the truth about who you are. You can't pose as anyone but yourself. You pitch the work you've got, as yourself.

  18. I think she could have gotten published too. It could also have been a memoir had she written about HER experiences as a white girl from the valley who learned about the lives of black people in South Central L.A.

    Why she had to steal people's stories and put them forth as her own still escapes me.

  19. Susan Straight usually writes about her own experiences, having bi-racial children, etc. I agree that "white girl gets schooled" could be salable, but as a novel, I'm not so sure.

    But the more I look at her history and the MySpace stuff, the more I think she knew people who told her these stories. (Fishbowl LA, etc.)

  20. That's what I said. Sell the "white girl from the San Fernando valley learns about the hard life on the street" as a memoir. Maybe that's real (although now people are chipping away at the authenticity of that claim too.)

    It just seems that saying she couldn't get this story signed as fiction is a way to justify her lying about it. Many stories don't ever get signed. Hers would be another. It doesn't really tug at my heartstrings that much.


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