Gang Memoir Fabricated
March 5, 2008 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Fake Memoir Exposed: Margaret Seltzer, pen name Margaret Jones, wrote a critically acclaimed memoir, Love and Consequences, that was published last week. NPR's "On Point" covered the story, and she gave Penguin an interview. After seeing a New York Times feature, though, her own sister outed her as a fraud.

In the wake of discovering another fake memoir this week, some are understandably upset. Others are more forgiving. Still others are raising questions about what this means for the publishing industry.

Further speculation abounds. Did Love and Consequences benefit from a special relationship with the New York Times? Maybe, or maybe not.
posted by lunit (83 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
This doesn't bode well for sales of my soon-to-be-released memoir in which I grow up dealing catnip to pumas in Yellowstone in order to buy beef for my pack so they wouldn't resort to killing livestock and get hunted down by vengeful ranchers. Beta Male Blues, coming soon.
posted by cog_nate at 8:38 AM on March 5, 2008 [10 favorites]


It's only now, after the reviews and after a Times profile, that the sister comes forward?

That was going to be my question. The sister never even read the book (after 11 years of being in print??), just the NYT feature? That's cold.
posted by DU at 8:42 AM on March 5, 2008


A friend of mine's sister wrote a novel two years ago which 3 publishers (she says) are interested in publishing... if she "agrees" that it's a memoir. (It isn't.) She's refused and it sits in a shoebox.
posted by dobbs at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2008 [5 favorites]


(Nice post, by the way.)
posted by cog_nate at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2008


I was going to say that publishers could have would-be authors sign a contract that requires them to give the money back if their memoirs are faked... but dobbs' reply above makes me wonder if it's really the authors' problem.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:48 AM on March 5, 2008


Oops, the "benefit" link was supposed to be this.
posted by lunit at 8:52 AM on March 5, 2008


The sister never even read the book (after 11 years of being in print??)

You're confusing the sister book with another book mentioned that was published 11 years prior and recently exposed under different circumstances.
posted by dobbs at 8:55 AM on March 5, 2008


That was going to be my question. The sister never even read the book (after 11 years of being in print??), just the NYT feature? That's cold.

Seltzer's book was just released this week, and it was under a psuedonym -- so the sister didn't know about it until she saw pictures of her sister in the paper.
posted by lisa g at 8:57 AM on March 5, 2008


Dang, you beat me to this post.

To clear up DU's confusion: Seltzer's "memoir" is just out - the one that's been out 11 years is Misha Defonseca's Holocaust "memoir", and it was Defonseca herself who admitted the hoax.

Two years ago, the LA Weekly broke the story of yet another fake Native American writing fake memoirs - anybody here read Nasdijj's Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, or The Boy and the Dog are Sleeping?

Put Seltzer and Nasdijj and J.T. Leroy in a pile, and you really have to wonder why certain white, middle-class writers seem compelled to write "memoirs" about being nonwhite and/or poor and/or abused rather than writing novels. I loved Nasdijj's Blood Runs Like A River, but felt betrayed when I found out that it was all made up. (And there have been suggestions that his "foundation" for Native kids is a scam, as well.) But if the book had been presented as a novel, the sense of betrayal would have been absent.

Publishers are certainly complicit in this. All the handwaving about just trusting the author is a very poor excuse for not doing some basic fact-checking.
posted by rtha at 8:57 AM on March 5, 2008


(or what dobbs said)
posted by lisa g at 8:57 AM on March 5, 2008


Ack. And the "interview" link was supposed to be this.

sorry, i'm kinda new.
posted by lunit at 8:59 AM on March 5, 2008


I wonder, as this is happing with increased frequency (twice this week) why people do this? It's not like it's a easy thing to write a book, and especially one that is well-received. What's the motivation? Why not just call it fiction, or even 'based on actual events' but filled in/embellished memoirs? Like David Sedaris, Hunter Thompson, Bill Bryson or even Thomas Wolfe...perhaps Wm Shakespeare and Melville? I read 'Million Little Pieces' years before Orfice Winfry pushed it and I thought it was quite good...never occurred to me to take everything as fact, man.
The mind boggles.
posted by dawson at 9:01 AM on March 5, 2008


If this somehow ends in early retirement for Michiko Kakutani, it's a net positive.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:04 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Pantheon Books has stopped shipping copies of Persepolis and Persepolis 2 after several bloggers raised troubling concerns about the autobiographical comic books. Reached by phone on Wednesday evening, Marjane Satrapi tearfully admitted that she had taken 'extensive liberties' in her depiction of her youth in Iran. Satrapi does in fact have both lips and eyelids. She also confessed to 'completely making up the whole two-dimension thing.'"
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:09 AM on March 5, 2008 [5 favorites]


And if this also somehow ends in a backlash against novels that are thinly veiled memoirs it will be a HUGE net positive. If I never read another novel by someone who confuses "write what you know" with "write what you've done" it'll be too soon. Unfortunately the problem here is memoirs that are slightly obfuscated novels so probably not.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:10 AM on March 5, 2008


There's definitely a racism/romanticizing/exotification issue, here. Especially if you read excerpts from the interview where she refers to "OG homie" and "Big Mom" and that she's tired of her 'hood being stereotyped.

You want to make the book understandable to the average reader in the suburbs but you also want it to be realistic...And I want people to understand how deep-seated the hatred really is between CRIPs and Bloods. CRIPs celebrate C-days rather than B-days (birthdays) and Bloods smoke bigarettes not cigarettes.
posted by lunit at 9:10 AM on March 5, 2008


What's the motivation?

Money, money, money. As languagehat pointed out in the last fake-memoir thread, memoirs outsell novels by a very good rate now.

Have you ever watched a VH1 reality show? You know, the kind that feature the family of one celebrity or another (Salt & Pepa, Hulk Hogan, all that)? These shows are obviously scripted (I mean, far more obviously scripted that your average reality show). They are like bad sitcoms with no laugh track and no jokes. If Salt & Pepa starred in a sitcom, no one would watch it. Put a scrim of "reality" on it and Hello, basic cable!

We live in weird times.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:11 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Put Seltzer and Nasdijj and J.T. Leroy in a pile, and you really have to wonder why certain white, middle-class writers seem compelled to write "memoirs" about being nonwhite and/or poor and/or abused rather than writing novels.

I always figured that since such books sell in large numbers, people wanting to sell large numbers of books write them. It's just another way that people push empathy to the point of exploitation.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:14 AM on March 5, 2008


Public crucification on Oprah in 5..4...
posted by Webbster at 9:18 AM on March 5, 2008


yay for Oregon.
posted by docpops at 9:21 AM on March 5, 2008


I feel like I need to write a fake memoir.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:23 AM on March 5, 2008


Ms. Seltzer added that she wrote the book “sitting at the Starbucks” in South-Central, where “I would talk to kids who were Black Panthers and kids who were gang members and kids who were not.”

Gross.
posted by chococat at 9:27 AM on March 5, 2008


I was going to post about this, having just heard the On Point, radio program about the deception.
posted by Dave Faris at 9:27 AM on March 5, 2008


It's so brutal reading about this while trying to get a book based on my experiences as a social worker published. I'm getting responses like, "it's too grim," "it's too dark," "we can't market this nationally." Basically, the fact that I've presented a very real and accurate portrayal of inner city life is working against me.

I can't tell if these publishers actually want bullshit because it's easier to market or they're so detached from reality that they can't even remember what bullshit smells like. It's perplexing, and very frustrating.
posted by The Straightener at 9:34 AM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


> I feel like I need to write a fake memoir.

Chris Elliot beat you to it.
posted by ardgedee at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2008


I feel like I need to write a fake memoir.

I took a writing course at a local Adult Ed program whose description seemed to indicate that was exactly what the course was about. Except that I was the only one in the class who actually read the course description. So while I showed up with my Wheel story, everyone else showed up with their memoirs. They were shocked to learn that I was not actually raised by parents who consulted random chance every time I was to be published and that my sister was not actually in a mental ward somewhere. Some were even hurt that my story lied to them.

I couldn't believe it. Even in a course dedicated to writing fake non-fiction, people just accepted everything as being real. I tried to keep with it, but the biggest lie these people could manage in their memoirs were fudging the make a model of a childhood car. So after they tried to console me after I told them the tale of the time I was almost killed by Russian gangsters during a semester abroad, I threw up my hands and left the class.

Memoir People will believe anything.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:44 AM on March 5, 2008 [22 favorites]


> Basically, the fact that I've presented a very real and accurate portrayal of inner city life is working against me.

I think this is the essence of the problem. There are thousands of ex-thugs and hangers-on with sufficient talent to present their own story, or work with a coauthor. They don't get lucrative book deals and promo spreads because they don't have the right social connections and they don't have the right social affect to package their story in the way the gatekeepers want.

If grimness in the story is called for, it's got to be grim. But it's got to be grim in the right way, as dictated by the expectations of people who grew up and lived their lives in a different social caste, in a different part of the world.
posted by ardgedee at 9:44 AM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


The real story here is that Michiko Kakutani actually claimed to have liked a book. That should have been the first clue that something was up.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2008


I have it on good authority that Elton John has never even been to space, let alone made his living as a rocket man.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:49 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Her answer to my question:
In an attempt to explain herself, Seltzer laments, "Maybe it's an ego thing — I don't know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it." A knee-jerk reaction to that comment — and a question constantly brought up during the Frey scandal — is "Why not just publish the story as fiction?" Clearly, publishers don't think anyone would buy it. Would you? Is a writer with a somewhat tragic background that much more marketable? And is a memoir only noteworthy if it's true?
So then, it's hubris and greed. And I'd bet, a rather convoluted personality disorder.
I struggle with even silly internet profiles, (the truth sounds like bullshit and really, who cares what one human out of billions has done/thinks?) but speaking of hilarious embellishment on profiles, this has gotta be my all time fave.

And Mimi Read may want to just slink off to the wilds of Alaska.
posted by dawson at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


The publishing industry is in extreme denial about their complicity in all this. Here's Nan Talese:

I think what editors are going to have to do is point to the things that happened recently and say to their authors, 'If there is anything in your book that can be discovered to be untrue, you better let us know right now, and we'll deal with it before we publish it'

Does she really think this will solve the problem? Yes, the honor system saves publishers about a $1000 a book but it leads inevitably to fiascos like this.
posted by otio at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2008


I would love to hear what all the people who argue that we need traditional publishing because of its superior "gatekeepers" think of this. In the Times story, Nan Talese (James Frey's publisher) unveils her plan for stopping fabricators: "I think what editors are going to have to do is point to the things that happened recently and say to their authors, ‘If there is anything in your book that can be discovered to be untrue, you better let us know right now, and we’ll deal with it before we publish it.'" Admonishing authors to turn themselves in right now if they've made stuff up -- now that's getting tough! And Seltzer's editor said that she trusted the memoirist because she was represented by "'a respected literary agent' who had in turn been referred to the author by a writer whom Ms. Bender had worked with previously." We're all friends here. No need to get picky about facts.

The overall impression is of a clubby world that's mostly concerned with protecting its own. Talese argues that fact-checking books would be "insulting" to the authors. The readers, apparently, one doesn't have to worry about.
posted by transona5 at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2008


See this is why I write my mysteries.
Having to write the absolute truth is boring.
Learning new and different ways how people can be killed and caught is not boring.
posted by willmize at 9:50 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know, I'm just now recalling a very weird (and fortunately, short) conversation I had some years ago with an editor at a big house (I want to say Random, but that might be wrong).

At the time, I worked at a small gay and lesbian book review magazine. We sponsored an awards ceremony every year, and one of my jobs was to call editors to get copies of the nominated books for our judges. I called this editor to ask for copies of something, and we got to chatting about the State of Publishing and so on. This was around the time that Sapphire had gotten a reportedly huge advance for her first novel, Push.

Suddenly, the editor said, "Do you write?" Her tone had gone from fun 'n gossipy to Serious Business.

I'd had a couple of pieces published in anthologies, so I said, cautiously, "Yes."

"You're Hawaiian, right?"

"Yeah..."

"Because it looks like books - memoirs, autobiographical novels - from women of color are going to be really hot. Do you have a chapter or something you could send me?"

It's not like I hadn't known that publishing is a business, but this exchange thoroughly squicked me out. For all she knew, I couldn't write my way out of a wet paper bag - but I was a Woman of Color! and therefore Worthy!

I never sent her a chapter.

Publishing is weird.
posted by rtha at 9:51 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


We live in weird times.


It was ever thus, Bookhouse.

The Victorian era equivalent was the fake foreign travel account, versus the real explorer's reportage.

Today the fake memoir writer concocts a marketable identity to chart his amazing inner journey.

It's the same old con (and yes, it predates the Victorian era - but the public appetite for travel peaked significantly in the 19th century).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:52 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


“For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to,” Ms. Seltzer said. “I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

So I suppose something like "Memoirs of people in South Central, as told to Margaret Seltzer" wouldn't have worked?
posted by vacapinta at 9:52 AM on March 5, 2008



She claimed that one of the first things she did when she became a drug dealer was buy a burial plot. I've known a lot of drug dealers. Never met one who didn't think he or she was going to make big bucks, avoid arrest, and then get out. No burial plot needed!

Oddly enough, when I read the profile, this didn't stand out to me, I think because I was taken by her communal attitude toward life (having random people living with her, etc.) so it lulled my skepticism. What I should have been thinking was-- how could a former gang member actually lives like that, most are completely paranoid and trust no one, let alone let people live with them.

And what foster care agency places a white-looking kid who is supposed to be part Native American with a black family?
posted by Maias at 10:00 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have to agree with James Hynes:

The other thing that interests me about this particular case is that Ms. Seltzer wasn't actually caught by some journalist or blogger, but had her cover blown by her own sister, who is fourteen years older. Speaking purely pruriently (i.e., speaking as a novelist), that's the story, and the family dynamic, I'd like to read about.
posted by Lucinda at 10:01 AM on March 5, 2008


Young drug dealers in Philly don't buy burial plots, they get a memorial of stuffed animals piled up on the spot where they got dropped. I guess you can't expect somebody who hasn't left Manhattan in the last ten years to know these things, though.
posted by The Straightener at 10:10 AM on March 5, 2008


Here I was, having awoken from a drunken stupor. I couldn't think, my head was pounding. Pounding. Did I really jump off the second floor balcony last night? I wasn't sure. I remember, yet I don't. Certainly I didn't. I'm not that stupid. Am I?

I reach for the aspirin. It's not in it's usual place. Where is it? Why does my kitchen look oddly different? Why are there cows on my wallpaper? They were ducks yesterday. This is unsettling.

I stumble towards the front door to pick up the morning paper. As I grow closer, I hear shouting. I think. I'm not sure. My ears are still ringing from last night.

I open the door. That's when it all comes to me. Cops are surrounding the house. I quickly close the door and turn towards the couch. The owners are bound and gagged.

I remember now. This is the second tequila episode I've had in as many months. Something has to change. Something had to change.

These are my memoirs. This is my life.

And I can't write worth a damn. Oh well, as long as people are faking memoirs I might as well join them.
posted by robtf3 at 10:11 AM on March 5, 2008


I doubt that fake memoirs are really on the rise, even just over the few decades. William Least Heat Moon? Carlos Castenada? Bruce Chatwin (who I love, and thus I am forced to go "la la la I can't hear you" when people talk about him)? Heck, I've heard rumors about Annie Dillard. I think it just wasn't as big news before. Now we had the interweb, which makes it so easy for everyone to get the dirt when tall tales are exposed.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:12 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Not to mention Forrest Carter and the Little Tree fiasco. I can't believe that book is still being bought.
posted by Toekneesan at 10:19 AM on March 5, 2008


Marco Polo sails again.
posted by Avenger at 10:24 AM on March 5, 2008


See, stuff can be true and staged. That's the essence of a lot of modern travel writing and the whole 'Help I'm Male and Middle Class!' sub-genre of quarter-life crisis auto-biographical literature. If your real life is a bit boring, go out and do interesting stuff, even if it's purely for the book, until you've got material to write about.
posted by RokkitNite at 10:29 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Bingo Maias. When I read that NY Times profile in the Home section I was suspicious, not on the "made it all up and is really a white Episcopalian" level, but definitely on a "there may be some exagerating going on here level" because what former gang-member with a little kid and living underground is going to let herself be written up in the Times Home section with all those pics, let alone let folks from her past life live with her while they recuperate, IIRC, one from getting shot.
posted by Jahaza at 10:31 AM on March 5, 2008


Heck, I've heard rumors about Annie Dillard.

Eh, what?
posted by chinston at 10:34 AM on March 5, 2008


Having just read Gaylord Perry's "Me and the Spitter," I'm pretty sure he threw the spitter.
posted by drezdn at 10:48 AM on March 5, 2008


Heck, I've heard rumors about Annie Dillard.

Eh, what?


I'll second that "Eh, what?" and raise you a "What have you heard?"

I love Dillard's writing.
posted by willmize at 10:51 AM on March 5, 2008


My theory is that in this age when so many people crave attention, people will make up increasingly over-the-top stories to try to bring attention to themselves. It's like a little kid who realizes people will listen to them when they tell a tall tale, so they tell even more grandiose stories.
posted by drezdn at 10:51 AM on March 5, 2008


I feel like I need to write a fake memoir.

I don't believe you.
posted by JanetLand at 10:52 AM on March 5, 2008


The author is an idiot for even thinking she wouldn't be exposed (let alone by her sib) but the publishers are just utterly greedy. How hard is it to check into a story like that? not hard. Publishing seems about as sleazy as Hollywood.
posted by cogneuro at 10:58 AM on March 5, 2008


The Straightener: "It's so brutal reading about this while trying to get a book based on my experiences as a social worker published. I'm getting responses like, "it's too grim," "it's too dark," "we can't market this nationally." Basically, the fact that I've presented a very real and accurate portrayal of inner city life is working against me.

I can't tell if these publishers actually want bullshit because it's easier to market or they're so detached from reality that they can't even remember what bullshit smells like. It's perplexing, and very frustrating.
"

Could the problem be that you start out a social worker and end up a social worker? The grimness and darkness has to belong to the author, not the subjects, for misery lit. to sell.
posted by jack_mo at 11:02 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I feel like I need to write a fake memoir.

Is it possible to write a memoir about creating a fake memoir? It would be true, right?
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:06 AM on March 5, 2008


"Publishing seems about as sleazy as Hollywood."

Star Wars isn't real????!!!?????
posted by HuronBob at 11:27 AM on March 5, 2008


Somewhere in one of the articles or blog posts written about this, someone asked why the fake memoirists couldn't just write fiction. I think it has to do with the emphasis our culture places on authenticity. There's real feminism and fake feminism. Real black and fake black. Even being black doesn't guarantee that you won't be found guilty of being white on the inside. We are obsessed with who has a right to speak for each community. We are divided by race, by age, by class, by geography, by everything. If you're rich and black, you can't speak for poor black people. If you're pretty and Latina, you can't speak for ugly Latinas. If you're from Chicago, shut up about New York. I have encountered a strong belief in many people – that no person can ever transcend his own experience and understand the experience of another. How can a white, suburban woman write about a black ghetto? We would never allow her to do it. She could never understand. She doesn’t have the right. Etc.

This isn’t to say that it’s OK to rebel against this attitude by lying to people. In any case, that only legitimizes the idea that you are wrong to write about what lies outside of your direct experience. I just want to point out what seems to me to have contributed to a rash of novels disguised as autobiographies. It's not surprising given a climate in which only autobiography is legitimate.
posted by prefpara at 11:31 AM on March 5, 2008 [9 favorites]


Man, is it refreshing to pop in here and find so very little of the how-dare-they? faux outrage and blind acceptance of the publishing industry's version of same at face value that accompanied the James Frey revelations.

There have always been confabulators, white liars and straight-out cons in the storytelling game; what's unique about this era is the US publishing industry's zeal to publish the stuff exclusively in "memoir" format, its pretenses to peddling unvarnished truth, and its hypocritical post-revelation handwringing. Combine the posts made here by otio, rtha, and transona5, and you've pretty much got the full picture.

It's the Margaret B. Joneses who claim other people's stories as their own, but then this is the novelist's stock-in-trade; the real problem is the publishers who bribe them - generously - to lie about the origins of their stories. And they do so in large part because of the fact behind transona5's hunch:

The overall impression is of a clubby world that's mostly concerned with protecting its own.


That's putting it mildly. I'm currently in the final Hail Mary stages of trying to sell a nonfiction book that isn't a memoir in New York (it's already out in Canada, but I highly doubt it'll ever see an American launch), so maybe I'm a bit biased, but the experience has been pretty much like trying to get a date with one of the pretty girls at a ridiculously cliquey high school wearing last year's jeans. The apparent majority of the publishing house staffers (particularly on the editorial side) went to the same half-dozen elite universities, they chase trends like narcotized mallrats, and the groupthink would shame a Ron Paul rally.

Everyone's being talked into calling their books "memoirs" by their agents because that's one of the three subgenres currently landing big deals. A novelist is going to get the cool kids' backhanded compliments at best. And a work of narrative nonfiction about something other than one's own tragedy? Nice try, geek, see you in social studies class. But the memoirist will score (or become) the Prom Queen.

Margaret Seltzer could've handed in a ghetto version of Gatsby or the second coming of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and she'd have been lucky to get a deal from a small prestige imprint or second-tier house for a 5,000-copy print run and an advance large enough to pay for a month or two of subsistence living, and when the novel came out it almost certainly would've vanished without a trace to the remainder bins overflowing with well-reviewed all-but-anonymous midlist novels. But a dramatic memoir full of gritty ghetto crime, unexpected twists, and a white-girl protagonist? Cha-cha-cha-ching! Six-figure advance, NY Times feature profile, national book tour, the works. Blame Seltzer for turning into Jones to make the score, sure, but in the end she's just a streetcorner hustler. The real pusher here is the industry, and it lies as a matter of course (to itself as well as to us) to protect its trade.
posted by gompa at 11:49 AM on March 5, 2008 [10 favorites]


I love Dillard's writing.

And because she writes well, she must be telling the truth? You do realize that's exactly the attitude that produced all these scandals, right?

Also, I can't believe no one has quoted this yet: "I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin' on the porch with my family, singin' and dancin' down in Mississippi...."
posted by languagehat at 11:55 AM on March 5, 2008


I have a friend who works at Annie Dillard's publisher and while she never mentioned anything about inaccuracies in her non-fiction, she did mention how incongruous Ms. Dillard's appearance was contrasted with the image she created, especially in Pilgrim. She said the first day Annie walked in the office she was sure it was an impostor. She had long red nails, chain smoked, big Jersey hair, pumps, and a Channel bag. Hardly the outfit of the muck-crawling, log-splitting, amateur naturalist I remember from the book.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:01 PM on March 5, 2008


I think it has to do with the emphasis our culture places on authenticity.

I'm not so sure about this. Just go to any casual clothing store aimed at the 15-30 market. Dirty blue jeans, ripped and falling apart as if they've been worn for decades. Brand new t-shirts with the designs fading and spotty as if they've been through the washer for 20 years.

Plastic surgery or anabolic steroids can give you the body it used to take years in the gym to achieve. Or, if you're older, a few little injections, and the wrinkles it took years to get simply fade away.
posted by Dave Faris at 12:16 PM on March 5, 2008


Gompa - you make good points about the publishing industry - I think that's definitely a dynamic in play here.

That being said, this woman is nothing like what she claimed to be in her memoir. This is not an exaggeration, it's a complete fabrication. It's a co-opting of other people's experiences - which she could only marginally understand - and calling them her own. And I think that's a key destinction in terms of pointing to another trend, which is a gravitation toward being "down" and an exotification of inner-city culture among some members of white (homogenous) suburbia. I have a hard time believing that this incident was solely the result of publishers pressuring her to make it a memoir. I think there's a certain amount of genuine envy and romanticization going on here.

Prefpara, you make an interesting point about autobiographical experiences being lifted up, but cultural accounts from the outside looking in reigned supreme for decades and decades preceding that. I think there's an authentic way to speak about a culture that is not your own in an autobiographical manner - simply by owning your perspective, bias, and story while you're observing it. That could neatly fit into a "memoir" format without being blatantly false, patronizing, and racist.
posted by lunit at 12:23 PM on March 5, 2008


Dave: I wonder if the ease with which we are able to transition between identities doesn’t fuel the anxiety we feel about who people “really are” and what truth they can claim. Our ability to “pass” as members of a different class, even of a different gender, seriously threatens our need to know what kind of authority the people we deal with posses. We think anxiously, “Is this person smarter/richer/more privileged/more victimized than I am, or do they merely appear to be?” So I think your examples rather strengthen my argument.

lunit: Imagine that this woman did publish her book as fiction. She’s white, privileged, etc. You wouldn’t have said that her book was “a co-opting of other people's experiences - which she could only marginally understand”?

You write, “I think there's an authentic way to speak about a culture that is not your own in an autobiographical manner - simply by owning your perspective, bias, and story while you're observing it.” How does this fit with writing fiction? Is there an authentic way for a white, middle class woman to write a novel from the perspective of a half-Native American LA gang member?
posted by prefpara at 12:37 PM on March 5, 2008


Yo, I read this book while I was cooking up a batch of crack buck naked on an airplane, and I was like "Oh no you di'in't girlfriend!" And then I crashed my car and a bunch of other thing happened that I can't remember too clearly right now, but when I woke up I was in rehab but the Bloods in the next room were still gunnin' for me. For me. Gunning. For me.

So what I'm saying here, yo, is that I never bought it from the get go. Anyone who was really down would know this was a hoax of the first water. A hoax. Homies.
posted by rusty at 12:43 PM on March 5, 2008


HAHAH

U GOT UR REALITY IN MY FICTION

U GOT UR FICTION IN MY REALITY


does anyone really still believe anything that comes out of anybody these days?? i thought that was for the phlebs? i love this hilarious "perpetual search for authenticity in biography",s'like saying "historically accurate" or some other wacky oxymoron. and all of the publishers go all keystone cops pretending they had no idea(!!!)

the problem is just like with steroids and baseball: writers of the "authentic" (if there are any...) just can't compete in an industry that is so throughly "juiced", and publishers (like the rest of us) really don't care about fact, only about the suspension of disbelief, and a somewhat coherent illusion.

How many here watch reality shows, american idol, the news, the bible, etc.
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2008


All right, I've gone ahead and started my fake memoir.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:55 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


[If it were fiction]...you wouldn’t have said that her book was “a co-opting of other people's experiences - which she could only marginally understand”?

No, I wouldn't, so long as it was clear (in her introduction, on the cover, whatever) that the novel was not based on her life experiences. If it were fiction, it'd be akin to her claiming that she's writing about something she hadn't experienced first hand. Which is cool with me.

Is there an authentic way for a white, middle class woman to write a novel from the perspective of a half-Native American LA gang member?

That's an interesting question. Maybe there is, but I probably wouldn't buy/read it unless it was made clear somewhere that the story was influenced by real people. Most good fiction is, I think. Had she published the book as fiction, I wouldn't have a problem with it (at least on principle; I'd have to read it, obviously). Then again, I'm not sure I would have heard about it.

Obviously the motivation is there for her to publish the book as a memoir as opposed to as a novel. But I don't think the existence of that motivation makes it okay, ethical, or accountable to the people whose stories she appropriated. The publishing industry is certainly complicit. But so is she.
posted by lunit at 1:07 PM on March 5, 2008


This is a much better post than the thread on MetaChat, which left me wondering what Michio Kaku had to do with the whole thing.
posted by Eideteker at 1:12 PM on March 5, 2008


FWIW, I met Annie Dillard and her then husband, the poet R.H.W. Dillard, in the late 60s when they were living in the Roanoke, Virginia area -- Tinker Creek country. She hadn't published her book then. She did not have a New Jersey do nor carry a Chan(n)el bag and I don't think she wore heels very often. She looked like the young boho wife of an aspiring poet. I never witnessed her gumbooting through muck but she did spend a lot of time out in the woods observing or whatever it is that naturalists do. It's hard for me to see Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek as any kind of memoir -- it's more a set of essays on Nature, sort of a Virginia Sand County Almanac. But then maybe Leopold faked his book, too. I haven't read her later stuff.
posted by CCBC at 1:23 PM on March 5, 2008


Is there an authentic way for a white, middle class woman to write a novel from the perspective of a half-Native American LA gang member?

I feel like I'm missing something. Why on Earth not? To quote an old Roman, "I am a human being. Nothing that is human is alien to me." Everything else is just a little research.

Fiction has captured worlds much farther away than South Central.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:30 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think it has to do with the emphasis our culture places on authenticity.

It's hard to speak generally of our culture, but it strikes me that we place emphasis of the appearance of authenticity, rather than of authenticity itself. The authentic is too close to the truth, which in turn frightens people.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:41 PM on March 5, 2008


(I feel a little bad about focusing on what is ultimately a side issue, though I find it fascinating. But before I get back to the digression, let me just say that I agree with the general sentiments being expressed – her lie is serious, and the publishing culture that is tolerant of this phenomenon needs to change.)

lunit: I think there’s an interesting tension between two of your statements:

First, you say that “if it were fiction, it'd be akin to her claiming that she's writing about something she hadn't experienced first hand. Which is cool with me.”

But later, you say “I probably wouldn't buy/read it unless it was made clear somewhere that the story was influenced by real people.”

So it sounds like it’s cool with you insofar as you don’t object to it, but that’s as far as it goes. You seem to share the belief that authenticity is not just important, but central to the worth of a work of art. Without it, it’s not likely to be “good fiction.” But what does it mean for a novel (or whatever) to be informed by “real people” or real experience? What qualifies? I think our sense of what is “real” enough has been narrowing rapidly. Let’s say that a middle-class white woman wants to write a novel similar in content to the “memoir” at issue. Is it enough for her to know some black people who are or were poor? Does she have to visit a neighborhood similar to the one she is describing? How much time must she spend there? Etc. At what point does she have enough first-hand experience for you to be willing to pick up her book and read it? I ask this because I suspect that deep down, like many people, you don’t really believe she can say anything true about an experience that is different from her own, and that has not always been the standard assumption about writing.

I must admit that I do not subscribe to this principle. I’m more sympathetic to the position expressed by Bookhouse.

For example, you say that you’re “not sure [you] would have heard about” such a novel. In today’s world, that seems likely. But if we were to try to list the works which you have heard about which are not based on the author’s direct experience of the reality informing the content, that list would be long and full of masterpieces…

I am not trying to argue with you. I hope I haven’t come off that way. Rather, I find it troubling that our culture no longer believes that it is possible to speak outside one’s own experience.
posted by prefpara at 1:42 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


True enough. I think part of my distrust of accounts that aren't based on personal experience has to do with the subject matter and the specific context. We're talking about a suburban white woman who is writing about innercity, gang life and about an ethnic experience of being half-Native American growing up in a multi-cultural family. There's a power dynamic there.

Anthropology/psychology/social science etc. has a long history of applying white supremacist (etc. etc.) perspectives onto other cultures. White anthropologists, in particular, made the practice of studying of color in extremely inauthentic and racist ways commonplace. I think maybe the cultural shift toward trusting first-hand accounts more readily (especially first-hand accounts of poverty) - and by extention distrusting second-hand accounts maybe - has to do with debunking this legacy.

She's white. She grew up really privileged. In order for me to trust what she has to say about poverty, she's going to have to convince me that she knows what the hell she's talking about. I don't know how to quantify that in terms of statistics (people talked to, etc.), but owning where she's coming from - and distinguishing between accounts based on her thoughts/experiences and those based on people she's met - is a huge part of that authenticity for me.

Writing fiction about neighborhoods that actually exist seems very different from writing science fiction to me. There's a historical/social context there to consider even if it is fiction.

I probably wouldn't read a fiction written by a middle class white suburban woman about this topic unless there was something special about it - something to show me that her perspective could shed some light on the community in a way that is anthropologically appropriate. I don't think it's unreasonable to set a higher standard for second-hand experience in this case. Knowing about something and living through it are very different things. That's my personal feeling on it, anyway. I don't know if that extends to society in general, although y'all might be correct that it's broader than just personal perference.

I'm not reading anything hostile into your responses; I'm enjoying this conversation a great deal. Even if it is a bit of a derail.
posted by lunit at 2:04 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


that should say "studying people of color..."
posted by lunit at 2:05 PM on March 5, 2008


Re Annie Dillard: she never actually owned a cat, and she has terrible hay fever that keeps her inside all spring.

No, the rumor -- I stress, rumor! -- I heard was that some of the Tinker Creek material doesn't make sense if you're really familiar with the area. A friend-of-a-classmate was looking in to it, carefully reading notes? An early draft? Something like that. I have no idea how the research turned out. I'm not familiar with the area, and it's been over 20 years since I read Tinker Creek. It could be god's own truth as far as I know.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:21 PM on March 5, 2008


lunit: I am also enjoying this discussion! I appreciate your thoughtful and honest responses.

In your last reply, you articulated what I would say is cause of the phenomenon I described in my initial post. I think it’s significant that you refer to what is “anthropologically appropriate” and place our conversation in the context of racism, a history of colonialist thought, and a sensitivity to power dynamics. You’re truly hitting the nail on the head. You’ve perfectly described the contemporary perspective that results in the ascension of authenticity. Our culture is aware of the history of people of privilege co-opting the experiences of people who lacked it. We are sensitive to the power dynamic that exists between people of different races and socio-economic positions. And so we suspect privileged authors who address the experiences of people without privilege. It could be more of the same condescending racist garbage that we revile.

So, in this case, we’re afraid that our hypothetical author will commit the same crime: speak falsely and ignorantly about her subject matter. And because of her privilege and the currency her education and color gives her in this imperfect world, we fear that she will be able to be heard more easily than the people she writes about, that their dissenting voices will be muted by the megaphone you get when you’re white, rich, and educated.

I take those concerns very seriously. If someone ignorant of my life and my world wrote about what it’s like to be me – and got it wrong – I would be outraged.

At the same time, I find it deeply regrettable that, as a consequence, we no longer believe that our hypothetical author should try and write her novel anyway. When I talk about masterpieces written without a direct, experiential basis, I am not only alluding to science fiction. I’m talking about the many authors whose protagonists are of the opposite gender, about authors who write about adventures they’ve never had, conflict they’ve never experienced… you write, “knowing about something and living through it are very different things.” It’s true that there’s no substitute for experience. What I’m suggesting, however, is that there is a fundamental similarity between dissimilar experiences that allows humans to transcend their own lives and connect with and understand other people.

There’s an emphasis in our culture on the documentary. I see it in your post, as well. Let me give you a poor example of what I mean (I am running out the door, I hope I am making sense). I have never broken a bone. However, I have experienced other kinds of physical pain. To me, this means that I can empathize with your broken bone, and I can write about a character who breaks a bone, drawing on my dissimilar-but-related experience and on my imagination. That’s because (and now I’m really starting to get down to taste, which I know one can’t really argue) I don’t think that our current fascination with the details of things – how your broken leg feels, its color, the sound it makes – are as important as how people feel, how they react, how they change, how they explain themselves to each other, etc. I can google up a picture of a broken leg; I can find videos of people breaking their legs on youtube; I can ask a doctor what a person experiences when their leg breaks. These details are nice color, but they’re not, to me, the point.

So I understand why there has been such a reaction against fiction that is not largely autobiographical, and I understand the reluctance to contribute to voices that we already see as strong. But I think something precious has been lost as a result.
posted by prefpara at 2:37 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


As the co-author of a book by a child psychiatrist about his work with severely traumatized children, I empathize with the Straightener's experience and have to admit when I saw the author profile of this woman before the scandal came out, I had a definite author jealousy moment.

Our publisher has done virtually no publicity and when we were working to sell it, we got all that nonsense about it being too dark and people being too freaked out to read about children raised in cages etc. As a journalist I found it astonishing-- given that "if it bleeds it leads" is supposed to be the watchword here and given all the interest in serial killers, true crime, etc.

If we'd faked it as the memoir of the boy who was raised as a dog, I suppose we could have gotten more attention-- which is a sad commentary on the state of publishing where expertise matters less than experience.
posted by Maias at 2:50 PM on March 5, 2008


Anybody up for Thanksgiving 2008 with the Seltzer family? Oooh, it will be fun!

Pass the turkey...
posted by grounded at 2:53 PM on March 5, 2008


Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks, prefpara!
posted by lunit at 4:52 PM on March 5, 2008


prefpara: What I’m suggesting, however, is that there is a fundamental similarity between dissimilar experiences that allows humans to transcend their own lives and connect with and understand other people.

Following up on prefpara's suggestion that authenticity can be achieved through imagination, not just experience, Joyce Carol Oates (reviewing Claire Messud) has this to say:
Nietzsche tells us: "Poets behave shamelessly toward their experiences: they exploit them." But is this so, invariably? In prose fiction, as in poetry? It has become a commonplace assumption that even writers of ambition are inspired primarily by their own lives, and by the experiences of their generations, fed by the influence of the great, self-absorbed and -obsessed Modernists (Joyce, Proust, Lawrence) and by mid-twentieth-century American "confessional" poets (Lowell, Berryman, Sexton, Plath); as if the autobiographical pulse is ubiquitous, beating visibly, or invisibly, fueling the very act of creation. Who needs a muse, where there is a mirror? What need for any effort of the imagination, in the creation of poetry or prose in the mode of Robert Lowell: "Yet why not say what happened?"

Yet there is an equally powerful instinct to resist autobiography/confession, to create purely imagined, or assimilated, literary works; for some writers, even those for whom the stylistic experimentations of Modernism are extremely attractive, the very act of "identification" must involve distance, difference. "If Art does not enlarge men's sympathies, it does nothing morally," as George Eliot once remarked. That art should be guided by, or even suggest, a moral compass seems, in the post-Modernist era, quaintly remote, quixotic; yet there are numerous notable writers for whom the nineteenth-century ideal of "enlarging sympathy" is predominant.

Among contemporary writers whose inspiration seems, at times magically, to be the very antithesis of self, Claire Messud has demonstrated a remarkable imaginative capacity. Born in 1966 in the United States, educated at Yale and Cambridge, Messud has set her several novels in such widely disparate places as the remote, punishing islands of Bali and Skye (When the World Was Steady, 1994); in a meticulously realized south of France and in Algeria under French colonization (The Last Life, 1999); in Ukraine, wartime (World War II) Europe, and Toronto ("A Simple Tale," in The Hunters, 2001).
posted by russilwvong at 5:02 PM on March 5, 2008


Oprah duped by another fabricated ‘memoir’ -- ‘Love and Consequences’ described as ‘startlingly tender’ in O magazine.
posted by ericb at 5:23 PM on March 5, 2008


I heard was that some of the Tinker Creek material doesn't make sense if you're really familiar with the area.

I spent part of my college career at Hollins (where Richard Dillard still taught and could be counted on for really interesting commentary at readings), in Roanoke, VA, in the shadow of Tinker Mountain, on the shores of Tinker Creek.

The geography seemed all right with me.

However:

If any rumors exist as to the veracity of Annie Dillard's non-fiction, I do not doubt they were started in the Creative Writing department at Hollins, where (as of 1995) certain bitter, envious professors were known to talk a little shit.
posted by thivaia at 7:15 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, that sounds about right, thivaia.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:54 AM on March 6, 2008


joyce carol oates,?

not to say she fabricated.
posted by lemuel at 3:52 PM on March 6, 2008


Radar has tracked down various "gang" writings of the outed author online.
posted by drezdn at 8:01 AM on March 7, 2008


« Older Gee. I think I'll uninstall my firewall and ditch ...  |  Wikipedia page hit statistics ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments