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Tuesday, March 11, 2008 2:35 pm
Lies, Damn Lies, and Memoirs
Posted by: Keir Graff

I wasn’t not blogging yesterday because I was too busy reading the endless takes and updates on false memories, but that could easily have been the case. Whew.

Motoko Rich places Peggy Seltzer aka Margaret B. Jones as merely the latest in a long line of literary liars (“A Family Tree of Literary Fakers,” New York Times):

But the history of literary fakers stretches far, far back, at least to the 19th century, when a slave narrative published in 1863 by Archy Moore was revealed as a novel written by a white historian, Richard Hildreth, and into the early 20th, when Joan Lowell wrote a popular autobiography, "Cradle of the Deep," about her colorful childhood aboard a four-masted ship sailing the South Seas; in fact, she had grown up almost entirely in Berkeley, Calif.

Daniel Mendelsohn (The Lost, 2006) worries that, because of liars like Misha Defonseca, people won’t believe the holocaust stories that are equally amazing–but true (“Stolen Suffering,” NYT):

That pervasive blurriness, the casualness about reality that results when you can turn off entire worlds simply by unsubscribing, changing a screen name, or closing your laptop, is what ups the cultural ante just now. It’s not that frauds haven’t been perpetrated before; what’s worrisome is that, maybe for the first time, the question people are raising isn’t whether the amazing story is true, but whether it matters if it’s true.

Simon Dumenco asks a questions that a lot of people have asked lately, “How Did a Valley Girl Convince Times She Was a Ghetto Chick?“–but provides a different answer (Advertising Age):

There are people who are looking to extract object lessons from the “Love and Consequences” (ironic title!) fraud — about how publishers of both books and newspapers must do a better job of checking facts. Fine; that’s all very well and good. But I also believe that Seltzer and Albert are depraved and cunning megalomaniacs who sought a truly perverse sort of glory and reward through wannabe victimhood and self-debasement (“Hug me, I was raped as a child!”), which is, of course, sick. Crime can be reduced through better policing, sure, but it can never be eliminated because mental illness can never be eliminated.

David Treuer asks, “Why do writers pretend to be Indians?” (“Going Native,” Slate):

It’s easy enough to imagine what motivates literary fakers – their inventions are a way to win attention and acclaim for work that would otherwise be dismissed as pedestrian. But why pretend to be an Indian? What is so appealing about stripping off one’s own identity and donning a reddish one?

Louis Bayard (How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, 2007) fact-checks some classics (“Attention, all you memoir fabulists!” Salon):

“The Adventures of Buffalo Bill Cody”

According to zoologists, the animals that Mr. Cody killed in excessive numbers are not buffaloes but bison. We recommend a global search-and-replace, up to and including author’s name.

Galleycat offers feedback from a book reviewer…

“I’m a critic who was assigned to review Love and Consequences,” says a reader who chose to email me anonymously for fairly obvious reasons. “I had my doubts about the book, but they were smoothed over by the requisite note that names had been changed, experiences conflated, etc… I ignored my instincts, though, because I don’t think it’s a critic’s job to vet memoirs, and the story was compelling and well-written.”

…and notes that others were willing to make Riverhead’s mistake:

Which is exactly what Riverhead did when they discovered Peggy Seltzer‘s deceptions, too. Yes, I think McGrath should have asked tougher questions. But the problem with Love and Consequences didn’t come about because she’s an anomaly in her field – in fact, she delivered exactly what publishers want. If another house had come up with more money for Emily Davies or “Margaret B. Jones,” this weeklong celebration of schadenfraude (the joy of exposing somebody else’s phoniness, according to author Elizabeth Hand) would have some other editor in the spotlight, no doubt giving exactly the same responses.

Amy Alexander consults the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“Truth and Consequences,” The Nation):

 I wanted to see if Margaret Seltzer, aka Margaret B. Jones, the 33-year-old author of Love and Consequences, fits the description of someone with “anti-social personality disorder,” more commonly known as a sociopath.

Motoko Rich questions not the foundations of Seltzer’s story, but the foundation in her story (“Foundation Is Questioned after Memoir Is Exposed,” NYT):

The author who confessed this week to making up her memoir, "Love and Consequences," about growing up as a foster child in gang-ridden South-Central Los Angeles, appears also to have made up a foundation that she claimed was helping "to reduce gang violence and mentor urban teens."

And Steve Huff uncovers a primary source–Seltzer’s dry run (“Seltzer Honed Homegirl Hosejob on AOL,” Radar):

By the time Seltzer set about hoodwinking her editor at Riverhead, Sarah McGrath, she’d already practiced her story on an AOL journal titled “berious b”, which appears to have been created four years ago. “Berious b” was “jus some basik thoughts and perspectives, bree style without apology.” There weren’t many entries, but what Bree – screen name “blastedagronaut” – did post was interesting. Like her “All About Me” section on the right side of the page, which began “im jus a gurl…a simple one at that. i was a soldier once, but i think i am semi-retired now. dont doubt that i am doing my work still, only what that work is has changed…”

And, on Slate, which clearly wants to own this story, Christopher Beam offers “The Fake Memoirist’s Survival Guide“):

Specificity is your enemy. Write with passionate vagueness. Avoid precise dates; don’t get more exact than the year if you can help it. Better yet, the decade. One scholar challenged the authenticity of Misha Defonseca’s memoir based on her claim that her family was deported from Belgium in 1941 – in reality, the Germans didn’t deport Belgian Jews until 1942. Frey was undone when the Smoking Gun discovered he had spent only a few hours in jail, not three months. When in doubt, go with “awhile.”

Also on Slate, Ben Yagoda says the system is working (“Believe It or Not“):

But is it such a terrible thing that so many lying memoirists have been exposed? On the contrary: It’s evidence that the system works.

Also on Slate, Gabriel Sherman updates the Ishmael Beah brouhaha (“The Fog of Memoir“):

Just how did this whole brouhaha start in the first place?

And, FINALLY, on Slate V, a “sneak peek at Volume 2 of Margaret B. Jones’ memoirs.”

2 Responses to “Lies, Damn Lies, and Memoirs”
  1. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » The Novel: A History Says:

    [...] It takes the New Yorker a little longer to catch up with a story, of course, but when they do, the results are usually worth reading. Referencing Margaret Seltzer, Jill Lepore (”Just the Facts, Ma’am“) examines the lies of history, the truth of fiction, and men’s and women’s preferences for each. She asks “What makes a book a history?” and “is ‘historical truth’ truer than fictional truth?” Historians and novelists are kin, in other words, but they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. The literary genre that became known as “the novel” was born in the eighteenth century. History, the empirical sort based on archival research and practiced in universities, anyway, was born at much the same time. Its novelty is not as often remembered, though, not least because it wasn’t called “novel.” In a way, history is the anti-novel, the novel’s twin, though which is Cain and which is Abel depends on your point of view. [...]

  2. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Guess What? My Name Isn’t Really “Keir Graff” Says:

    [...] In the wake of the most recent fake-memoir scandals, many people have asked why editors don’t do a better job of fact-checking potential frauds. Well, maybe it’s because (invoking Shatner here) those editors. Don’t. In fact. Exist! [...]


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