Reviews — From the September 2008 issue

Books and Circuses

The politics of literary scapegoating

Discussed in this essay:

The Three of Us: A Family Story, by Julia Blackburn. Pantheon Books. 320 pages. $26.

Before I ran out of bookshelf space, I had a section devoted to “as told to” memoirs by B-list celebrities. I liked the racy, improbable tales of early traumas transcended, near-fatal illnesses and tour-bus crashes survived, substance-addled marriages crashing and burning, lessons learned and evil ways mended. Reading them was like watching TV, or like eating cotton candy. You couldn’t stand very much at once, and the gossamer stories seemed to dissolve on contact with your brain.

I’ve long since donated this collection to my local library’s book sale. But I thought of it twice in the past year, on both occasions with affection. The first time was when my son told me he’d just read, in Nina Simone’s memoir, I Put a Spell on You, an anecdote about being bored by one of Louis Farrakhan’s sermons and trying unsuccessfully to seduce him. “Who knows how much of the book is true,” my son said, “but it’s totally entertaining.”

The second time was during the scandal that erupted last winter over Love and Consequences, a “memoir” of an embattled inner-city childhood. The book received wide publicity and positive reviews until its author, Margaret B. Jones, was outed by her sister, who had seen, in the New York Times, an article about the haven Ms. Jones had found in Oregon after growing up amid the violence of South Central Los Angeles. When her sister revealed that Margaret Jones was actually Margaret Seltzer and had been raised in a middle-class suburb, the press spent several gleeful days telling us, it seemed, far more about Margaret Seltzer (who had given interviews in her invented, street-talking persona) than we were hearing about the war in Iraq. Acting quickly, Ms. Seltzer’s publishers not only recalled the book; they pulped it. Although the Nazis had given book-burning a bad name, the costly business of recall and punitive pulping appears to have become an acceptable, indeed merciful, form of literary euthanasia.

A month or so later, I was able to obtain a copy of Love and Consequences from a friend who works in a bookstore. (Alternatively, one can bid for the book on eBay, where copies last spring were selling for $50; the going price has since fallen to $9.95.)

The friend who gave me the book said, “Don’t ask how I got it.” He wouldn’t let me pay.

Were we doing something illegal? It was samizdat, in a way. I was reading a banned text. But why was I surprised by the book’s dire fate? Given the calumny heaped upon previous literary “hoaxers”—James Frey and J T LeRoy, among others—and their hapless editors, it made sense that publishers might have had a rapid-response plan in place, designed to minimize damage and negative publicity, should a similar situation occur.

What did seem a little strange was the extremity of the response, the eagerness to purge from the planet a book by a so-called memoirist who turns out to have made up her life story.

Of course, no one likes to be lied to, and for some reason Americans seem to hate lies—or, at least, certain kinds of lies—more than most. In Huckleberry Finn, the Duke and the Dauphin—bogus aristocrats, fraudulent thespians, grifters who pretend to be a dead man’s relatives in order to steal the legacy from his rightful heirs—are tarred and feathered for staging a performance that essentially consists of the Dauphin jumping around naked.

In order to put the Margaret Joneses and James Freys in a broader context, it might be useful to look at those chapters of Mark Twain’s endlessly reflective mirror of the American psyche. The irony of the Duke and the Dauphin is not how bad they are at what they claim to do, or how good they are at what they actually do, but rather the fact that their crimes—faked pedigrees, a rotten show, a thwarted attempt at larceny—provoke the moral outrage of a slaveholding society that finds it perfectly acceptable to buy and sell human beings.

On nearly every occasion when I’ve been invited to speak about both fiction and nonfiction writing, someone has asked my opinion of the scandalous disclosure that James Frey had fabricated sections of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. I reply that I’m puzzled that people seem more upset by a lie about how long a writer spent in rehab than a lie about whether Saddam Hussein had access to weapons of mass destruction. Inevitably, nervous laughter ripples through the room.

In fact, I couldn’t be more serious. Each time, I find myself wondering: Why isn’t the audience talking to one another, and to me, about how, for the past eight years, our government has deceived us about matters of huge consequence—the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, real estate foreclosures, poverty, unemployment, the handling of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy? The list of falsehoods—and attendant tragedies—goes on. And our response is to tar and feather James Frey and Margaret Seltzer rather than Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzales.

Is the steady barrage of Big Lies so terrifying and numbing that Americans can only respond to the Small Lies? Compare the frenzy of self-analysis and self-castigation with which the publishing industry responded to news of the fabricators to the relatively restrained reaction of our government when faced with the demands of its own citizens: thoughtful publishers of false memoirs have offered to refund the two-figure expenditures of irate consumers—an option currently unavailable to American taxpayers who have been defrauded of billions.

Meanwhile, the pulping machines into which Ms. Seltzer’s publishers pitched her faux-memoir have been fueled by the more unsavory aspects of celebrity culture. Readers of reviews or literary blogs have observed the intensity with which authors are simultaneously admired and despised as liars by profession. It’s something like the ambivalence that sports fans appear to feel about the athletes whose understandable reluctance to tell the world they’ve been shooting up with steroids has been denounced as a threat to the morals of the nation’s youth.

Americans have difficult lives right now. Mortgages have exploded, kids are in Iraq. Who could blame anyone for wanting a good laugh and a satisfying shake of the head over the public shaming of an Eliot Spitzer, or, for that matter, a James Frey or a Margaret Seltzer?

Perhaps I should have explained all this to the young editor who sat beside me at a dinner party, and who—when I claimed I didn’t really care if the writer’s name was Jones or Seltzer, or if her memoir was true—reacted as if I’d said I didn’t care if Chinese-made pharmaceuticals were contaminated with poison. I almost told him, “It’s only a book,” but I thought that would have sounded strange, coming from a writer.

Because I’ve been blithely going on about telling the truth, I feel a certain compulsion to confess that I was one of those who avidly followed the story of the Margaret Seltzer memoir. I especially loved the detail of her being exposed by her sister. I wondered what was the history there, how did that conversation go? And what about the mentors, editors, agents, and critics who had been deceived?

My curiosity about all this made me want to read the book. I hoped that Love and Consequences would prove to be a first-rate work of the imagination that should have been identified as fiction. No matter how much her story stuck to, or diverged from, the facts, Margaret Seltzer should have followed the route that Dave Eggers took with What Is the What, his terrific novel closely based on the autobiography of a Sudanese lost boy, Valentino Achak Deng. Call your book a memoir, as did Ishmael Beah, and you must be willing to swear to the veracity of every word, which is what happened with Beah’s A Long Way Gone. But call it a novel, and you have quite a bit of latitude to embroider.

I would have liked to write that because of the doublethink and denial that have taken over our culture, Margaret Jones-Seltzer’s great novel would never be read. Sadly, Love and Consequences is not a great novel. As fiction, it has the generic quality of those B-list celebrity bios. The little girl’s abuse is discovered when blood runs down her leg at school. There’s a violent gang initiation, the senseless deaths of appealing young people, a rock of maternal goodness, Big Mom, struggling to hold her biological and foster family together.

But if you read it as a memoir, it’s a whole different book, because there’s a second story grafted onto the first. The parallel narrative, shadowing everything, is that of a young woman (abused, part-white, part–Native American, farmed out to a foster family in South Central) who survived all that and went on to write all this. It’s not just a book; it’s the American dream. Poverty can be overcome, a street kid can grow up to write about it, and although race informs every word of the text, the point is that a white girl can live in a black world, surrounded by loving foster siblings, as if race didn’t matter. Even the most experienced of us, the most hardened, or the most savvy are defenseless against the stories we most want to hear, and you can understand how the book’s early readers were persuaded, especially in the absence of any reason for doubt.

By now it’s impossible to approach Love and Consequences (unless you come to it cold, having picked it up on the remainder table, which is unlikely to happen) as anything but a made-up story whose author pretended it was true. Reading it, I kept recalling something I’d heard about a medieval alchemist who told his students they could transform base metals into gold if they could perform the extremely long and elaborate distillation without once thinking of the word “hippopotamus.” In this case, the hippopotamus I couldn’t screen out was the subject of how and why we read memoirs, and how the assumption that what we are reading is factual may cause us to approach the work in ways that would never cross our minds were we reading a novel.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her new novel, Goldengrove, will be published in September.

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