Steve Almond

Liar, liar, bestseller on fire

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Steve Almond
March 6, 2008

BY NOW most of you have heard the story of Margaret Seltzer, nee Margaret B. Jones. She's the Oregon woman who wrote "Love and Consequences," a critically lauded memoir of her years running drugs in South Central Los Angeles, which just happens to have been fabricated.

If this plot line sounds familiar, that's because it is. Last week, Misha Defonseca revealed that she made up her critically lauded memoir, "Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years." It turns out, she did not live with a pack of wolves. She did not wander Europe searching for her parents. She is not Jewish.

These hoaxes follow the James Frey debacle of two years ago, during which Frey was forced to admit that he had made up crucial portions of his critically lauded memoir, "A Million Little Pieces."

And then, of course, there's the strange case of JT LeRoy. His harrowing accounts of child prostitution, drug use, and vagrancy were presented as fiction, but allegedly based on his own experiences. JT LeRoy didn't exist. He was a fiction created by the writer Laura Albert.

What is going on in publishing?

Without quite meaning to, Seltzer provided an answer a few days ago, when she told The New York Times: ". . .I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it."

Seltzer's explanation certainly sounds bogus. If her book was good enough to win the adulation of critics like Michiko Kakutani, it was presumably good enough to be published as fiction. Alternatively, if Seltzer had wanted to write an honest nonfiction account of gang life, she might have done the research and written a piece of ethnography.

But Seltzer became convinced that only by presenting the story as autobiography would anyone "listen to it."

The sad truth is she's probably right. Over the past few years, publishers have responded to declining readership by developing an insatiable hunger for books that come with "author survivors" attached.Why? Because they know that such books are about 100 times more likely to get reviewed and featured on National Public Radio and anointed by Oprah.

It's not enough anymore simply to offer besieged publishers a nuanced work of imagination. They need an inspirational figure the marketing people can dangle as interview bait. They need a pitch dramatic enough to resonate within the frantic metabolism of our perpetual news cycle.

If these fake memoirs feel "ripped from the headlines" it's precisely because they're calibrated to feed the same media machine that habitually markets "real life" trauma as a narrative trope. It's all there: the innocence lost, the tried and true villains, the cinematic victim hood.

I'd be willing to bet that if Seltzer (like Frey) had shopped her book as fiction, editors would have taken a pass. They might have even complained that the plot twists felt clichéd or unrealistic. But presented as a work of nonfiction, her editors knew they'd struck gold. They wanted to believe her story, so they did.

And the critics and culture editors - who often take more interest these days in the authorial persona than the work - went right along.

It's worth mentioning that the same market forces have spawned a glut of gimmick memoirs. Rather than reflecting on the events of their lives, authors contrive material by spending a year at some wacky pursuit. These are books that arrive on an editor's desk with their own built-in marketing pitch.

We will no doubt hear much handwringing from media sources, who will wag their fingers at Seltzer for lying, and her editors for not showing more oversight. They will conveniently ignore the fact that a week ago, before the fall, they were all too eager to celebrate her tale.

But it's hard for me to blame the folks in publishing. They're merely trying to remain relevant - and solvent - in a culture that has become addicted to lurid fairytales.

In a nation where the emotional manipulations of tabloid news and reality TV preoccupy us more than the carnage in Iraq or global climate change, is it any wonder those authors "hoping to be heard" have turned away from the quieter, more terrifying province of truth?

Steve Almond is the author of the essay collection "(Not that You Asked)."

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