Everybody Signed Off on Margaret Jones, Not Just Riverhead

By Neal Comment

margaret-jones-fakememoir.jpgMaureen O’Neal, who spent twenty years editing books at major publishing houses like Ballantine and Regan Books, isn’t even remotely satisfied by the explanations (“excuses” is the word she used) Riverhead‘s editorial team gave for how Peggy Seltzer was able to trick them into believing Love and Consequences was a real memoir. “The majority of my books were legally vetted prior to publication,” she recalls in an email sent yesterday afternoon, “and the in-house lawyers were unyielding (sometimes overly) about checking facts, mostly out of fear of being sued for slander or libel. I even had an exercise book cancelled because the copyeditor, using the internet, found that parts of the book had been plagiarized. These days, with the internet, it is very easy to check facts, and is not all that costly. I think the editor and publisher were so blinded by the drama of this story that they let go of their objectivity.” But she doesn’t think Sarah McGrath should be held up as the scapegoat: “Her job is to edit and publish great stories, and this book had to have been signed off on at every level.”

And by that standard, it bears repeating, McGrath can be said to have done her job perfectly—picking up a story that was apparently so compelling that it also fooled a Pulitzer-grade book critic like Michiko Kakutani, who said “[Margaret B. Jones has done an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood,” thanks to “a novelist’s eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist’s eye for social rituals and routines.” It also fooled LA Times reviewer Susan Salter Reynolds, who winds up feeling sorry for Seltzer, and fellow Angeleno Yxta Maya Murray, who praised the book for Truthdig and then declared she’s proud she bought into Seltzer’s story and vows “to maintain my faith in women’s witness” the next time she’s handed a similar book to write about.

“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.

And Jennifer Weiner raises a smart objection to Nan Talese‘s belief that asking nonfiction writers to submit to fact checking “would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship.” I have my own reasons for finding that wrongheaded, but as Weiner exclaims:

“Seriously? That’s the relationship she’s worried about? Because if I were a big-deal editor, I think I’d be a little more worried about the author-reader relationship, as in, you’re selling the reader something that says ‘true story’ on the cover, and so you probably ought to take a few steps to make sure it’s, you know, true. And if my author got the vapors when asked for some evidence—a birth certificate, a death notice, the phone numbers of someone who can back up her story—I wouldn’t buy what she was selling. At least not as a memoir.”

And, now that I think about it, the first half of her critique is what rings false about the poses struck by Salter Reynolds and Murray after Seltzer’s con was revealed. Each, in her own way, comes across as valuing their interaction with the book over the relationship with their readers, or the expectations those readers have for a reviewer’s insight and perceptiveness. And the idea that it’s not important that the book was a pack of lies because the reviewer’s belief that it was true proves she’s a nice person, or because Peggy Seltzer’s real story must be awfully dramatic in its own right… I wonder if it’s another facet of the disconnect with what readers really want from book reviews that has led those readers to blogs, book-themed social networking sites, and other non-corporate media outlets in search of people who actually have something relevant to say about contemporary literature.