There’s only so much that can be said about “Margaret B. Jones” and her phony memoir, Love and Consequences, before pundits start veering into the ridiculous— like Gordon Sayre, the Oregon professor who relied on Peggy Seltzer as a source on Native American culture. In an op-ed piece in Eugene’s Register-Guard, he actually celebrates her skillful deception, even in a paper submitted to him for academic credit—”at least it was backed up by enough research to be convincing,” he shrugs. (FishbowlLA just loved that argument.)
And then, living up to every stereotype the right has of liberal academics, he blames society for Seltzer’s fraud: “Perhaps the only thing modern Americans find more satisfying than asserting their own ethnic identities is challenging those of others, and perhaps the book-buying public would rather debunk good memoirs than enjoy good novels,” he snarks. Also, Seltzer’s downfall is evidence of this nation’s subliminal racism. No, really: “To discredit Love and Consequences… allows Americans the luxury of continuing to ignore the problems the book represents, or at best of waiting for another voice to bring it to our attention.” But here’s the absolute kicker from a postmodern perspective:
“Every memoir or autobiography is an individual’s fashioning of his or her life, directed toward that individual’s conception of audience. The more intimate or psychological the events recounted—of childhood trauma, of addiction, of religious conversion, or even of racial identity—the more ludicrous it is for readers to insist upon documentary truth.”
You read that right: You can claim anything you want in a memoir, as long as it’s meaningful to you. By this standard, of course, Chuck Barris‘s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Mark Leyner‘s should be regarded as among the greatest memoirs of all time.
Sayre also seems to believe that it was America’s compulsive appetite for “real-life drama” that drove Seltzer to lie about every facet of her life, an opinion he shares with veteran Los Angeles journalist Ruben Martinez, who declares that book publishers and readers equally bear the blame: Apparently, if Love and Consequences had not existed, it would have been necessary for us to invent it. (Never mind that, by all accounts, Seltzer seems to have been lying to everyone around her long before she met her agent.) “The audience for this kind of tale is not in the ghetto but in middle-class neighborhoods far removed from it,” Martinez observes, while describing Seltzer’s fantasy as “an unintentional parody of liberal sympathy.” Unintentional? I’m pretty sure Seltzer knew exactly which buttons she was pushing, and crafted her phony narrative accordingly.
But those are just the, um, unintentional farces. The Jones scandal has also drawn humorists out of the woodwork. You probably saw Mark Leyner’s Kafka parody in yesterday’s NY Times, but you might have missed the Readerville tweak of Josh Ferris, both of which rely on the same central gag, as a work of fiction turns out to be swiped from real life. At this rate, I can’t wait to see what The Onion has to say Wednesday…
Oh, and it’s worth noting that not everybody the media asks to chime in with an opinion—a serious one, I mean—about Jones/Seltzer (and last week’s other fraud bust, Holocaust pretender Misha Defonseca) is full of hot air. Daniel Mendelsohn nails why these fakers matter in his NY Times op-ed: “In each case… a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit.”