But Margaret Jones Promised It Was True!

By Neal Comment

peggy-seltzer-nytimes.jpgSo here’s what I thought was a telling detail from Motoko Rich‘s second day of “Margaret Jones” coverage:

“‘In the post-James Frey world, we all are more careful,’ [Riverhead editor Sarah McGrath] said. ‘I had numerous conversations with her about the need to be honest and the need to stick to the facts.'”

Now, it’s easy for those of us who aren’t under pressure to acquire a steady stream of revenue-generating stories to sit in our chairs and say that telling your writers that they need to be honest is hardly an adequate solution to the Fake Memoir problem, which was never confined to one author and didn’t even begin with That Book. (Heck, Nasdijj would probably be happy if you’d remember him this week, especially given Peggy Seltzer‘s phony self-presentation as Native American.) Likewise, when Nan Talese offers, “I think what editors are going to have to do is point to the things that happened recently and say to their authors, ‘If there is anything in your book that can be discovered to be untrue, you better let us know right now, and we’ll deal with it before we publish it,'” the facile response would be: Like how about not publishing it? Or at least not calling it a memoir?

(At the same time, I can’t agree with Talese’s suggestion that introducing New Yorker-levels of fact checking to the book world “would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship.” If you’re insulted that somebody’s holding your nonfiction writing up to a simple standard of truth, you’re probably not ready to share that writing with anybody, let alone an editor.)

Maybe Jennifer Joseph of Manic D Press is right when she emails that this whole fake memoir trend points to a dysfunction at “New York commercial houses.” As she analyzes the situation, “Bookselling is all about categories, and the Memoir category sells better than Fiction. Agents know this, Editors know this, Publishers know this. Authors learn this… Blame it on reality TV shows which give the illusion (though they’re scripted) that ‘true stories’ are somehow more appealing than fiction.” (That said, it should be conceded that Misha Defonseca‘s phony Holocaust survival story was published by an indie press.)

(photo: Susan Seubert/NYT)

Meanwhile, FishbowlLA‘s disbelief continues, including the revelation that her hometown paper was less credulous than the NY Times. (And that’s worth remembering: Seltzer didn’t just deceive Riverhead; her lies passed muster with a freelance reporter, a Times editor, and the paper’s Pulitzer-winning book reviewer.) Oh, and that same paper reports that Seltzer told them Love and Consequences was pitched as a memoir because publishers didn’t want it as a novel—sound familiar?

(Colleen Mondor had a similar experience trying to sell a novel “based on my experiences working for a bush airline in Fairbanks, Alaska,” which publishers kept suggesting would be a lot more saleable as memoir. Fine: But then she set that manuscript aside and started with a fresh blank page, and stuck to what she knew she could back up if challenged. “I still want to sell the fictional account,” she says. “I think it is just as good. But right now it is the memoir that editors want, so a memoir is what I had to write.”)

“What really ticks me off is how blatantly this woman misappropriated a culture and the experiences and identities of others for what amounts to personal gain,” emails novelist Barbara Caridad Ferrer, who’s also been all over this story on her blog. And that, I agree, is going to be the truly interesting aspect of this case over the long run—Seltzer isn’t the next James Frey; she’s the next Forrest Carter. And, frankly, this idea of Seltzer’s that her book was “[an] opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to” strikes me as more than a little condescendingly racist.

Which raises an interesting point, book publishing being somewhat notorious for its “pretty darn white” status. Would a non-white agent or editor have called bullshit on Seltzer’s pages at the very beginning of her creative writing career? You tell me…