Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Little Pieces of Lies

It happened again.

Nonfiction writers sometimes confess that they – and by that I mean I -- get discouraged because our story is not compelling enough, not about a dysfunctional enough past.

So forgive me for being just a bit relieved to see that another hot new "memoir," is not, in fact a memoir at all. It is a novel, or it would have been had it been published under the proper genre. Now it's history. It was published last week, and was getting some good reviews. And now, the author says yup, she made it up.

The latest flap is over Love and Consequences, an alleged memoir about growing up white in gang-ruled, poverty-stricken black foster homes in South Central Los Angeles, by "Margaret B. Jones." The book was recalled by Riverhead Books (Penguin Group USA) this morning, because the author (outed by her sister) has admitted the book is a fabrication based on brief associations she had with gang members years ago.

None of this negates that Ms. Jones – sorry, Margaret Seltzer -- may in fact have written something that offers beautiful prose and a readable, moving story. But why not call it a novel? The answer may has much to do with the marketing machines of the major booksellers which paint a dollars-and-(no)sense picture that claims a great memoir will outsell a well-written novel.

And, there is a lot wrong with the way publishers don't spend even an hour or two vetting the veracity of a prospective nonfiction author's story.

But the answer also has to do with the reading public, and that includes all of us, writers or not. Attach the words or phrases "a true story," "her life story," "the real life account of…" and most of the reading public today – including me, I am a little embarrassed to admit – is more likely to plunk down the fifteen or twenty bucks.

I’m not sure why. I do know that the longer I write and the more deeply I study writing, the more I find myself gravitating away from reading mostly memoirs and towards the great novels – even though I write only nonfiction at the moment. You want stories? Novelists know how to tell them. So why do we want our modern stories, need them, all to be true? Why do we spend more money, more time, and pay more attention when it's labeled "true"?

And publishers – and maybe agents too – have they learned nothing since the James Frey debacle? How much would it take to have a researcher – or for that matter, anyone with an Internet connection, a phone and a brain – do even the most cursory digging to determine if the story they are about to publish, under the heading of memoir, is in fact, even mostly true?

It usually seems that people who lie about an entire past and put it on paper, usually do so pretty uniformly, so checking something simple that is quickly verifiable might turn up the first indication that all is not as it seems. From there, it's not too difficult to imagine confronting the would-be author, before galleys are in hand: By the way, our researcher was doing a routine check and while you say you are a Stanford alum, they've never heard of you…..

I don't know what machinations, if any (maybe none), may have gone on inside the agent and publisher offices; whether they took the writer at her word? Or were there discussions about how to best market the work? And about the writer: Didn't she think, when the New York Times photographer showed up, that someone might say, hey, I went to high school with her, where she lived in an intact affluent family, in a white suburb?

And what about me? I had clipped the review and was about to put the book on my "to be read" list, ready to put in an inter-library loan request for it. And now? I've completely lost interest. But I'm glad of one thing: the more of these NOT-memoirs that are exposed, maybe the reading public will get the message that real life does not always have to be so over-the-top, so unbelievable to make a good memoir.

The very best memoirs, I think, are those in which either nothing earth-shakingly dramatic happens, but the prose makes up for it; or something explosive does happen, and yet the quietly powerful writing does not overpower the story. Either way, the writer has done something with the telling of the event; he or she has not created the events.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading memoirs when they inspire me in a way fiction can't, but nothing beats a good novel. I think publishers should take Hollywood's cue and market certain memoirs as "based on a true story." If we'd be willing to accept this kind of thing in a movie, can't we accept it in writing?