Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Nonfiction Writer Busted for Fictional Tale

More nonfiction fakery, though as I told C tonight, when I first read about this book, I immediately thought, this story doesn't sound right.

Now, there very well may be a young, white-Native (African?) American person who's running drugs for the Bloods in Los Angeles. And s/he very well may have a loving foster mother figure named "Big Mom," a dead brother named Terrell, an estranged, living brother with three kids named Taye who's moved out Washington State, a sister named NeeCee who was a suicide, and another sister named Nishia who braids hair and with whom she's also estranged. And s/he very well make it past the age of 20, to, say, 33, graduating from college and living her/his adult years as a single parent with an adorable little child of her/his own. And s/he may decide to write a book. I can imagine seeing that book, whether self-published or picked up by a mainstream publisher, on a table not only at Barnes and Noble, but at Book Expo. S/he might even manage, if s/he really has managed to graduate not just from the University of Oregon's undergraduate college, but from its graduate writing program, or some other one, to have the book displayed on a table at AWP, outside the room where s/he is speaking on a panel.

But I seriously doubt s/he is going to receive co/ghost-writing help from the child of one of the New York Times's former Book Review editors--oh, yes, they may actually have been in an MFA program together, and may have bonded, and even discussed the difficult experiences of said young person-wannabe writer after a workshop during which the ex-drug runner's story met with sheer bafflement or excessive praise from classmates, accompanied by an estimable degree of palpable discomfort at discussing the issues of race, class and gender, etc.--and a $100,000 (!) advance and then not only glowing reviews from the likes of Michiko Kakutani but also a profile in the Times's Home and Home section, NPR letting her dilate for a good while about her "past," etc.

But I could be wrong, I admit it. It happened that way for Margaret B. Jones Seltzer. Who is really from Sherman Oaks, is not part-Native American, and hasn't yet graduated from anyone's university, not that that ultimately matters. But just saying. At any rate, I smelled the rot from this rat all the way across the room.

Some questions: How long did this fantasist think she was going to get away with her constellation of lies? Did she think no one was going to investigate or look into the tale? (Obviously the New York Times has learned nothing about being duped by story peddlers. Cf. Judy Miller, Michael Gordon, etc.) Do the folks at publishing houses like Penguin/Riverhead simply not check out such sensational stories anymore? Would it have taken that much effort to verify even a small portion of this tale? Did Seltzer ever consider that, despite the desire for authenticity, which equates, I realize, with heftier advances and more public adulation and fame, she just ought to have called the damned thing a novel--which is what people been calling such texts which for more than half a millennium have been based either on autobiography or biography or some true tale, or the products of the imagination, or something in between and beyond, and run to around 100 pages or so pages and unfold in prose--and it a day? As a novel, it sounds like it could have been quite provocative. As nonfiction, it looks like it's going to become many writers' nightmare: pulp.

I should add that Ms. Seltzer is not alone: there's this recently exposed sham of a book, by a woman who not only claimed to be a Holocaust survivor, but said she was raised "by wolves." She published the book in the 1990s. (Alarm bells should have gone off right away, people...WOLVES?...)

Then again, aren't these stories apt emblems of the era we're living in? For my part, I'm preparing my memoir of having survived the Battle of Chapin's Farm, in 1864. I fought without having eaten anything for five months after running away from my Maryland plantation, with no shoes, shirt, trousers, or even a musket! And despite all that I nearly smote Robert E. Lee right between his eyes! Et cetera.

UPDATE: Critic and author Daniel Mendelsohn's astute take is here. Some quotes from the piece.

Each of the new books commits a fraud far more reprehensible than Mr. Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. Both were written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II, the impoverished African-Americans of Los Angeles today), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes. Ms. De Wael was a Christian Belgian who was raised by close relatives after her parents, Resistance members, were taken away; Margaret Seltzer, the author of “Love and Consequences,” grew up in a tony Los Angeles neighborhood and attended an Episcopal day school.

In each case, then, a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit — a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too. Ms. Seltzer has talked about being “torn,” about wanting somehow to ventriloquize her subjects, to “put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.” Ms. De Wael has similarly referred to a longing to be part of the group to which she did not, emphatically, belong: “I felt different. It’s true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community.” (“Felt Jewish” is repellent: real Jewish children were being murdered however they may have felt.)


In an era obsessed with “identity,” it’s useful to remember that identity is precisely that quality in a person, or group, that cannot be appropriated by others; in a world in which theme-park-like simulacra of other places and experiences are increasingly available to anyone with the price of a ticket, the line dividing the authentic from the ersatz needs to be stressed, rather than blurred. As, indeed, Ms. De Wael has so clearly blurred it, for reasons that she has suggested were pitiably psychological. “The story is mine,” she announced. “It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.”

“My reality,” as opposed to “actual reality,” is, of course, one sign of psychosis, and given her real suffering during the war, you’re tempted to sympathize — until you read that her decision to write her memoir came at a time when her husband was out of work, or (we real Jews call this chutzpah) that she successfully sued the publisher for more than $20 million for professional malfeasance. Or until you learn about her galling manipulations of the people who believed her. (Slate reported that she got one rabbi to light a memorial candle “for animals.”)


  1. You will, no doubt, include full color photographs as evidence in the memoir . . .

  2. I look forward to the satirical tale. I wonder how long it would take folks to figure out you're not really an alien-brother-from-another-planet time traveler. Apparently the "raised by wolves" novel was translated into 18 languages and made into a film. Go figure. Tayari Jones has some really interesting posts & links on the Seltzer/Jones story starting with her March 3rd post titled, "There's A Sucker Born Every Minute (And apparently, they all go to work in publishing)." She includes links to last summer's TimeOut New York article on race in publishing by James Hannaham (wasn't he writing about this in the Village Voice 15 years ago?!) which does an good job of explaining why such "ghetto fairytales" manage to get published in the first place. http://www.tayarijones.com/blog/

    Does anyone else think it's pretty deep that Seltzer's own sister is the one who called the publisher, Riverhead, and blew the whistle? Y'know instead of calling up her younger sister and urging her to come forward herself?

  3. Audiologo, I agree with you that Seltzer's sister's role is deep--fascinatingly so! She basically said in one of the articles that the madness had to end. I read Tayari's posts and agree with them; I think James's piece was good but didn't go far enough in his writeup (and yes, he was writing about this years ago, I think), because there's a small cadre of black folks in publishing--like Janet Hill, who has her own imprint, Manny Alexander (is that his name?), Errol Lewis, etc.--and no one seems to ask them what they think about the situation.

    Keguro, instead of full-color photos, I plan to post historically authenticated videos to YouTube and XTube....

  4. http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0812,boy_soldier,381308,1.html

    The Margaret Seltzer piece is interesting givent hat now Ismael Beah is under the microscope for his memoir, A Long Way Gone. He's an Obie grad (finished well after I did). It's a powerful story, but I was hearing grumblings among people who knew him that parts of his story may have been fabricated..as he told various people his story while in undergrad and its differs considerably from what's in stores...

    it's a frustrating time for memoir writers. it's a very powerful genre that takes it hits when people want to lie for dramatic effect...