Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Made-Up Memoir and Consequences

One can hardly credit it but the New York Times has yet another story of a memoirist being forced to come clean about their fakery! Margaret B. Jones, author of Love and Consequences :
.. about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.
(First chapter here.)

Except, as Motoko Rich points out,
The problem is that none of it is true. ... Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed.

Jones was outed by her own sister. The books have been recalled, the promotional tour cancelled. Ms Jones side of the story is that she was just giving a voice to the kind of people who don't usually get listened to.

One wonders why the lack of faith in fiction? That is worrying me every bit as much as the epidemic (for such it is) of fakery.

I was interested in what Preeta said in the comments to the previous bogus memoir post:
I really think the reason we're seeing so many of these now is the whole confessional culture -- people *want* to read "true stories," and everywhere I turn I hear vapid comments like "I felt I could relate to this more because it was a true story." Certainly as a young writer in the US one is repeatedly told that nonfiction sells these days, write a memoir, write a memoir, it's what people want to read. Of course if you have any integrity you will resist the temptation to write a memoir unless you really have something to say about your own life, but then if more people had integrity the world would be a very different place indeed, and not just in terms of what sells in the bookshops :-) . Perhaps the more interesting question is, why is it that people these days feel they can only "relate" to true stories?!? Whatever happened to being able to relate to fictional characters?
To even things up perhaps, Claire Armistead on the Guardian blog has an intriguing post about a work of memoir that has been published as a novel in the US; and another published as a novel in Russia and a memoir in the UK!

Armistead says that :
Of all the genres around at the moment I find memoir the most troubling - and at the heart of the trouble is the notion of a form of truth that is by necessity not the same as a got-out-of-bed-and-brushed-my-teeth reality. But who is to decide where the line lies?


A day on, Motoko Rich examines the fallout.


Amir Muhammad said...

Someone just asked me to define 'bathos' recently; I think I should have quoted her this:

"She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon..."

Priceless :-)

husni said...

ahh...memoirs and the never-ending problem of genre-labeling.

why don't writers just stick to good ol' true blue, honest-to-goodness, Big Fish-like fiction, one wonders...

Anonymous said...

Husni -- one does wonder, yes, but I do think the demand for nonfiction over fiction (see my comment Sharon included in this post) has a lot to do with it. If readers hadn't mysteriously lost their ability to "relate" to made-up characters (whatever that means -- I sort of hate that idea to begin with, that we should be able to "relate" to something to enjoy it), we'd be seeing fewer faked memoirs, I think.

What really blows me away about this particular incident, though, is that this woman appeared in an article WITH PHOTOGRAPHS in the NEW YORK TIMES, pretending to be someone else. I mean, she was outed by her own SISTER after her sister saw the pictures -- what was this woman thinking?!?!?!? It seems to suggest a whole new level of delusion, that she would appear in the country's biggest newspaper posing as someone else! If she had really *wanted* to preserve the lie, couldn't she have told the reporter she didn't want her picture taken? That she had a fierce phobia of cameras? That she was afraid some old gang enemy would see her picture and track her down? I mean, people were basically *aching* to believe her, so she could've said anything and they would probably have swallowed it. It seems to me that she could've tried a little harder, all in all; a part of her, I think, *wanted* to get caught.

Mind you, I'm not at all saying that she *should* have tried harder -- just that she very easily *could* have. I'm just trying to get inside her mind here.

And Amir, yes, that's a beautiful definition of pathos :-) .

-- Preeta

Amir Muhammad said...

Eh, Preeta! 'Bathos' not 'pathos.'

Although come to think of it ...

Anonymous said...

Sharon, this is something that I've been turning over and over in my head since I wrote the first page of the book you're reading now (and I'm pacing like a nervous family member in a hospital waiting room). It's not really a memoir, since it's all in third person and is about someone other than me, but the stuff you're talking about here is still quite relevant. After all, while every event in the book actually happened - and while I've described those events as accurately as possible - the story in the book is still nothing more than the real story as I imagined it. The question Armitstead asks about the snowflake on the man's lips is similar to questions I found myself asking repeatedly throughout the writing of the first draft as I imagined what happened, how people said what they said, etc. So is it still nonfiction?

Anonymous said...

Very good and tempting posts here as usual. Use to post here a lot but now just reading the many interesting posts. Here is just my 2cent worth of contributing thoughts. I think ...

A memoir has to have real names, and it has to be confirm by all parties involve at all level. If it is not confirm, it consider as unofficial. If the names or rather the character involve in the book is other than the real person for what ever reasons, that is just an adaptation from real life story.

... cheers for the day ... :)

bibliobibuli said...

jordan - when i read that line about the snowflake i also thought of you! reading your manuscript now i can see where the manuscript lies

there comes a point where you have to go for the story that works best and that means at times you have to invent, and that invention may indeed create a story that is "truer".

you can come clean (in a forward perhaps) about where that line between fact and fiction actually lies.

a couple of books you should read perhaps because the authors are doing something along the same lines keneally's "schindler's list/ark" which is called a non-fiction novel, and the memoir "stuart: a life backwards" by alexander masters (can lend you both)

anyway, we'll talk. if you want to meet up this w/end i'm free sat morning, sun p.m.

and stop wearing out the carpet, this is going to be a very good book!

anonymous - thanks for kind words. certainly, yes, the names should be true. you can't go around pretneding to be someone you're not as some of these people have done. however, ishmael beah had the right names but invented an episode and his dates didn't tally

Anonymous said...

Amir, I like the nice new word - Bathos.

Sharon, you are not free Sunday pm.

On memoirs, I prefer to read fiction anytime. I find it hard to believe that a person of integrity would want to publicise their memoirs. To be truthful can hurt others and personally it's very hard to bear one's soul - for me at least anyway. I think it's much more fun to hide behind your made up characters and say, of course she/he's not me! After all I don't have a moustache or walk with a limp.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I've been planning to explain where I'm coming from in a foreword (or perhaps an afterword, which is less of a spoiler). For a while now I've been referring to the book as a 'nonfiction novella', because A) it is most definitely nonfiction (to the extent that it could be, without being boring as hell anyway), researched as deeply and as carefully as possible, B)it contains enough creative writing to swing it firmly into the creative side of creative nonfiction, and C) its length requires calling it something other than a nonfiction novel. But anyway, yes, will definitely cover my arse in a foreword or afterword (and a legal agreement between myself and the subject of the book!).

Anonymous said...

Amir, sorry, it was a typo! I did mean bathos. However, as you say, come to think of it...... :-)


bibliobibuli said...

46,000 words is novel length, jordan. no need to call it a novella. "the reluctant fundamentalist" shortlisted for the booker was only 45, 000 and "on chesil beach" around 40,000. more short novels here

an afterword i think rather than a foreword, let readers plunge straight into the story (and the water) with rizal

Anonymous said...

Yes, have been leaning towards the afterword (had most of it written before the book was half finished, I must admit).

So it's a novel? I remember worrying that it would be way shorter.

OK then, a nonfiction novel it is!

husni said...


yeah, I agree with you on the loss of readers' ability to relate with fictional characters. That's what makes this so ironic, it's as if readers would rather be fed with "true lies", rather than an "alternate reality".

And what difference would it make if they were to label the book "fiction"? Does writing non-fiction allow a certain margin for (non-)creativity?

well...I'll stick to my Borges and Garcia Marquez...my imagination can always use the exercise.

bibliobibuli said...

that's a good question, husni. if these books were labeled fiction would they have stood up to the challenge. it strikes me that we are willing to let more go and accept rougher edges if we think we are reading a "true story".

Anonymous said...

I think that's true, yes. There are some stunning, beautifully written memoirs out there, but I think they're a very small minority. An even smaller minority than stunning, beautifully written novels. From what I've seen when reading literary magazines/journals, too, it does seem that nonfiction gets away with more (by which I mean less :-). More sins, less quality.). Sloppier writing, no real point except "this happened." But hey, if that's what people want to read, whom do we blame?

And I keep asking the same question: WHY is that what people want to read? Have our brains been addled by too much bad TV? Or is there some other reason?

-- Preeta