Because books are what I live and breathe each day at work, I usually steer clear of them on S.N.O.B. But today on the heels of the Margaret B. Jones scandal, the latest in a slew of similar lying memoirists in the last few years (JT Leroy, James Frey), it’s time to talk a bit about the Fake Memoir.
Yesterday there was yet another “fake” revealed to the public: Margaret B. Jones’s Love and Consequences, just published last week from Riverhead and lauded already by critics (“humane and deeply affecting” wrote Michiko). Well, turns out that Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer and she is not half-native American nor a former teenage gang member/drug runner who was raised in a black foster home, as she claims in the book. Not even close. Motoko Rich’s article breaks the story.
The problem with the very notion of “memoir” stems from a crucial question: is there any such thing as non-fiction when writing about one’s own life ? In “creative writing” (not journalism) there is no such thing as non-fiction. It’s all subjective because it is based in the idea of the writer as a voice. When voice is adapted, it’s not truth, it’s a pose– even if it is a certain “real life” account.
So, this memoir craze has got to get a bit of handle on itself. As Seltzer’s editor says, “There was a way to do this book honestly and have it be just as compelling.” I’m not defending Seltzer’s trying to one-up the public and nor justify her blatant lie to the consumer. Nor am I justifying the house’s decision in peddling it as a memoir and not properly fact checking. A house’s responsibility and an editor’s responsibility is to make sure a writer can back up their shit before publishing it as non-fiction.
I’m just saying that we should consider ways to bypass the non-fiction label and start respecting/buying fiction again enough to publish work correctly and ethically. Maybe it’s really a symptom of our obsession with reality tv, an idea brought up on Galleycat today? Everyone knows memoir means sell in the industry–but that has got to change! My hope is that these scandals will dismantle book publishing from the same obsession as TV has with this bullshit reality. For I truly believe writing as art, not writing as information (a “memoir” as genre is not meant to be informational or didactic or pedantic) should never claim to be non-fiction. The act of putting a sentence together is fiction if it is done with the intention of conveying voice/craft over fact. The title “fiction” should not be viewed as any less a commentary on the human condition.
My friend Ray had an excellent input to my argument: All memoirs are subjective interpretations and thus fiction. Its the idiots that get all caught up in the memoir as truth thing. I mean seriously, do you think Bush’s memoirs will be considered non-fiction?