Tuesday, March 04, 2008

How Do Reviewers and Even Talk Shows Handle Memoirs

Last Friday I was listening to Tom Ashbrook on WBUR and he was interviewing a woman with a compelling story of growing up in the thick of gang besieged South Central, Los Angeles. She had recently published a memoir of the experience.

Mike Daisey had a link to the following story today:

In "Love and Consequences," a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote 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.

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

I turned on the radio when I went out to lunch, and at the end of the 11 o'clock hour Tom Ashbrook apologized to listeners, but he also added a statement that is really pertinent:

"With the recent issues, going forward we will have to really take discuss the issue of how we deal with memoirs." He then added that really the entire industry will have to take a look at this.

I think the fault really lies with the publisher, but how are reviewers, or hosts like Tom Ashbrook supposed to deal with sketchy memoirists? Up to now, I guess they have been relying on some apparently non-existent vetting processes in some of these publishing houses. Are reviewers supposed to now become investigative reporters?

I probably wouldn't have posted about this, but having heard the author on the radio, talking and telling these stories, and then finding out that she was a complete fraud was a little weird.

We all build in a calculation for the bullcrap effect. We so deeply expect, for instance, that people exaggerate stories or embellish the edges of experience, that we don't even give it a thought. Why? I think it is because we have in our DNA something that so deeply loves a good story.

I once had a friend who told a story about how he was drunk one snowy night. After his girlfriend dumped him he was stupidly driving drunk when, on the way home, his car broke down. He started to walk down the road looking for help, but it was really cold. He spotted a fenced in lot with a fleet of school buses in it and he went in to seek warmth in one of the school buses. After getting inside, he saw the keys were in the bus. In his drunk and despairing state he decided he would drive the schoolbus to the nearest service station to get help. He started up the school bus and tried to ram down the gate, which he did and then drove out onto the snowy road. The bus got stuck about the same time the police arrived. They chased him through the snow and some backyards until finally subdueing him.

Now, I have told you the outline of his story, but to hear him tell it is an enjoyable experience. I am leaving out many details, and even some plot points that, well, pretty much seem to stretch belief. At these particular points in the story it is not uncommon for a member of the gathering to say: "No!" "No...they didn't!" or "You didn't?!"

These questions are not thrown out as accusations, but as almost joyful encouragements to continue.

Now, I am sure that my friend's actual experience was not as he had perfected it over numerous tellings. But would people really care that much if they knew that he never got the bus out of the parking lot before the cops showed up, and that his chase lasted about 50 yards before he stopped and let the burly cops wrestle him to the ground? Probably not. They might care though if they found out that all or some of the core facts were completely made up. Or that the incident never happened.

Then again, would some of those who loved hearing his tale even want it to be revealed as total falsehood? After all, we're all suckers for a good story.


George Hunka said...

Well, that's the problem with being suckers for good stories: we lose sight of what it is that makes a story good in our eyes. And usually, it's because the narrative confirms our own prejudices of the way the world works, our own consciousness; because the narrative amuses and entertains us, to the extent that we suspend not disbelief but a critical attitude towards the world and the way that this world is presented to us.

The funny thing about this is that we already know that we can't necessarily trust those things that are presented to us as "true," as non-fiction, based on the imprimatur of a publisher placing a book on their non-fiction list, or because a story comes to us via The New York Times. There's not only James Frey, but in just the recent past there are "reporters" like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Glass's editor at The New Republic, Charles Lane, noted that he never really questioned Glass's work because he, Lane, wanted Glass's work to be true -- that its entertainment or ideological value blinded him to some glaringly overt flaws in his pieces.

Of course, in the theatre, this goes back to the ancient question of realism and naturalism, and of Brecht's attempts to tell a story, rather than embody it, on the stage. The question is whether or not we permit our critical faculties about the world, as well as the stories that are told to us, blind us to the fact that non-fiction is as much a conscious construct as fiction. Certain facts are left out as "inessential," moral and ethical perspectives as to right or wrong behavior are assumed. The way a story is told is just as important as the content of that story. Which is why, if we let good stories wash over us, there is always a risk of us drowning in them.

Novel said...

Interestingly I just watched "The Night Listener" with Robin Williams, based on a novel/memoir by Amistead Maupin. I don't know if you know the story, but it was a quite famous story of possible fraud and the people who were duped by it. Rather like LeRoy.

Also watched "Infamous" and am rereading "In Cold Blood." Do we give better writers allowance?

Art said...


You bring up a great point. The Stephen Glass issue is probably the best known: Basically, the types of stories that he was concocting were just the type of stories his editors would dream about.

Also, people like Frey and this latest woman my post is about are really tapping into, actually, the Damon Runyon type of narrative that Americans love. Whether it being overcoming addiction or poverty.


I saw that movie back a while ago. I read up on it after the movie.

Good question about Capote. I didn't see Infamous yet.

cavalaxis said...

This subject has been my own personal fascination for the passed few weeks, ever since the LA Weekly posted an article on JT Leroy.

We are a family of tale spinners, and my husband always prefaces his with the admonition, "Everything in this story is true. It happened to someone. Somewhere." I think the difference between faux memoirists and tale spinners is the level of implied veracity. That and the money.

It still amazes me how outraged people get when they find out they've been fed a line. Sure, if you lent the guy money or your car to get him out of trouble he was never in, then sure, get pissed. But if it was a story you bought, a fleeting moment's entertainment, and perhaps even inspiration, what did you lose? Why the outrage?