Hoax Reactions: Authenticity vs. Truth

It seems as though it is time once again for more hand-wringing about the cruel deceptions wrought by authors upon their publishers (and/or by publishers upon a naive and trusting public): another memoir turns out not to be true!

As reported by the New York Times, Love and Consequences, Margaret B. Jones’ memoir “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” has turned out to be in fact the pseudonymous work of 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,” and who “graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood.”

Publisher Riverhead Books (a unit of Penguin) is pulling the book from shevles and cancelling the author tour. Sarah McGrath, Seltzer’s editor at Riverhead, is quoted as saying “There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one.”

So, the author is set up as villain yet again. Seltzer is hardly an innocent, but, in the words of The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman: “This reporter places all of the blame for this squarely on you, the viewers.” As you destroy a creature’s natural habitat, the canny survivors will try to find their way into new environments. It would seem that the increasing demand for socially conscious “true” memoir reflects the public devaluation of socially conscious fiction. And so, like coyotes and black bears nosing around the cul-de-sacs of our suburbs, fiction writers hungry for scraps of public attention slink into the aisles of Memoir.

As for myself, I’m less interested in why a writer chooses to fabricate a memoir (greed and the desire for attention seem to be the pundits’ favorites) than I am with the public’s obsession with memoir’s “truth” — and I believe there is cause for concern in as much as the cries of outrage at a memoirist’s “lies” bespeak a general distrust of or even disdain for fiction.

A commentary in the L.A. Times  today (a link worth reading) touches on this issue:

How many talk shows would have booked Seltzer/Jones if she had forthrightly admitted she was a white writer of imaginative fiction with a social conscience that impelled her to write about gang life in South Los Angeles?

It’s sad enough that this is presented as a rhetorical question. And one has to wonder even beyond the sphere of mass media culture how much this attitude manifests itself even among literary publishers. The “ideology of authenticity” remains strong in literary criticism and academia, and though certainly the desire for “authenticity” has been an engine for combatting oppression and drawing out minority voices, it seems just as often today to be a means of exploitation and imaginative repression. Taken to extremes, insisting upon authorial authenticity denies the possibility of authorial empathy. If you are not writing of your own direct experience, what you are writing cannot be “true.”

The longstanding ancient and medieval view of literature in the West has been that it’s made up of history, fable, and fiction. History is valuable because it tells us what happened and what we can learn from it. Fable is valuable because it provides us with examples of right moral conduct. Fiction is good only for light entertainment and diversion, which to many a devout medieval mind meant is was good for nothing, if not indeed actively dangerous to one’s spiritual life.

Is the pendulum of culture swinging back to towards a variation on this attitude? If one takes the temperature of popular opinion by what appears in internet discussions, it is not at all difficult to find online conversations about the socio-political meanings of movies and television shows constantly interrupted by posters genuinely castigating the others with cries of “It’s just a movie!” As if taking a fictional narrative seriously is the height of foolishness.

(In some ways I would love to be able to point to posters who interject with “It’s just a book” — but books don’t seem to merit even that level of attention anywhere other than niche literary forums.)

And so I would like to add this one additional motive to the list of reasons why a writer might scratch through “a novel” and write “a memoir” — the desire to be taken seriously. That may well not excuse the writer’s deception, but I think it directs us back to the source of the problem: the standards of the audience.

At the end of the NYT article, Sarah McGrath is quoted as saying “There was a way to do this book honestly and have it be just as compelling.” But one seriously questions whether or not McGrath would have found a market for it.