Here’s a link to the NPR story on the subject.. Quick summary: Margaret Seltzer, writing under the name Margaret Jones, wrote a [del]memoir[/del] work of fiction she decided not to call a novel about growing up as a female gang member in LA. The New York Times published a lengthy piece about it the other day, including photographs of the author, her daughter, and a houseguest; this proved to be her undoing, as her sister saw the article, contacted the times, and blew the whistle.
I remember being a little suspicious when I read the article the other day, but I put it down to my own cynicism. While I won’t say anything against the publishing house for being hoaxed, I will ask this: what in the name of Zeus son of Kronus was this woman thinking? I mean, why didn’t she just decline to have her picture taken, Lemony Snicket style, and claim she was being discreet out of fear?
If nothing else, her photo doesn’t do an awful lot to reinforce the story of American Indian blood. Yep, kind of looks like a white girl who went to an Episcopal day school.
Even before Ward Churchill’s posturing, “I’m part Native American” (“I’m one-eighth Cherokee”) was sufficiently a red flag of posturing toward some form of badass or spiritualistic legitimacy that it made it into the Chuck Norris Facts as a commonplace cliche. That might have been sign one for me.
Sign two would be the self-depictions of having endured suffering/badass conditions. None of these fakers ever seems to fake their life so as to portray themselves as less victimized, less toughened-by-the-victimization.
The editors seem to have dropped the ball pretty badly, esp. post-Frey. As I read it, they relied on vouching by her creative writing professor (what the Hell kind of fact-checking is that)?; and (b) various persons she introduced as foster-siblings (I doubt they demanded any documentation). Wouldn’t you want to talk to actual Bloods, or to police sources, or the like? Get some paper records?
The problem was that, as fiction, it was hackneyed and trite. That’s why these people fake their memoirs. They’re incapable of coming up with something that is actually compelling, and the stories they have are only any good if you start with the understanding that they’re true.
My rational thoughts on this are that the editors wanted to believe it because they recognized how big story like this could be, especially once the movie came out. In the right hands, it could have been a late August release, and still gotten an Oscar nomination, generating enormous sales for the book.
My irrational thoughts are that some political operative infiltrated the publisher and recognized an opportunity to promote the notion that the best spokesperson for inner-city blacks is an upper-middle-class suburban white female.
There was only so much to learn from Frey. Newspapers and magazines rarely employ fact-checkers, and they’re in the ‘truth’ business, so of course publishers (more in the ‘entertainment’ business) are generally not going to do it either.
Jones’ story wasn’t even the only “I faked my memoir” story this week, and the other was even worse:
(1) I’ve expressed elsewhere my lack of trust in the media. But on at least a couple of occasions when I’ve been interviewed, I’ve had some minion call and say: Reporter X said he talked to you and you expressed your views on the Y Bill as being Z. Is that correct?
(2) I don’t know that checking out this broad’s story even qualifies as “fact-checking.” It’s more basic than that. When the whole “sellability” of a book is its high-concept concept, is checking out the very concept too demanding? I think of fact checking as: Was author Jones right that the air speed of an African swallow is 43 mph? Can we verify that Nixon left a phone message for Haldemann on April 4th, as author Dokes submits in support of his thesis that Nixon’s a big crook? Or (in this context) did Tookie really send the author down to La Cienega to pick up an eight-ball from the President of the Nortenos gang while she was sight months pregnant? Or was it seven months? Not: did the author ever run with Tookie, or any gang banger, at all, anywhere?
Generally speaking, that’s not posibile with books. On any given page, there could be dozens of facts to check. Aside from lacking the staff (it’s often a low-margin business), they plain lack the time. Plus, publishers don’t give any kind of guarrantee, explicit or implicit. They (may) edit the book and get it printed, marketed, and sold. The author is responsible for the content, even in biography. Publisher may never even meet the authors of most of their books. This isn’t like an office setting in a magazine, and it’s not like they have a big list of contacts sitting in front of them to double check things. You can argue they shuld, I suppose, but unless you’re willing to pay 80$ a book and buy at least one a month, it ain’t gonna happen.
Let me put it to you this way. You write an autobio. You probably have hundreds of people mentioned in it. How long would it take to track down each of them and verify each and everything in the book? It could take years, that’s how long.
Yes, but surely you could check the one main fact- any realiable evidence this person was ever a gang member? A simple check on their immediately family would have disproven it. Is there a period of time in their life this person was unaccounted for and could have been raised by wolves?
I’m not saying it is never done. But it’s never been done anywhere I have worked, and I don’t think it’s very common. If nothing else, it’s not cost-effective.
Did you see Exapno Mapcase’s post? (Same for Wee Bairn.) Jones provided a lot of support for her story.
The Holocaust story seemed a lot more implausible and might’ve even been easier to check. I meant to add one thing, though: people have been faking parts of their autobiographies since the idea of writing about yourself was invented. For the most part I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask a publisher to be a detective agency.
Ok, so maybe they dont fact check, but surely someone meets the person who writes the book, and shouldn’t a gang member have at least one gang tattoo? I just saw a picture of Margaret Seltzer/Jones, and she doesn’t appear to have one. And in the book she said she was half Indian, but looks pure white to me.
Kind of like the SNL Update joke about Kim Jong Il’s son trying to pass himself off somewhere as Dominican “the plan fell apart when officers looked at him”.
No, they don’t usually meet the author. Why would they? They have the manuscript. That’s what they’re publishing.
Authors live all over the world and the big publishers are in New York. Bringing them all in would be costly (more than gets paid as an advance in some cases). Not all authors like to travel, and many authors are antisocial recluses who have no interest in sitting down and talking with editors and publishers. (Some authors insist on meeting with their editors, of course. We’re talking tens of thousands of people here, so the variance is huge. By the same token meeting tens of thousands of people is time-prohibitive for working editors.)
Not meeting the author wouldn’t turn an eyebrow in any publishing house.
Well ignorance fought then. I could understand not meeting an established author, or someone who wrote a sci-fi fantasy fiction piece, or a book on the history of barbed wire, but in this day to not meet a first time author of a controversial, supposedly true story seems odd to me, almost like they don’t care if its true or not.