05 March 2008

Consequences, no love.

I was going to write a Filmbook entry today but I wanted to air my voice on the Margaret Seltzer affair. In case you don't follow literary news, a brief summary: Margaret Seltzer writes a memoir about growing up half-white and half-Native American in South Central L.A. among gang members and drug dealers. It's published under the name Margaret B. Jones to some acclaim.

Only Seltzer/Jones made the whole thing up; she actually grew up upper-middle-class and white in the Valley, was never a foster child and used her friends' experiences to write the book, which ironically is called LOVE AND CONSEQUENCES. (Interestingly, you can still read the first chapter of the book on nytimes.com, should you so desire.)

As much as I like celebrity gossip, I find scandals like this even more fascinating. There are so many elements to take into account -- the coincidence of the book's editor's father working at the New York Times, the Times endorsement (now withdrawn, I imagine) coming from one of its most stingy critics, the question of whether ratting out one's sister is worse than falsifying a memoir.

But the issue I'd like to focus on is not whether Seltzer's defense of wanting "to make people understand the conditions that people live in and the reasons people make the choices from the choices they don’t have" is good enough, or whether memoirs are getting so fictionalized these days the genre has lost its meaning. My concern is, what can publishers do to make sure the truths presented are actually true?

Riverhead, who published LOVE AND CONSEQUENCES, is recalling the book and offering refunds a la the James Frey publishers. They also released a statement, excerpted below:
Prior to publication the author provided a great deal of evidence to support her story: photographs, letters; parts of Peggy[Seltzer]'s life story in another published book; Peggy's story had been supported by one of her former professors; Peggy even introduced the agent to people who misrepresented themselves as her foster siblings.
So Riverhead tried to verify Seltzer/Jones' story, but clearly they didn't get far enough into that before publication to run into the contradictions that now seem more than evident. The industry seems to resist the idea of fact-checkers as a whole, for reasons I don't completely understand. The NY Sun predicted that a fact-checked book would cost over $100 at retail, and the Times quotes "J.T. LeRoy" agent Ira Silverberg saying “It is not an industry capable of checking every last detail,” as well as A MILLION LITTLE PIECES publisher Nan Talese saying fact-checking "would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship." Well, if two people failed at it, it clearly doesn't work, right?

Wrong. There's nothing insulting about having to prove what you're writing is true, as long as the same rules apply for everyone. The editor who published LOVE AND CONSEQUENCES, who worked with Seltzer for three years and will bear that black mark for her entire career, should not have to worry about jeopardizing her relationship with an author over the veracity of her story.

That's why fact-checking shouldn't be left to the editors, and publishers like Riverhead should actively seek out the nastiest, most relentless kind: fact-checkers who work in health and technical fields. They won't be cheap, but those people are used to seeing every bit of information presented in a text as potentially killing someone if it's incorrect. An untrue memoir won't kill anybody, but for memoir fans (like myself) it devalues all the good work that has come before.

Potentially unnecessary disclaimer: I once attended a workshop led by Riverhead publisher Geoff Kloske.


Jess said...

This is a really interesting question and I think the answer is overwhelmingly that they don't do anything. I worked at a literary agency that represented an author of a memoir that later turned out to be largely falsified and at best deeply exaggerated. When they found out they simply stopped marketing the manuscript. It wasn't a big deal and nobody seemed to think that it was their job to do the fact-checking. Maybe that's the problem with the whole system of literary agents. The agent and the publisher both try to place the onus on the other.

Elizabeth said...

I don't know: even in technical fields sometimes fail to check whether the findings of a paper are even novel before publishing it.

Elizabeth said...

had something to say about memoirs vs. novels, and I thought you might be interested.

Ellen said...

Dubner's right on, and I think if, say, James Frey had been forced to pay millions of dollars in damages to angry readers, publishers wouldn't be so attracted to the rewards of publishing untrue memoirs.

Now, they just hope they don't get caught, or if they do it happens after people have already bought and enjoyed the book (as in the Ishmael Beah controversy going on right now).