Oh, Good Lord

Just when I finally think I have my arguments organized enough to finally compose my blog post comparing Obama, Clinton and McCain to Bert, Ernie and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street, I end up all distracted by this whole Margaret Seltzer memoir disaster. Politics will have to wait another day but if I can glean anything from the way this primary season is shaking down, it is that I have nothing but time on my side. So, in the words of Howard Dean, yay for an actual 50 – state race.

So, this Margaret Seltzer has dealt yet another blow to the long-suffering memoir genre. It turns out her book Love and Consequences, a “memoir” about her life growing up as a foster child in L.A., surrounded by and a part of the gang world, is totally made up. From start to finish. This has caused a whole ton of mea culpa on behalf of Riverhead books, and especially from Seltzer’s editor, Sarah McGrath but unlike many of the critics emerging over the last week, wildly pointing fingers and accusing both McGrath and Riverhead of heinous negligence, I find it hard to work up any sort of rage towards anyone beyond Seltzer herself.  I mean, I sort of get McGrath’s position…she discovers what she believes to be a powerful memoir – a memoir of gangs and sexual abuse and violence, with a redemptive ending – and to top it all off – it’s fucking fabulous writing? And, you know, because of James Frey and J.T. LeRoy, she does her background checks, she receives letters from various people on Seltzer’s life, supporting her story – how is she supposed to know every piece of evidence her writer provides is entirely made up? The blame for the deceit should be placed squarely on the writer’s shoulders, who as far as I can tell abused a trusting editor and well-reputed publisher for reasons none of us will ever know.

What continues to boggle my mind with this whole deal is Seltzer’s intent. In this day and age of reality television, with shows on everything from extravagant sweet sixteen parties to finding love matches for coked-up rock stars, are people so desperate for their own bit of attention that they will deliberately fabricate an entire life?

Already, this drama in the publishing world has encouraged further arguments regarding memoir and, to a lesser extent, the field I studied, creative nonfiction. A critic in my local paper took one of the professors I studied under, Lee Gutkind, to task in his Sunday column today, using words Gutkind penned in a letter-to-the-editor for “Harper’s” regarding finding the truth in memoir. In this letter to the editor Gutkind wrote the following:

…the factual details of memoir are considerably less important than the writer’s intentions in revealing, describing and re-creating stories…most readers are seeking enjoyment and enlightenment from books no matter the work’s purported genre…artful, meaningul expression will find its true audience and define itself…

The critic took this argument as Gutkind’s justification for falsifying memoir which simply isn’t the case. Anyone who has read Gutkind’s journal, Creative Nonfiction, or his many books, or taken a class with him, or possibly even had a passing conversation with him, knows that truth, truth in terms of facts, are what he values…even more than good writing. I’ve discussed quite frequently my experiences as a creative nonfiction student at the University of Pittsburgh, but I don’t know if I ever discussed the absolute rigor of the program itself – the demands made on the students over and over again ensuring every piece we wrote was factually correct. As the program’s leader, Gutkind didn’t care so much if we graduated with book deals, or, in fact, graduated at all – first and foremost he instilled in us the ethics of journalists, and the desire to honor the truth.  I should be clear that I didn’t study as closely with Gutkind as other students, did – I think I only had three classes with him, but as a teacher, writer, and student, I always knew where I stood with him, and what he expected from me and my tenure in his program.

So, when Gutkind says the factual details of memoir aren’t as important as what they invoke, he does not mean details like where you grew up and who your parents were and whether or not you were molested.  He means, it doesn’t perhaps so much matter, if you think your kitchen curtains were chocolate colored, and it turns out they were more of a burnt sienna, or you once puked up banana-flavored pancakes, when actually they were blueberry. It’s irresponsible to take excerpts from one letter to the editor and misrepresent a man’s entire legacy to the literary world, when he clearly states over and over and over again that creative nonfiction is the use of literary devices applied in fiction (simile! metaphor! characterization! plot! STORY!!) to tell a true story. It does not mean now, nor has it ever, you can make things up.

I feel for everybody involved in this debate. I feel for Seltzer, who obviously has some deeply disturbing issues she needs to work out. I feel for McGrath, partly because I understand her, and in a way, I’m sort of glad people like her still exist – people who believe a memoir they receive is real and true – people who believe in the basic honestly of humanity. And I feel for Riverhead, because it is an astounding publishing company willing to take chances, and maybe now, it won’t so much. And I feel for all my writing friends creating gorgeous memoirs, memoirs that honor their truths, that today have an even smaller chance of publication than they did last week, because of this. And if it’s possible, I even feel for the genre, which has brought breathtaking, beautiful work from writers like Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott, Patricia Hampl and Willie Morris – and uncontrollable laughter from David Sedaris, and a deep sense of sorrow and longing from John Edgar Wideman…I could go on and on. Memoir, at it’s very best, allows readers to recognize the universality of certain experiences and feelings – it moves and transports.

Writing, I guess, like all fields, has some cliched bad apples. Seltzer is obviously one of them. But you know, every professional field is rocked with a scandal now and again – one or two or one hundred corporate scandals doesn’t suddenly cause all corporations to fall apart…lead found in toys made from China doesn’t mean a world with no more toys or even, harder to purchase toys. I hope we don’t let two or three lying writers tarnish a genre built on the voices of people like Elie Wiesel, Maxine Hong Kingston, James Baldwin and (I’m mentioning him again because I love him so) Willie Morris – I think the genre, the publishing houses, the editors, the writers…I think we are all much smarter than that.

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7 Responses to Oh, Good Lord

  1. Dorothy W. says:

    Yes, every field has a scandal now and then, and this kind of fake memoir scandal has happened before, lots and lots of times, in several different centuries. I find it hard to get that worked up about it. There were tons of fake memoirs in the 18C, and in fact the fake memoir genre could be called one of the forms that helped get the novel going.

  2. lilalia says:

    I’m not condoning Margaret Seltzer’s blatant falsification, but isn’t there a difference between memoir and autobiography? Doesn’t memoir indicate the possibility that the writer was wearing rose-tainted glasses while writing the book? I remember being devastated at finding out that Karin Blixen (Out of Africa) was a pathological liar. Yet, after a while I just wondered at her imagination to create such vivid imagery, so much so that I believed those events happened; probably as much as she did. I also felt great pity for her; knowing life was never enough that she didn’t feel the need to twist and change it.

    In the case of Ms. Seltzer, it would appear the book would be better classified as fiction. How strange that she didn’t suggest this to her editor in the first place. She’s effectively cut off any chance of being published again.

  3. Emily Barton says:

    Being an editor who once signed a book about life in prison written by someone who was a prisoner at the time, who was supposedly reformed, and who later got out of jail and then murdered the woman with whom he was living, I completely sympathize with the editor in every new “false memoir” or plagiarism case. Given the workloads put on editors these days, publishing companies’ perilous positions that require “blockbusters” be signed every week, the fact that fewer and fewer publishing companies actually hire anyone known as a “fact checker,” and the fact that we seem to live in an age in which people have a harder and harder time distinguishing truth from fiction, I have no idea how the public expects editors to know when someone is making up a life. It isn’t as though editors go and live with their authors for a year while they write their books. And I still can’t understand someone who feels the need to make up a life and pretend it truly happened instead of calling it fiction.

  4. yogamum says:

    I remember thinking at the time of the Frey brouhaha, “Why is everyone so surprised? Everyone knows writers lie!”

    I agree that writers of memoir ought to try to bring the utmost integrity to their works. I also wonder why the public seems to be more captivated by “memoir” rather than the same story, cast as fiction?

  5. Yes, it’s sad that writers like Seltzer and Frey think that their stories would sell better as memoir than as fiction. It says a lot about the public’s taste for “real-life” stories. And to be honest, I enjoyed the Frey book. Now that we know it was a feat of imagination and not horrible life experience doesn’t take away my admiration. I think it’s a pity that a writer is lost to us because she wrongly imagined that branding was more important than truth.

    Courtney, I can understand your need to defend creative nonfiction and your professor. He is obviously a man of integrity.

  6. Courtney says:

    Dorothy – hmmm. Your response is the first response that has actually made me consider a ph.d in creative nonfiction. Scandals in memoirs over the centuries? Oh my! Must.Banish. This. Thought.
    Lilia…there is definitely a difference between memoir and autobiography, but memoir still isn’t license to make things up. And I totally agree – I find it odd she didn’t market it as fiction to begin with!
    Emily – it’s so good to get an editor’s perspective on this. I was thinking along the same lines…that the work load and expectations of editors must be so intense that they can’t possibly be expected to assume this sort of level of deceit on behalf of their writers…
    Yogamum – I enjoy reading memoir, but i certainly am not taken with it over fiction and I don’t understand why the public is so taken with the genre, either…
    Charlotte – it just infuriates me when people make arguments by excerpting the briefest of writings, without spending any time at all undetstanding the history behind the pedagogy!

  7. Smithereens says:

    I didn’t hear about that latest scandal but it hardly surprises me. I think it’s part of human nature to feel attracted to incredible stories especially when they are supposed to be real. That’s how literature got started in the first place. Now, I might anger you as a creative non-fiction writer, but I tend to think that fiction is often richer than truth, because it adds layers and causality that didn’t exist in the first place. Somebody who would have lived the exact same events with the same people as Proust did in his childhood might not have found it so great, while The search of lost time will remain great even if the events/ people Proust described are not real. Am I playing the devil’s advocate?

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