When Riverhead Books yanked Margaret B. Jones’s fabricated memoir Love and Consequences from the market in early March, the literary world surged with all the usual anxieties of quality control. Should nonfiction authors submit to fact-checking protocols, as magazine writers routinely do? And if so, how can editors and writers collaborate closely under the assumption that the submitting writer may well be a charlatan? How can editors–let alone readers–reasonably expect to encounter anything resembling “the truth” on a printed page, anyway?
Lost amid such tail-chasing reveries is what you might call the demand side of the struggle for authenticity in the literary genre of memoir. As observers fret over how it is that a major house like Riverhead could be gulled by a scheming prevaricator, it seems at least as worthwhile to ask what makes fictions such as Love and Consequences so compelling to publishing professionals in the first place.
You can glean a bit of this appeal by reviewing the facts of the memoir’s exposure. In late February, Jones (whose real name is Margaret Seltzer) sat for a gushing profile in the New York Times‘s “House and Home” section. After the profile ran, Seltzer’s sister outed her as not the hardened half-white, half-Native American South Central gangbanger she claimed to be but rather as a privileged daughter of Sherman Oaks, a tony section of LA, who graduated from North Hollywood’s Campbell Hall, the same Episcopalian Day School that had incubated the Olsen twins. These revelations sat awkwardly alongside the profile, which burbled that Jones was “a consummate storyteller and analyst of inner-city pathology”; an accompanying online slideshow supplied a bit of gender essentialism for good measure, noting that “unlike several other recent gang memoirs, all written by men, Ms. Jones’s story is told from a nurturer’s point of view.”
Such effusions were nothing, though, compared with the critical judgments of Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who marveled at how the book showcased a “novelist’s eye for the psychological detail and an anthropologist’s eye for social rituals and routines.” And even though the book’s gritty depictions of gangland squalor in South Central can “feel self-consciously novelistic at times,” Kakutani wrote, Jones nonetheless does “an amazing job of conjuring up her old neighborhood…both the brutal realities of a place where children learn to sleep on the floor to avoid the random bullets that might come smashing through the windows and walls at night, and the succor offered by family and friends.”
Such plaudits–echoed widely among the book’s initial reviewers–show that, content aside, Love and Consequences had hit the memoirist sweet spot: here was a wrenching narrative of personal triumph over adversity, pitching a tough but sentimental ingenue against the lurid doings of a cruel, dangerous world. The formula, indeed, was right there in the book’s subtitle: A Memoir of Hope and Survival.
The twin poles of extremity in suffering and the quiet grace of self-deliverance are the lodestars of the memoir industry, regardless of the truth value of any particular entrant. A glance back at recently exposed fakes shows the same basic story line: The trio of anguished memoirs published under the name Nasdijj, a supposed transient Native American who turned out to be a frustrated middle-aged white writer named Tim Barrus; the streetwise sagas of alleged young-gay-hustler-on-the-make J.T. Leroy, who turned out to be novelist Laura Albert; and, of course, James Frey, whose publisher Nan A. Talese was burned by the many fabrications in his 2003 Oprah-anointed memoir A Million Little Pieces. Frey’s next publisher, Riverhead, was left to do some shamefaced cleanup work, issuing the no-less empirically challenged sequel, My Friend Leonard, as fiction while quietly canceling a contract for Frey to write a novel with the house, even though fiction was all that Frey had any demonstrated aptitude for.