It's been a bad couple of weeks for memoirs. On Saturday, Belgian writer Misha Defonseca admitted that her ostensible life story, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years
, had little or no basis in reality: she hadn't, in fact, run away from the Nazis or lived with a friendly pack of wolves; for goodness sake, she wasn't even Jewish. Now Oregon, too, has sent a beloved autobiographer to that Hadean realm—fiction.
The author, who lives in Eugene, called herself Margaret Jones. Her critically acclaimed memoir, Love and Consequences
, recounts her childhood in crime-ridden South-Central LA, a mixed-race foster child in an all black family. She got abused, dodged bullets and cooked crack to pay bills, before getting her act together and attending the University of Oregon. New York Times
book critic Michiko Kakutani loved it, calling it a “remarkable book.”
Remarkable? Maybe. True? Defintely not. Margaret Jones is actually Margaret Seltzer. She grew up in Sherman Oaks, an affluent neighborhood in LA's San Fernando Valley. She was raised by her all-white biological family and attended private school. That's right—no drugs, no gangs, no bullet-dodging.
Seltzer was outed last week after her photograph appeared alongside a profile in the House and Home section of the New York Times
. Her sister, Cyndi Hoffman, saw the picture, read the article, and called Riverhead Books—Seltzer's publisher—to tell them her memoir was a fake. Riverhead has canceled Seltzer's signing tour and recalled all copies of her book.
In a tearful interview, Seltzer told the New York Times that her book was, indeed, made up. Blah blah blah, something about telling people's stories who can't speak for themselves, don't know why I did it, so very very sorry to all the people I have...
And that's the last you'll ever hear from Margaret Seltzer.
The second stop on her signing tour was Powell's Books. The event, listed in last week's WW
, was scheduled for today (March 4) at 7:30 pm. David Weich, Powell's Director of Marketing and Development, speculated as to why a first-time writer like Seltzer would pitch her work as memoir rather than fiction:
“It's hard to sell a debut novel. If you write this kind of a book and call it fiction, are you going to get invited onto all the morning talk shows? Probably not. It's not real, it's just a story. With a memoir, it's a different sales pitch from day one. All the sudden, you've tapped into people who watch reality TV and read celebrity magazines, not just literary types. As someone familiar with the industry, I can tell you that there is a much bigger audience waiting for a story that's supposed to be true.”
Weich also faulted the publisher, Riverhead Books: “If you can pay a $100,000 advance, you ought to be able to spend $1000 on fact checking.”
Weich's criticisms fall into line with what most media are saying about Seltzer's fibs. The consensus seems to be that—in spite of what she says in tearful interviews—the author thought that autobiographical authenticity would be more lucrative and generate more fame than fiction.
That may be true, but calling the book a memoir also helped to cover real weaknesses in Seltzer's writing. Whether or not it's factual, Love and Consequences
is impenetrably maudlin, riddled with cliché and condescending dialect. In all likelihood, donning the mantle of an undereducated survivor was the only way to sell it.