So since I have a memoir coming out in May, I felt extra qualified to talk about the temptations of fakery and fraud. Tried to get this published, but you know how it is for the kid--every day is hustle when the Man is trying to keep you down. So I'm taking it to the streets, check it out:
When news broke that Margaret Seltzer had concocted an entire life for her memoir, Love And Consequence, I thought about calling up my editor and telling him that my own upcoming memoir was a fake. I imagined him going through several stages of panic, and this made me laugh a little, but only a little and in a really uncomfortable way. The truth of the matter is that whenever I hear about another Jayson Blair/J.T. Leroy/Stephen Glass I shudder just a little. So much of what any nonfiction writer does occurs out of the line of sight of any supervision, and plagiarism and fabulism are always there as tempting possibilities. This isn’t like the deliciously mind-fogging temptation of say, adultery, but more like the self-destructive madness that makes you wonder what it would feel like to shoplift.
Maybe I speak too broadly, and it’s just me that’s somewhat neurotic, and fantasizes about the life of an utter and complete sham. But judging by how newspapers and magazines—those not in the midst of crackup or breakdown—run their shop, I think not. The best magazines I’ve ever worked for proceed from the assumption that the writer is a liar, and must back up every word he’s written including, to borrow a phrase, “and” and “the.” The cautious writer, thus knowing he will be called to account, keeps a scolding voice in the back of his head, and never trusts himself too much. Again, maybe it’s just me, but I fear fact-checkers way more than any editor.
The fact-checker is an representative of the broader fears, the idea that should one fib even a little, there are a whole host of people who’ll be waiting in line for explanations. All I could think about, when I read Seltzer’s tale, was what she would tell her parents, and by extension her friends, and even more so, what her name now meant to those who’d actually come up in the South-Central Struggle. It takes a coldness, a sort of pathology to put that all of that aside, to gamble seemingly everything and everyone you care about for a few thousand bucks and a chance shot at fame.
But truth be told, whenever I behold the literary swindle that now seems to crop up on a semi-annual basis, I’m struck not by moral outrage, pity or anger, but something in between awe and reverence. I called a writer friend of mine yesterday about this story, and he jokingly remarked that he’d found a new hero. It’s not the idea of giving virtue to deception, but an almost visceral respect for someone who can put it all on the line. The con-artist is still an artist.
Thus I’m forced to admit that it takes some stones to just tell a series bald-face lies. Yesterday, I read about a deluded woman who became a best selling memoirist, and had her life optioned for a film. Among her many counterfeit claims, was a tale of having been raised by wolves. I repeat—Raised By Wolves. At once, I kept thinking that any lowly magazine intern could have sniffed that whopper out with a few calls to the local zoo, and still the brazenness of it all held me in sway.
Here is the truth of things—fear keeps me in check. Not just fear of being caught, but fear of having to explain myself to an entire network (family, friends, colleagues) of connections. I am not an honorless man, but what can we truly say of our deepest morals, having never been pushed? The fact is that it takes hard work, and a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to carry a good whopper through. If I’ve earned any plaudits over the years for my own veracity, it’s because I’ve always been deathly afraid of that phone-call, right around dinnertime, from some twenty-one year kid working his way up the ranks, bearing a simple message—You’re busted. I just don’t have what it takes to walk that tight-rope.
It seems that magazines and newspapers learned this dark lesson years ago, and thus created a system, while imperfect, which gives the liar in us all just enough pause, a moment to think about what we stand to loose. Book publishers live in another time where neighbors still leave their doors unlocked and sleep on the porch. Whereas periodical editors realized long ago that the world of writers is all Compton, book editors are still frolicking in Mayberry. I had to laugh a little when I read that Nan Talese, once hoodwinked herself, asserted that in The Times that fact-checking would “be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship.” Along with the rest of her colleagues, there seemed to be a fervent belief that you should be able to take an author at their word. Seltzer’s publisher noted that he wished, “the author had told us the truth.”
Contrast that with the response of one of the editors at The Times, who was also fooled into a feature article on Seltzer. After some hemming and hawing the editor put full responsibility on the paper and said that “Do I wish in retrospect that we had called L.A. child services and tried to run down the history of this person? I certainly do.”
Of course, magazines and newspapers are replete with their own problems, and its barely been two weeks since Maxim (that font of credibility) had to apologize for running a review of a band’s new CD, without having even given it a listen. The point is not to rub the book publishing industry’s face in their own naïveté. I sympathize with the industry. The fact is that, if you’re going to make money lying, books just seem like a bad place to do it, given that even the liars aren’t getting particularly rich.
That said, I wonder how much more fraud we can see before the whole genre of memoir starts taking a hit at its bottom-line. When I started the proposal for my own memoir, I looked at some of the previous work, but didn’t get very far. My own journalistic background told me to be skeptical of the writer who seemed sure of everything, who could repeatedly recall the exact clothing, the exact weather, the exact dialogue from every important scene. I’m a writer, whose job it is to read memoir, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might be getting duped. What about the casual reader who has the option of grabbing the remote or picking up the PlayStation controller?
My message to publishers everywhere—a little fear in the hearts of your writers is not a bad thing. My own memoir comes out May. It was only barely fact-checked. But it chronicles my family, who I’m still very close to, and who jealously guard their name and reputation. If you decide to read it, don’t do so trusting me. Do so, trusting that I am still—at thirty-two years old—very afraid of my parents, and petrified at the thought of getting anything about them wrong.