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Fooled again, but does it matter?


Credit: Photo by Sol Neelman, as on book jacket for “Love and Consequences” published by Riverhead Books

Reading a book, like watching a movie, demands and inspires a certain willing suspension of disbelief. This has been said before. There’s no darkened theater, but a reader leaves his suspicious mind behind. We still, thank God, have some ability to fall into a story, someone else’s story.

I am a book critic. I reviewed "Love and Consequences," Margaret B. Jones’ (above) memoir of growing up in foster care in South-Central Los Angeles, in our Feb. 10 issue of Book Review. I liked the book. I admired the writer. I admired the publisher for taking a risk on an untested author. I worried about Margaret Jones. I agreed with her central point, as I said in my review: "Only by acknowledging the appeal of gangs and the needs of those who join will any hope of reducing gang violence be realized."

This morning, I got e-mails and phone calls about the book, an overnight literary scandal. "Just look at her face," one person says in reference to the book jacket photo. "She’s so obviously not a gang member."

"How could the publisher have worked on this book for three years and not figured out that she was lying?" says another.

Others find her gang lingo, in hindsight, unbelievable and even funny. There’s a general feeling of indignation but something else, a sort of smug implication that the speaker would have seen through it all.

There are three stories here:

1. The importance of authenticity in books--We don’t expect it in any other medium, but we still seem to think that print equals truth (no wonder print is in peril).

2. What can publishers do to make certain their writers tell the truth?--Something about the author-agent-publisher process is leaky (Frey, LeRoy, Burroughs, to name a few). This book was conceived and born in New York City, 3,000 miles away from the author and South-Central. Work on the book was apparently done by e-mail.

3) What was Margaret Jones thinking? That no one from her past would see the pieces in the New York Times, much less her photo; that no one would see the book; that her sister or other friends/family members would not turn her in? In this morning’s New York Times story, Jones said that she hoped her inside take on gang life, real and imagined, would help: "I thought I had an opportunity to make people understand the conditions that people live in and the reasons people make the choices from the choices they don’t have." James Frey also hoped that his memoir would help addicts. Frey stood to make quite a bit of money from his story; Jones’ advance was less than $100,000.

Who can blame readers who follow the story for wanting to understand how so many people were fooled? No one likes to be fooled. Least of all, I might argue, a critic. (I suspect we could conduct focus groups with real-life, bona-fide gang members and some of them would be fooled too.) That was my first reaction, somewhere in the gut like a fist. There were a few other feelings, including amusement--admit it, like falling into a story or being forced to stay home because of the weather, it’s a little bit thrilling that we still can be fooled--and, finally, sympathy. Margaret Jones was turned in by her sister. Something was clearly awry in her utter identification with the gang members she wrote about. Something was broken, somewhere. A girl who went to L.A.’s tony Campbell Hall can get broken too.

Something is going on here, more interesting than the fact that we can all be fooled.

Susan Salter Reynolds

Comments () | Archives (19)

The comments to this entry are closed.

It absolutely does matter that we've been fooled again -- it matters, not just because this author fabricated a life for herself, but because she fabricated a host of minority miscreats as well. People of color face enough prejudice without having whites conjure up fictional negligent foster parents and gang members to lead to futher stereotyping. It matters that the "runaway" bride claimed she was kidnapped by a hispanic male, it matters that when Susan Smith killed her own children she said they were taken by a black man, and it matters when a white woman claims that a coterie of black villains who never existed outside of her head are real. Shame on you for even questioning otherwise.

The publisher saw her photo, thought about how great she'd look telling her story on Good Morning America, and heard cash register sounds going off. The story was too good to check. Plus, the story probably advanced the editor's political agenda - - see, put any cute white girl in the hood, and she'd become a gangbanger too.

And to think my tale of growing up an Inuit orphan who wound up finding a cure for the common cold and also got entangled in international espionage got passed over. I guess the jig was up when they found out I was raised in West L.A.

Thank you Susan for having a different view on this matter.
I just bought this book (on ebay) and I am looking forward to read it.
If I'll find it well written, interesting, focused and delivering a positive message, I won't really care if it is fiction or truth. As you say in your article, the borderline between fiction and truth is fainter every day in the rest of the media world and we have all become somewhat used to it and -shame on us- for accepting this.
How much double checking is done in the editorial quarters of Fox News ? And, to take it a step further, how much double checking is done in Washington DC? We are still at war in Iraq thanks to the American people buying into a not-so-well fabricated lie. Do we remember the little vial of white powder (?) that Colin Powell showed to the world from the Assembly General room at the United Nations?
Let's compare the consequences between a lie that provokes a war and a lie about the real identity and background of an author writing about the LA gang world. The publishers took the book off the shelves very quickly. Too bad we can't do the same with the thousands of young people dying in Iraq and bring them home as quickly.
I am frankly surprised at all this outrage for a book that (although I can't really say until I read it) appears to be well-written and to offer a socially positive message ( e.g. that one can break free from a life of abuse, drugs and violence through education).
Emilio Salgari wrote many beautiful adventure and exploration books without ever stepping away from his desk. Sadly, he also ended up in poverty and killed himself.
In an increasingly careless society filled with half-truths and many blatant-yet-accepted lies being perpetrated by the media, if this book is good, if the message is constructive and positive, while not condoning the author's lying, as a matter of principle, I commend her for writing it and I don't really care if she lived the lost life of an LA gang member in her own flesh or just in her own brain.

Print media isn't in trouble because people expect it to be truthful and it isn't, well except where the CLAIM by the print media is that it is truthful; newspaper stories, memoirs, biographies all claim to be presenting factual information. When it turns out to be a lie, an intentional falsification of the facts, well then credibility is seriously damaged. That the columnist would even think it doesn't matter says a great deal about the lack of credibility within the "print media."

It matters a great deal that the story was fraudulent, it was presented as a memoir, or a biography. not as fiction. The blurring of the lines between truth and make believe is nearly as frightening as the idea that gang life is about having relationships, no it is about intimidation, assorted crimes, and the association of criminals.
If it had been presented as fiction, no problem. Fiction can and has presented many issues to us which are uncomfortable when too close to our personal circumstances. This false presentation of fiction as a memoir reduces the impact as she is seen as a greedy individual out to make a buck on other's misfortune. It was also done with a tinge of "white-man's burden" if society doesn't do more and more, and give more to these poor helpless minorities they can't do anything for themselves without "society" doing it for them. How demeaning can you get? There are many who have gotten out of the "gang" areas without being treated as though they were helpless morons. Too many people have the hand-out mentality, they deserve for someone to give them a life of leisure, they shouldn't have to work, they want to play, or have a middle class life without any effort. That doesn't work too well in the real world. But far too many try to make it, assistance for this, that, and the other thing. Rather than telling them to grow up and care for themselves and their own.
It is preachy to some (those who should do more) and accepting of gang culture, if society doesn't realize they want to belong, they want to have friends...Get a clue, everyone wants to belong to some degree, and have positive social interaction. That gang members base it on criminal activities should not be presented as a good.
Gang life should not be seen as an alternative to participating in the greater society. That's one of the reasons they do, it's someone else's fault, if only more were given to them. Society is mean to them. Housing assistance, food, money, education from the age of 2 or 3 till at least 18, after school programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, adult education, all of this is provided by society, and is all not enough, we must have more. When is it ever enough? When is it ever time to be responsible for yourself, and your family?

Though we're focusing on the writer, I think we tread somewhere close to danger. That we have in fact forgotten the writer. Though we write with the publisher, you with your fingers flipping the pages of our books, in mind, we truly write for ourselves. To tell a story. To challenge the process. It's an independent journey. So when something like this happens, is it not premature to accuse the writer? Do we know, in this specific instance, if the writer has truly done something wrong? Do we know it was a memoir she for sure set out to write? Or was it the publisher, hands full of so juicy a story, so perfect but for one minor, but oh so major adjustment, to be made...

There is a responsibility on the publisher's part as well. Let's not be so quick to fire those lanterns on this witch hunt just yet.

Question. Why are these talented fiction writer publishing non-fiction books. Because fiction is dead.

If she wanted to do this humanitarian awareness thing she claims motivated her, the honest way to do it would be to do it as a non-fiction research piece and quote and credit the people whose lives you are appropriating. It's ok in the world of film, for example, to make a documentary. It's not ok to take the same story and claim it is the true story of your actual life. That is beyond writing under a psuedonym, it's a lie and it's fraud. Writing under a pseudonym is only honest when the work done under it is either truly fiction and presented as such, or non-fiction of the sort that isn't claimed as a direct personal experience.

So here I am, a budding memoirist concerned about trying to re-construct the actual wording of dialogue that took place 40 years ago. Let's see, that conversation might have happened in two meetings instead of one. Would it be misleading to synopsize it to one, to make it readable? Was it Harris or Martinez who first showed me how to burn dynamite to heat my chow (but sit upwind of the smoke)? Is it OK to leave parts of this episode out, since they would slow down progress toward the big bang?

The piece needs to flow well. But the frailty of memory and the propriety of creativity do not provide license to take actions that go beyond the bounds of being "in service of the truth," as somebody smart once said.

Making up people and events in a "memoir" to convey a message--any message--is intellectually dishonest, and there is no justification for it. Lackadaisical oversight by the agent, publisher, etal is unfortunate--probably symptomatic of the upheaval we keep hearing about in that industry. But that does not detract from the fact that the basic fault lies with the author (pun intended).

Wonder if there's a family connection between Ms. Seltzer and the literary fraud Herman Seltzer who published fraudulent chicano literature as Amado Muro?

Of course it matters. Seltzer is a liar and the publisher is incompetent.

"Frey got quite a bit of money. Jones' advance was less than $100,000." Oh? A mere $100,000 for work she hadn't done? Shees, I don't get that much for work I HAVE done.

As for readers being fooled, isn't it the critic's job to see that this doesn't happen? If critics aren't competent to do even preliminary research on the book, why are they being paid to review it? And if Jones turns in her "mere" 100K, surely the critics can turn in whatever they earned with their equally fraudulent reviews.

I was a bit shocked when I heard on NPR that Margaret B. Jones was a fraud. I read the feature about her in the NY Times, and had no problem with the basis of her life story.

Growing up in South LA during the 70s and 80s, I had a few White friends and classmates who were from similar circumstances - foster kids, products of biracial unions, or childen of White parents who never left the neighborhood. Some of those kids did get caught up in the life of the streets and were just as ruthless as their Black or Latino homies.

I think the biggest lesson to be learned here is that there is a still a willingness to invest in the image of the "Gangster." Publishers and movie makers are still looking for a twist to the gang life story - and the publisher assumed that this was a new and original idea. A few phone calls to some gang youth workers would have revealed this not to be true - and possibly fleshed this story out as a fraud before a page was ever printed....

Would this book have garnered any attention had it been Fiction? Probably not. It goes to show that fiction is dying. For some reason everyone thinks it's so much better when it's real. That it actually happened. This book probably wouldn't have even gotten published had it been fiction.

Hey Jones, Smith or whatever your name is...thanks for making memoir publishing more difficult for the rest of us.

As the author of a soon-to-be-self-published fictional memoir, I have a small sense of how difficult it is for a first time writer to sell a novel. I believe readers need to be warned when we writers mix up fact and fiction, although I doubt many memoirs are as factual as they suggest, memory being what it is. Of course, writers who are discovered lifting passages get what they deserve. As for writers who borrow ideas to riff on and include literary illusions to add subtext, isn't that what goes on in most good writing?

Narrative trope or narrative tripe?

Didn't Hemingway state something to the effect that "all good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.' He was referring to fiction, of course. And Flannery O'Connor remarked that fiction is a "plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system."
Why have the editors, agents and that apparently small part of the public that reads forgotten this? Ahab, Scarlett O'Hara and Emma Bovary were not "real," but their stories affect us at a deeper level than if they had been.

Sympathy? No, I'm sorry. But there's none from me. I don't care about her state of emotional turmoil. I don't care that she wanted to give voice to an underrepresented group. She made a choice to lie.
To suggest that it is justified to cross the line between fiction and memoir to get this published is ridiculous. Kakutani had no issues with the quality of writing, hence, I think she had the chops to make it into a novel.
Instead, she set herself up to become the personification of a lie, and become a defacto expert in poverty, gangs, abuse, foster families and other serious issues without any experience. She treated South Central LA like a reality TV show.
Her sister turned her in. This only points to one thing. There were others who knew, and who went along willingly with Seltzer's strange fantasy.

How can any book reading thinking person read about this massive lie and just shrug? I guess you can if you look at actual gang members as just fodder for stories and not, you know, actual living people...

And saying we shouldn't be too upset because Bush lied us into war is so crazy I don't even know where to begin.


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