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Fooled again, but does it matter?

March 4, 2008 |  2:15 pm


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