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The lure of made-up memoirs

Tuesday’s revelation that a critically acclaimed memoir of gang life in South Los Angeles was an elaborate hoax raises troubling questions about the economics of American publishing, about our collective deference to victims and about the paucity of real literature based on our most urgent urban experiences.

“Love and Consequences” was published last week to favorable reviews. Its author, Margaret B. Jones, was purported to be a young woman of mixed Caucasian and Native American ancestry who grew up in the care of an African American foster mother in South L.A. Jones wrote of how her black foster brothers joined the Bloods street gang at 11 and 13 and described how one was shot dead by the rival Crips in front of her foster home. Jones recounted her own activities as a drug courier for the Bloods, how she received her first gun as a 14th birthday present and, most chillingly, how she used her first substantial drug profits to buy a burial plot.

It’s pretty gripping stuff. Earlier this week, however, the New York Times revealed that Jones is, in fact, Margaret Seltzer, a 33-year-old white woman and creative writing student who grew up in Sherman Oaks and attended Campbell Hall, an exclusive private Episcopal school in the Valley.

Seltzer/Jones’ fraud is bound to evoke memories of James Frey’s notoriously concocted memoir of drug addiction and imprisonment, “A Million Little Pieces,” which chat diva Oprah Winfrey turned into a national bestseller. And it comes just days after Misha Defonseca, author of “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years,” admitted that her bestselling book about her childhood also was fabricated. We easily could expand the list, but the question is: Why all this fraud now?

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One reason has to do with public taste. In the United States and, increasingly, in parts of Western Europe, the only unchallenged moral authority has become that of victims. This should not be read as an expression of sympathy toward the injured; instead, it’s really an extension of the culture of narcissism’s influence into the world of letters. It’s a view that asserts that only those who have experienced pain or torment have a right speak of it, though others may participate vicariously through their eyes. Hence our insatiable desire for tell-all memoirs of every savage and degrading form of abuse -- as long as the account comes directly from those who suffered it.

Publishers are only too glad to serve that appetite, but they do so at a time when their own economics make them particularly vulnerable to fraud. No nonfiction publisher can afford serious fact-checking anymore; most do none at all. At the same time, they know that the TV and radio promotion critical to creating bestsellers demands authors “with a story to tell.” How many talk shows would have booked Seltzer/Jones if she had forthrightly admitted she was a white writer of imaginative fiction with a social conscience that impelled her to write about gang life in South Los Angeles?

It’s interesting too that we in Los Angeles have been here before -- though the fallout this time seems likely to provoke far more moralizing and far less soul-searching. In 1983, a previously unknown twentysomething Chicano writer named Danny Santiago published “Famous All Over Town,” a first-person account of growing up in the gang culture of East L.A. The book inspired a popular rock song of the same name and won prestigious literary awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and from PEN.

A year later, the writer John Gregory Dunne revealed in a piece simultaneously published in the New York Review of Books and The Times’ Opinion section that Danny Santiago, in fact, was a creation of a 73-year-old former screenwriter and onetime Communist Party member named Dan James, whose credits included Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” James had been suffering from writers’ block ever since he’d been blacklisted. As Danny Santiago, he’d found a voice to write about the years of experience he’d gained doing social work in East L.A.

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The reaction to this revelation couldn’t be more different from what Seltzer/Jones is experiencing. Dunne regarded “Famous All Over Town” as “a significant work of urban literature.” Joyce Carol Oates mused that for James, “the cultivation of a pseudonym is not so very different from the cultivation in vivo of the narrative voice that sustains any work of words, making it unique and inimitable.”

Sixteen years later, the eminent historian of the West, Patricia Nelson Limerick, came back to James’ book in an essay published in her collection, “Something In the Soil.” Limerick wrote that our literary judgments remain hostage to the ideology of authenticity, leaving “white Americans indifferent to, ignorant of, or even bored by the dilemmas faced by nonwhites. Whatever else Dan James signifies, he signifies a response to ethnicity that is radically different from that chilling lack of empathy.”

Whether Seltzer/Jones’ book deserves that sort of searching reconsideration probably is a moot question. The disappointed voyeur is an unforgiving reader -- and when it comes to the urban torment that fired the imaginations of Danny Santiago and Margaret B. Jones, we’ve become increasingly a nation of spectators.


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