Why would author label fiction as fact?

I cringed as I read the book jacket blurb calling the recently unmasked fake memoir "an unvarnished look at inner-city life beyond the statistics and stereotypes."

On the back cover were tributes to the author's "pitiless intelligence and scathing honesty."

"Margaret Jones uses her own life to tear down the walls between South Central and the world beyond," wrote one. Said another, "My God, Margaret is brave."

Turns out Margaret is neither brave nor honest. Nor is she a half-white, half-Native American girl raised among black gang members in a South Los Angeles foster home.

Margaret Jones is actually Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer, who grew up white and middle-class on a cul-de-sac in Sherman Oaks. Her education didn't come on the streets, but in a private school that counts Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen (and my oldest daughter) among its graduates.

Seltzer's book "Love and Consequences" is a fabrication. The hoax, which came to light this week, is a big-time scandal among the literati. Seltzer's agent and editor said they were duped. Readers wondered why the publisher didn't fact-check.

I read the book this week with the luxury of knowing it was fiction. I found it superficial and melodramatic.

I give Seltzer credit for being curious enough to care about gang life and diligent enough to get the details right -- the clothes, the language, the recipe for turning powder cocaine into crack. And I give her props, as her fake homies might say, for trying to show that some gang members we fear are struggling brothers, fathers and sons, caught up in a mindless cycle of destruction.

So why am I so offended?

In "Love and Consequences" Seltzer describes a startling life -- rife with stereotypes -- as a white foster child sent to the "urban Third World country" of South Los Angeles.

Her "Big Mom" is a stoic, hard-working grandmother struggling to raise her crack-addicted daughter's four kids. Her "homies" are lovable rogues with hearts of gold who carry her backpack, escort her to the homecoming dance and enlist her to deliver their cocaine.

Seltzer was outed by her sister, who read a profile of her in the New York Times and called the book's publisher to say it was all a lie.

In a tearful apology, before she went into hiding, Seltzer defended herself, saying she was trying to help people she cared about by showing readers the harshness of their lives.

But what ticks me off is the notion that it takes a white author's "gripping memoir" to cast the problems of ghetto blacks in a sympathetic light. I suspect what really intrigued publishers, promoters and reviewers was not the story but the storyteller -- the image of this tough little white girl cooking up a batch of crack on the kitchen stove. She's got to get the utility bill paid and the water turned back on before Big Mom gets home from one job and leaves for the next, cleaning offices for "CEOs and their white secretaries."

It's the race card being played by a white person.

Eso Won bookstore in South Los Angeles was supposed to host the author at a book-signing Friday night but canceled and sent the books back. No customers have asked about the book or mentioned the scandal, said owner Tom Hamilton.

"There's been too much going on," he said "The 6-year-old shot in the car, the high school football player killed outside his house."

In other words, it's been the kind of dispiriting week in South Los Angeles that makes hand-wringing over a suburban girl's play-acting laughable.

I stopped at Eso Won while cruising by places mentioned in the book -- First AME Church and Baldwin Village apartments -- as if finding some kind of physical sign to link her to the community would make the hoax less offensive.

But it became pointless after a while. The story is fake, so what does it matter? The gang prevention group she said she now works with doesn't seem to exist either, beyond a website created last fall by her agent.

Even her list of acknowledgments is suspect. "I never heard of her, never met her," said gang counselor Khalid Shah, who is mentioned in the book and thanked by its author.

Is he angry about the charade? He laughed. "If I got pissed off every time somebody makes their name using [South Los Angeles], I'd be angry all the time."

I know he's right. I'll get over it. But I'm still wondering what made her do it.

In what may be the truest statement in her book, she disparaged a social worker for trying to understand her life. "Seeing and living," she said, "are separated by a big, maybe even uncrossable divide."

If she understood that, then why did she lie?

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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