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Reality bites back

March 09, 2008|Ruben Martinez | Ruben Martinez, an English professor at Loyola Marymount University, is the author of a completely verifiable work of nonfiction, "Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail."

JUST when you thought it was safe to go back to the bookstore, there's a brand-new entry in the memoir-that-turns-out-to-be-fiction sweepstakes: "Love and Consequences" by the author formerly known as Margaret B. Jones, whose real name is Margaret Seltzer. Published to gushing reviews, the book has been recalled by its publisher, Riverhead, in the wake of revelations that "Margaret," rendered by Seltzer as a half-white, half-Native American woman raised in a series of foster homes in hard South-Central Los Angeles neighborhoods, is purely the invention of the real-life author, who is white and grew up middle class in Sherman Oaks.

Seltzer has much in common with the growing literary liar's club that includes writers of both fiction and nonfiction. James Frey is, of course, the best known of these authors, having been excoriated by Oprah Winfrey before an audience of millions for having made up many of the shocking details in his addiction-and-recovery memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." There's also Laura Albert, who posed as the "autobiographical novelist" (and street hustling drug addict) JT LeRoy, and has remained completely unapologetic about the deception. And let's not forget the lesser-known but equally troubling case of "Nasdijj," the "Navajo" author of "The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams," the heartbreaking tale of his son's death due to fetal alcohol syndrome; Tim Barrus, the actual author, is white, and the child is a fictional character.

Much like Barrus/Nasdijj, Seltzer imagined a harrowing world that ultimately revolved solely around her and, crucially, projected her own psychodrama onto a geography of radical difference, exchanging white for black, the middle class for the 'hood. In other words, she wrote herself "authentically" in an unintentional parody of liberal sympathy for the suffering subjects of the ghetto.

It is easy to lambaste these writers for their egregious crimes of appropriation, but the ethical responsibility goes beyond them to the publishing industry, and ultimately to the readers who hunger for precisely these kinds of stories. In telling language, Sarah McGrath, Seltzer's editor at Riverhead, told the New York Times of "[feeling] such sympathy for [Seltzer] and she would talk about how she didn't have any money or any heat and we completely bought into that and thought we were doing something good by bringing her story to light."

Such sentiments also suffuse the critical praise heaped on the book before Seltzer's deception was exposed (by her own sister after she read a profile about Seltzer in the New York Times). It was often riddled with cliches. Michiko Kakutani, for instance, closed her New York Times review by declaring: "With this remarkable book [Seltzer] has borne witness to the life in the 'hood that she escaped, conveying not just the terrible violence and hatred of that world, but also the love and friendship that sustained her on those mean streets."

This discourse locks representations of South-Central and places like it into a crude essentialism. (It is black, it is poor, it is "gang-ridden" and "drug infested.") Ironically, the "intimate portrait" actually increases the social distance between the well-intentioned reader on the outside and the ghetto subject. And that's precisely the point, because the audience for this kind of tale is not in the ghetto but in middle-class neighborhoods far removed from it. The story sells only because of the vast gulf between "us" and "them."

All this occurs at a moment when Americans demand "authenticity" above all else. In electoral politics, candidates are "for real" or they are not. In film, we want digital special effects to make the bloody mess ever more "realistic." On TV, we watch more "reality"-based shows than dramas. It is our obsession in literature, as well. The American novel is still steeped in realism and our appetite for the memoir -- first-person writing from "experience" -- appears insatiable, scandals notwithstanding.

It seems clear enough that only a society as distrusting as we are would be so obsessed with "keepin' it real" -- from Watergate to WMD-gate, there's a Big Lie for every generation of Americans alive today.

The irony is that the more we insist on the "real," the more elusive it becomes, the more twisted the fictions and phantasms that reside not just in the minds of a few authors but in our collective pop psyche.

As a result, both the autobiographical novel and the memoir (which is often praised for reading like great literature, "like a novel") are suffering a crisis of authority: They both lie, even as they reach for the most "real" of representations. In the end it seems as if the only thing that's "real" is the black hole between them, that place we cannot approach because it would mean a whole other kind of reckoning as readers and as a society.

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