Thursday, March 6, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust: Part 1

A half-white/half-Native American girl raised in a black foster family in South Central L.A. becomes a drug runner for the Bloods.

A drug addict with a middle-class upbringing ventures in and out of jail and rehab but is so determined to kick his habit after his girlfriend’s suicide he undergoes dental surgery with no anesthesia.

The young, uneducated son of a Virginia prostitute grows up to be an HIV-infected hustler but finds refuge in the written word.

What does each of these scenarios have in common? Turns out, none of them are true. But that didn’t stop writers Margaret Seltzer, James Frey and Laura Albert, respectively, from passing them off as their life stories to make a killing in the publishing industry.

After her “memoir” Love and Consequences was published, Margaret Seltzer aka Margaret B. Jones is the latest writer to be exposed as a fraud. Seltzer was scheduled to speak today at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, but that reading and those to follow have been canceled by her publisher, Riverhead Books. To boot, all copies of the book have been recalled because Seltzer was neither a foster child nor a drug runner. Moreover, she is entirely white, grew up in the posh Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks and graduated from a private, Episcopal high school.

While Seltzer totally fabricated her life story, James Frey, a former Oprah’s Book Club endorsee, exaggerated his personal history in bestseller A Million Little Pieces. To up his street cred, he lied about doing time. He also fudged the details of his girlfriend’s death, not to mention the particulars of that now infamous root canal.

But it was Laura Albert who told the most outrageous and egregious lies. While she published fiction, the personal narrative she manufactured to promote her work was intimately tied to the themes it explored—sexual exploitation, hustling and child abuse. What’s more is that Albert, who took on the pseudonym J.T. Leroy, claimed to be a man and a very young one, at that. Because of this lie, the author shunned interviews and public appearances, but celebrities such as Winona Ryder did readings on Leroy’s behalf, while esteemed authors Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon gave Leroy professional writing advice.

When Albert was exposed as the real Leroy in late 2005, the publishing industry was stunned. Editors, writers and Leroy’s celebrity advocates said they felt betrayed. In 2006, when James Frey’s lies came to light, history repeated itself. Now, with the exposure of Margaret Seltzer as a fraud, the industry again insists that nothing could have been done to prevent a liar’s words from making it into print.

I’m not buying it. I’ve worked as a researcher/fact-checker before, and, while I know it would be too time consuming to verify every detail in a book, I doubt it would take a significant amount of time to confirm that the major facets of a book are true. Because of this, I don’t believe that the publishing industry is once again an unwitting victim of fraud. On the contrary, I believe the publishing industry is a victim of its own greed and sensationalistic appetite. Each of the books I’ve mentioned here is filled with explicit descriptions of worlds that most Americans don’t know about firsthand—gang warfare and the sex and drug trades, namely. In an effort to make thousands upon thousands of dollars, the publishing industry rushes to print tomes to sate a society that has become increasingly voyeuristic. In the era of reality television, the publishing industry has forsaken true but non-flashy stories of uplift to print these wildest of memoirs. And the public eats it up. Why?

I’ve never read the works of Seltzer, Frey or Albert. I can’t say this is because I won’t tolerate sensationalism. I love true crime stories as much as the average American and routinely visit celebrity gossip Web sites. I simply didn’t read the works because I’d never heard of Seltzer and Albert until they were exposed as frauds. And, as much as Oprah had backed Frey, I was turned off by his gritty story of drug recovery. As I’ve matured, I realize that it’s possible to know too much about matters I’d do best remaining ignorant of. Why do I need to know the excruciating details of what the body endures during drug withdrawal or the vile sex acts a child is forced to perform by the depraved adults around him? If these stories had been true, I would wonder if the writers were being exploited by our simple but inexplicable need to know.

I’m not sure why Americans have such morbid curiosity, but I believe that we’d learn the most from quiet tales of hardship than from spectacular tales of adversity. No one in publishing would likely give a writer a six-figure deal for a quiet tale, though. And until that day comes, you can bet that the industry will continue to be rocked by more scandals brought on by fabrication, hyperbole and outright plagiarism.

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