Arts & Culture

How to Sound Smart This Week: Fake Memoir Edition

Remember the early days of 2006, when first J.T. Leroy and then James Frey turned out to be fabulists? False memoirists always seem to get exposed in pairs, and this week is no exception. First, Misha Defonseca, author of Misha: … Read More

By / March 4, 2008

Remember the early days of 2006, when first J.T. Leroy and then James Frey turned out to be fabulists? False memoirists always seem to get exposed in pairs, and this week is no exception.

First, Misha Defonseca, author of Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, admitted that she'd invented her entire story – which, given that it involved one scene where a pre-teen Misha killed a Nazi and two others in which she had mystical encounters with wolves, wasn’t a huge surprise to the 5000 or so people who bought the book. Then it came out that the critically-beloved Love and Consequences wasn't a memoir by a woman named Margaret B. Jones who grew up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, but actually a work of fiction by a writer named Margaret Seltzer who grew up on the very nice and highly accommodating streets of Sherman Oaks in the Valley.

Everyone’s going to be talking about this all week, so we’re here to provide you with a couple angles:

  1. What is “truth,” anyway? This seems to be the approach taken by Defonseca, who has said "This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.” Which is, of course, egregious bullshit, but so is The Hills. So were the WMDS, for the matter. At this point in the history of American pop culture, we’re all pretty used to being told things are reality when they’re just objectively not. If the false reality is entertaining or sustaining enough, we tend to accept it, at least in the realms of television and politics, so how is literature any different? Do we just hold it to a different standard because it’s…high-brow? Or old-fashioned? A relic from the days when “reality” actually meant something?
  2. Would Love and Consequences have gotten so much attention—or gotten a book deal at all—if the author wasn't a white girl? Are white people only capable of hearing about the black experience if it's coming from another white person? Margaret Seltzer told The New York Times that she was only trying to speak for the people she met as an anti-gang campaigner: “I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk."
  3. Maybe the real problem here, as many people suggested during Frey-gate, is that we’re asking too much of the memoir genre. Maybe we ought to come up with a gray area for true-enough books – literature that’s close enough to reality to stimulate our collective national voyeurism problem, but doesn’t bear the burden of actually being true. Critics have hailed Seltzer’s book, unlike, say, A Million Little Pieces, as actually really good. Personally, I still want to read it, true or not. Can’t we just shelve it in the “probably bullshit” genre and leave it at that?