March 10, 2008



The Internet hasn't made anything problematic along the lines that Mendelsohn has mentioned. You see, there are these things called hyperlinks and comments in which facts and impressions can be confirmed, compared, and put into context. He doesn't offer a single example to prove his point.

If Mendelsohn is complaining about cranks and prevaricators, his laundry list can just as easily be applied to books and articles. It is the discriminating reader who decides whether the work in question is genuine or scholarly. If Mendelsohn doesn't like the Wild West, then he can stay home clutching his East Coast middle-class comforts and leave these pastures for the rest of us.

Martha Southgate

I have to respectfully disagree with Ed above and agree with you, Mark, that even though people ought to be discriminating readers, they all too often aren't and thus how a person "experienced" something becomes more important than the literal truth.

I would add about the Jones incident that as a serious fiction writer and a black woman, I’m particularly disturbed by a couple of other things I’ve observed that Mendelsohn didn't touch on.

I can’t claim to have read "Love and Consequences" but judging by the respectful, enthusiastic reviews, it’s a well-written, moving piece of fiction. However, had she attempted to sell it as such, she more than likely would have found herself holding an unpublished manuscript, rather than being encouraged for her effort, as a writer, to cross racial and class boundaries. Fiction of this sort just doesn’t sell—but tell the world that “this really happened to me” even if it didn’t, even if it’s extremely in-credible and unlikely (a white girl in foster care in South Central?) and you’re likely to find yourself riding high (though briefly).

The other thing I’ve observed in many of these “Oops, I actually made that up” cases thus far, is that they are purported memoirs of worlds that are “exotic.” In the case of James Frey, it’s profound drug addiction, in the case of JT Leroy's invented persona, it’s impoverished whites, in the case of Jones, impoverished African-Americans. It seems that at every step along the way, the folks involved in bringing the work forward and presenting it as true, are all too willing to believe whatever they are told about worlds outside their ken. Often these worlds are populated by people with little money or who are of a different race than most of the people in the publishing industry.

Of course Seltzer is a pathological liar who should not have done what she did. The lengths she went to in order to create this persona and the ease with which it was picked apart create the picture of a profoundly troubled young woman. But, particularly in light of recent publishing history, I find it surprising that a white woman who brought in such a patently unlikely story would not have had that story vetted at all. Sadly, I think the lack of vetting lies in a credulousness and insularity that continually trips up the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to matters of class and race.

I hate to see the very real stories of impoverished and struggling people, of whatever race, only receive attention when they come in a sufficiently peculiar or extreme package. But more than that, as a person who loves good fiction and has devoted much of her life to reading it and attempting to create it, I hate to see the very real truths that fiction writing can reveal —about all kinds of lives--devalued over and over by incidents like this.


Ruben Martinez makes some excellent points in his his special to the L.A. Times, "Why We Fall for Fakes" that speak directly to Martha's concerns:

"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."

Read the rest of the article here.

Ian Walthew

"Blurriness" is around us everywhere, not just in the literary world. I picked out a few fiction/non-fiction highlights from just one edition of the International Herald Tribune, including the piece cited above. You can find them at http://aplaceintheauvergne.blogspot.com/2008/03/sunday-9th-march-2008.html

Steven Augustine

I think the issue here is one of quality. I couldn't give less of a damn that, say, Frey or Jones are professional liars (I don't see any Bushes getting in much trouble over that; why should *writers* bear the brunt?)...what I care about (enough to stop paring my nails and write a comment, at least) is that if a story is deemed "true", it's considered more worthy of "our" attention than infinitely-more-well-written fiction. The collective consciousness seems to be in possession of rather a flaccid imagination these days (the surefire cure: a year of *no* television, along with nightly doses of old timey radio broadcasts. CBS Mystery Theater...X-1... The Shadow... do you a *world* of good).

What I find *philosophically* piquant (sniff) in all this is how there seems to be a lower bar of credulity for "non-fiction" than for "fiction"... no way on earth your average non-sci fi reader would embrace a novel about a refugee from the Holocaust being raised by *wolves* (a big hit, that "memoir")...

Jim H.

Great topic, Mark. I blogged about it over at Wisdom of the West, where I compared Mendelsohn's op-ed article to the front-page NY Times article of the same day concerning Pres* Bush's vetoing of anti-torture legislation.

I agree with Martha above about the cynical publishing angle to all this. But there's more. Like Ed, I think Mendelsohn is a bit cursory in dismissing the 'internets' out of hand. His point is a Platonic one: the poets (in this case fiction-writers) ought to be banned from the Republic. They've introduced lying and, what's more, made a high art out of it. Mendelsohn, it seems to me, is entirely too censorious for someone whose criticism I've admired over the years.

David Allison

I'm not sure I agree with Mendelsohn, but could someone explain what is precisely 'east coast' or 'middle-class' about them? Why is it when you argue, ed, you start to sound like a right wing radio pundit?


Obviously, Mr. Allison, you are unfamiliar with hyperbole. Mendelsohn's premise -- that the Internet is largely an unchecked Wild West -- is as hackneyed and fallacious an argument, at least as he presented it here, as the arguments of Andrew Keen and Lee Siegel. Also, please develop a sense of humor.

As to the other responses here, all of them thoughtful, I partially agree with Ms. Southgate. She is right to point out that there's a sucker born every minute. But I am beginning to wonder if the "memoir" label is being unduly attached to standard autobiography, which is often prone to stretching the truth and exaggeration. I can agree with Mendelsohn's terms that if these books are memoirs proper and the level of research that goes into them is slipshod (particularly egregious when unchecked and unconfirmed by editors), then there should be something of a hue and cry.

But by today's draconian standards, Anthony Burgess's wonderfully picaresque two-part autobiography (which he styled his "Confessions") would be dismissed on the spot because of Burgess's flagrant prevarications. This seems a bit of a shame to me. Because Burgess's tall tales are quite entertaining. Even if they are only half-true, it still makes for an interesting presentation of how one brilliant writer views himself. Like Jim H. I must ask: Are we possibly protesting too much here?

I think my sympathies reside more with Steven Augustine's. A good narrative is a good narrative. The nature of personal storytelling is, whether we like it or not, founded on Chinese whispers. And while I do think journalists and academics should go excavating when presented with extraordinary claims, I also think that there should be a place for those who wish to outright lie about their lives. I can only imagine how Baron Munchausen would have lasted in this environment.

What we are really contending with here is the publishing industry's obsession with placing nearly every volume of personal nonfiction into the "memoir" section. Perhaps this is a natural extension of the "based on a true story" mantra designed to get audiences into movie theaters. But it does a disservice to the full range of nonfiction, both that of truth and that of lies, that allows us to understand the human experience.

Steven Augustine

Ed, I like how good old Burgess is always (in his memoir) standing up to Afro'd militants, tussling with belligerent Caribinieri, putting Monagasque snobs in their places and standing tall against censors and Customs officials wherever fate tosses them in his path. There was something very Walter Mittyish (if not downright Don Knottsoid) about the man you can't help being touched by.

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