Why memoir fabulists rarely get away with it.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 6 2008 5:29 PM

Believe It or Not

Memoir fabulists getting caught means the system is working.

Click here for guidelines on how to fake your next memoir, here to learn about the feud over a former child-soldier's autobiography, here to hear about the next faked-memoir scandal before anybody else does, and here to get a sneak peek at Volume 2 of Margaret B. Jones' memoirs.

(Continued from Page 1)

It stands to reason that the same thing would be true for writers (and this includes disgraced journalists like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass as well as memoirists). The more skilled they are, the more deftly they can make people believe. Moreover, in today's competitive literary market, editors and other gatekeepers want to believe. That's in part because people are naturally credulous (the alternative—reflexive skepticism—is unattractive for many people to contemplate) and in part because the rewards are so great. Memoir today is like one big game of misery poker: The more outlandish, outrageous, or just plain out-there the recounted life, the more likely the book is to attract the attention of reviewers, talk-show bookers, and, ultimately, the public.

A personal narrative presented as factual—whether it's between covers or coming out of some guy's mouth at a bar—always plays for some level of stakes. If the story is innocuous or dull, it will probably stay unchallenged. But the higher the stakes—if its "facts" are in support of charged political issues, if it makes unlikely or melodramatic representations, if it defames some recognizable individuals, or if it starts selling in significant numbers—the more likely it becomes that the fakers will be outed.

Advertisement

Lillian Hellman didn't get the investigative treatment until part of Pentimento was made into the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda as Lillian; James Frey didn't get it till Oprah anointed him. The family depicted in Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors didn't sue him until the book became a massive best-seller. And the author of Love and Consequences was exposed only when her picture appeared in a New York Times interview as "Margaret Jones" and her sister called the newspaper to report that the lady in question was really Margaret Seltzer.

As I say, the system works. It throws shame on the perpetrators and metes out more or less appropriate career punishment; certainly, the fabulists lose the credibility needed to publish additional nonfiction books (unless they're in the form of an apology for—or explanation of—their misdeeds, as with disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair). The editors of fake memoirs are suitably chastened: Even if they acted in totally good faith, it's presumably one-more-strike-and-they're-out. And with each scandal, the whole book world—editors, reviewers, and readers—gets a little warier and adjusts its BS detectors one more notch toward Level Orange. The NYT reported that at the request of Riverhead Books, Seltzer "signed a contract in which she had legally promised to tell the truth."

Of course, she lied on the contract, too. So while the system works, it isn't perfect. No matter what color the general alert, at some point in the not-distant future, a memoir—say, an inspiring saga about being raised by autistic parents in the hollows of Kentucky—will come across an editor's desk and knock his socks off. He will meet the author, who will talk a good game and who will, once the book is published, get plentiful bookings and money reviews. It will seem too good to be true. It will be. But sooner or later, someone will do some checking and get the goods.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Behold
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?