Oh, fer cryin’ out loud, will this never end?!
Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group started in 1994, has published the Dalai Lama, Nick Hornsby, The Kite Runner, and James Frey’s wholly fictional memoir My Friend Leonard. Three Riverhead authors are up for the 39th NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work, and two have been nominated the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. Riverhead author Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has been awash in praise, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction; it made Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of 2007 list, New York Magazine’s Best Novel of the Year, and the #1 spot on Time magazine’s 10 Best Fiction Books of the Year (1)
Then there’s Margaret B. Jones. While her 2008 memoir, Love and Consequences, isn’t a mega-seller, it has been getting respectable reviews from critics and readers for its gritty, inspiring portrayal of a young girl’s life in the inner city.
Jones, of white and American Indian heritage, entered foster care at the age of 5. By age 8 she was living in a houseful of other children in South Central L.A., watching as “most of her friends and siblings followed a trajectory of crime, imprisonment, pregnancy – and too often, death.” It was a hard life, one that Jones painted with strangely stilted street language. (2)
“Fukk nine-one-one!” the homie holding Kraziak yelled, “Someone get a kar, we gotta get him to the hospital. Let’s go!” (3)
Jones herself sold drugs for the Bloods, whom she idolized. However, unlike her foster sibs, she was “determined to beat the odds: a combination of intelligence, will, tenacity, and pure luck provided her with a lifesaving opportunity, a college education, and a way out of the neighborhood. But she has never left behind the lessons and strength she learned there.” She graduated from the University of Oregon, wrote her memoirs, and the rest was destined to be motivational-speaker history. (2)
Almost. On February 26, the New York Times ran an excerpt from the book in its Home and Garden section, along with a photo of Margaret. Riverhead soon received a phone call from the older sister of a 33-year-old Oregon woman named Peggy Seltzer. It turned out that Peggy and Margaret were the same woman. Both had lived in L.A., only Peggy was raised in the comfy Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles by her real parents, and had never been in foster care. She attended a private school in North Hollywood. She did not graduate from Oregon State.
Riverhead explained that prior to publication Peggy had provided “photographs, letters; parts of Peggy’s life story in another published book”, and that “Peggy’s story had been supported by one of her former professors; Peggy even introduced the agent to people who misrepresented themselves as her foster siblings.” (4)
No word yet on where those photos and faux sibs came from, but Peggy Seltzer has admitted that her life story was a fairytale. Like so many authors caught red-handed in unconscionable fraud (see J.T. LeRoy/Laura Albert, Kaycee Nicole Swenson, Nasdiij/Tim Barrus) she offered the feeble excuse that she was giving a voice to people who can’t speak for themselves. As if a suburban white chick with a vivid imagination can speak for them. (5)
To would-be memoirists: Write your own stories, or shut up.
To Riverhead: You need to hire a fact-checker, yesterday. Clearly, any goon can wander in off the street and sell you a “gritty” memoir.
1. Riverhead website
2. Amazon.com (Audio CD only; the book has been removed from its listings)
3. Love and Consequences excerpt, The New York Times, Feb. 26/2008
4. “Author’s “Love and Consequences” Memoirs Untrue” by Carol Memmott, USA Today, Mar. 5/2008
5. “Gang Memoir, Turning the Page, is Pure Fiction” by Motoko Rich, The New York Times, Mar. 4/08