gall and gumption

Thursday, March 06, 2008

If It's Too Good To Be True...

OK this is funny.

The day after the publishing world reeled from revelations of yet another faked memoir, this one from a supposed mixed-race former drug-running foster child from South-Central Los Angeles who turned out to have been raised by her white biological family in Sherman Oaks, those involved with the book's publication tried to explain how they fell for the deception.

Others debated whether the book world's credulous ways are in dire need of an overhaul.

Credulous, they call it?

There must be a stronger word than “credulous” for the desire to be deceived.

Jones/Seltzer, who claimed to be half Native American and often lapses in the book into the inner-city black vernacular of "hoods," "homies" and "ima make sure," is part of a long tradition of white artists impersonating or borrowing the voices and experiences of racial minorities, experts said.

Said black L.A. novelist Gary Phillips, "We know if it were a black girl, that's not exotic, that's just another story from the hood. That's not sexy. There is no movie."

Or, to put it another way, "Great stuff! If only it was happening to a white person.


The publishers interviewed in this piece suggest that fact-checking is what's needed. I would like to suggest that it's not facts but judgment that needs to be checked. Starting with Seltzer's creative writing school and working all the way up to Michiko Kakutani at the NY Times. Kakutani allows as how the book sounds a bit "novelistic" at times. When you hear someone refer to a nonfiction book as “novelistic” what pops into your head? Sons and Lovers? Anna Karenina? The Sound and the Fury? No, they aren’t novelistic, they are actual novels. The word “novelistic” means only one thing: sounds like bad fiction. And judging from every quotation and her approving commentary, Kakutani found this OK.

So the reason why I am so mean and cranky is because in my view, nonfiction that sounds like bad fiction is bad fiction. The difference between bad fiction and good fiction might seem to have no bearing on one fraudulent nonfiction book, but if you know what good fiction is, if you are alive at all to what makes it good, then it’s a lot harder to be taken in by bad fiction – or by bad fiction that claims to be true.

This is what you get when the audience (starting with the creative writing school) and the critics know what they want. When you know what you want, in that business, someone will give it to you. So you get from Seltzer this sort of mini-holocaust in South Central L.A. in the 1980s, black people blowing each other off the streets. And you get the spunky kids. And the brave unsung Big Mom. The psychodrama of the frozen heart unfreezing, the happy ending in a rose-covered cottage in Oregon where our heroine quietly and firmly keeps her demons under control, thanking God . And all this happening to a white girl! Which pushes all sorts of buttons – I don’t even know where those buttons are and I don’t want to know, frankly.

Here’s a sample, if you like. It has a shooting in it, with many authentic details. I mean, I suppose they are authentic.

It’s not so much the desire to believe these dubious facts that so strikes me, although that does, too: wouldn’t a little white girl selling drugs on a street corner in South Central be a little conspicuous? And everybody in the story who might have corroborated it is dead, funny how that worked out. What bothers me is the desire to believe that this is what a lived and experienced life sounds like. The writing is clumsy, the feelings are inauthentic and simplistic, the characterization is crude—if that sample is anything to go by. And it “leaks.” What do I mean “leaks”? I mean that the writing is unable to sustain the world of the book, it does not persuade you on its own. To resolve, for example, the apparent contradiction between what Kakutani calls Jones/Seltzer’s “colorful, streetwise argot” (colorful, streetwise argot?) and the special mix of psychobabble and sentimentality, of violence and pap, we have to keep referring to external facts that are not fully realized in the story; that is, we have to keep remembering, “She did go to college; that must be where she learned these ideas.”

This sort of “leak” is a really elementary failure of fiction. But it is not apparent to people who cannot distinguish bad fiction from good fiction, or bad fiction from the truth.
Piece of bad fiction goes out claiming to be true. How much truth is involved at any stage in this whole silly history? The measure is that in order to sell the supposed truth, the author has to push a fiction into the world—a fiction that her audience embraces because they already believe it about the world. They expect books to reaffirm that the fictions they persist in believing about reality and about literature are the truth. Does truth then exist? Yes Read Sons and Lovers, a work of fiction, and you know from the first page that every word of it is true.


At 5:20 PM, Blogger Chuckling said...

I'm sorry, I just don't find myself getting all upset over these stories. My initial reaction, which I have yet to see any reason to back off from, is a mild happiness that someone got their creative work published.

Why anyone would read that dreck? Well, that's another question. Do we have any demographics? Who does read it?

And why don't the publishing houses see through such obviously fictitious non-fiction? They must. If not, I'd like to see the psychological profiles of those rungs on the corporate ladder that naively passed that up to the next level. I see the lower level editors all the time and hear their idle gossip. I have casual acquaintance with some higher level types. They just don't strike me as that stupid. They went to Wellesley and Yale. They've read the same classics you have. I'd bet dollars against dimes that their thinking is entirely commercial.

But I'm just a poorly written character myself. I'm probably missing something.

At 10:53 PM, Anonymous buckner said...

Conniving classics readers from Yale? The ugly world you paint there is even uglier than the real world.

At 6:06 PM, Blogger L7 said...

I got quirky-tagged. So I'm passing it on. The rules at back at my place. If you feel inclined.

At 6:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fraud, especially when claiming to cast a light on aspects of the actual world, pushes my buttons. These books-- and news articles-- are like the callous email hoaxes that either pollute people’s trust with cheap sentimentality (“tiger adopts puppies!”), perpetuate dangerous myths (“Saddam planned 9/11!!”) or suck the money out of people (“die rich by saving Nigerians!!”). False memoirs are more about the mentality of the writer than about their success in engaging an audience. Getting into the habit of marketing delusions is dangerous.

At 7:29 AM, Blogger Kia said...

I'd bet dollars against dimes that their thinking is entirely commercial.

There isn't much to choose between your theory and mine, chuckling. It's a pretty bleak world in both. Yeah, it's a commercial decision, and who knows, it might enable the publisher to take a chance on a Junot Diaz. As for who buys this stuff, you got me there too. I walk into B&N and I barely scan the new books any more. They all look appalling; the packaging gets more manic and cynical every year. It is all done by very clever people with good educations--I think they have Masters' Degrees in Irony. So clever, I'm sure nobody ever thought of that before, or ever saw straight through it before. I pick one up, open it, glance at a few pages, and I find at best the merely OK. It is all calculatedly commercial, and a writer mainly has to be able to execute what the market expects to see. And even the execution is unremarkable. I should make it clear that Seltzer/Jones's writing isn't unique in the ways it's bad; these ways of being bad are very, very typical of Creative Writing School Product. And that typicalness is what, I bet, made it seem authentic and like a Sure Thing.

At 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So ... and judging from how they "report" news these days, entirely rhetorical ... why'd the NYT even bother reviewing this?

Because it was novelicious?

his (x) mark

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Chuckling said...

No Kia, the difference between our takes, other than the fact that yours is infinitely deeper and more intelligent, is that the fact that obvious fictitious crap like that gets published bothers you whereas I don't really care. In fact, I'm more inclined to applaud when an author, no matter how horrendous, manages to get published by whatever means.

And I'll further make an ass out of myself and speculate about who does read that crap. You know I live in Brooklyn and whether you know it or not, I spend a lot of time on the subway. Although I try not to be rude and stare, if possible I do note what people are reading. Based on my limited experience, I would guess that African American women are the main audience for that kind of fiction. Could be wrong, but I've seen a lot of similar blurbs on the back of their books.

On a different note, I recently read On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I'm curious what you think of her writing? Me? I think it's on a significantly higher level than our current subject. I might even argue that it is good fiction but am far from believing that it is good literature. I know what you mean about M.F.A. programs.


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