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. http://www.nytimes.com/ref/garden/first-chapter-love-and-consequences.html?ref=books
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.