Following yesterday's outing of ex-gang member/ Love and Consequences author Margaret Jones as middle-class private school grad Peggy Seltzer, cultural critics are punditing all over the place about what the rash of fake memoirs means to America. To the LA Times' Tim Rutten, the publication of these first-person misery memoirs is a reflection of a deeply ingrained American culture of narcissism: "The only unchallenged moral authority has become that of victims. This should not be read as an expression of sympathy toward the injured; instead, it's really an extension of the culture of narcissism's influence into the world of letters. It's a view that asserts that only those who have experienced pain or torment have a right speak of it, though others may participate vicariously through their eyes."
Seltzer's whiteness is also coming up in the morning-after commentary: Seltzer's personal experiences gave her the authenticity readers desire in a memoir, while her whiteness arguably made white readers feel more at ease with her "urban" story. On her blog, Gawker alum Doree Shafrir, makes a number of salient points about Seltzer's race in relationship to the press she received. "We — the New York publishing industry, the media, my blog — wanted to believe Margaret Jones because she was a white girl who had lived with black people. Like a spy! And so she came back and reported to us what life there was really like...I don't see Sarah McGrath [Seltzer's editor] or [New York Times book critic] Michiko Kakutani or me or you buying the books they sell at the Fulton Mall or 125th Street, which are arguably more 'real' than anything Margaret Jones/Seltzer wrote, which is funny because we're supposedly so obsessed with 'reality' and 'authenticity.'"
Shafrir, of course, is not the only blogger to focus on the benefits Seltzer's race afforded her. Undercover Black Man is righteously pissed at Peggy for co-opting black experience, and his ire extends to Sarah McGrath and all the way back to Penguin publishing. "Seltzer's ignorant, tone-deaf editor - Sarah McGrath - owes an apology to the black community of South Los Angeles. McGrath's bosses at the Penguin Group should make some gesture of contrition and good will also. They were probably already counting the money they expected to make... peddling black pain and death to white readers," UBM writes. Adds the LA Times:
"There's a long American tradition of fake ethnic autobiographies that goes back to fake slave narratives in the 1840s," said Laura Browder, associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of "Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities."
"I think some of the authors of these memoirs have pain and suffering they don't know how to name, so they attach them to something that's universally associated with suffering," like race.
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."
But the issue of her whiteness circles back to narcissism in tandem with firmly ingrained notions of race and class. The readership of literary memoirs is largely white and middle class, and so they're likely to put themselves more easily in the shoes of a white narrator shepherding them into the sometimes-foreign world inhabited by gangs and rife with drugs. Not that I'm part of the solution. The last memoir I read? Susanna Sonnenberg's Her Last Death — which is about her miserable but wealthy childhood being raised by a drug addled yet charming mother. The appeal of disaster tourism is too strong for me to resist.
The Lure Of Made-up Memoirs [Los Angeles Times]
Bogus Memoir Sparks Criticism Of Publishing Industry [LA Times]
Tracking The Fallout Of (Another) Literary Fraud [NY Times]
Clearly This Is All I Am Going To Be Thinking About Today [The Doree Chronicles]
Fucking Liar [Undercover Black Man]