Why do writers make stuff up?

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I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week as the saga of Margaret Seltzer—a.k.a. Margaret P. Jones—unfolds. You probably have, too. As Motoko Rich reported in The New York Times:

In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.

Jones, as she called herself, was about to publish “Love and Consequences,” her debut memoir, when she was unmasked. Early reviews of her book had been glowing; Michiko Kakutani of the NYT wrote,

What sets Ms. Jones’s humane and deeply affecting memoir apart is not just that it’s told from the point of view of a young girl coming of age in this world, but also that it focuses on the bonds of love and loyalty that can bind relatives and gang members together, and the craving after safety and escape that haunts so many lives in the ’hood.

After a lifestyle article about her modest home in Washington state ran in the NYT, her sister called the book’s publisher to tell them that Jones was in fact Seltzer. What’s more, she had never run drugs; had never been a gang member; was white, not half-Native American; and far from being raised by a poor, black family, she grew up in a middle-class home and attended a private parochial school.

Why did she lie?

Every couple of years, we writers, authors and journalists face this question as one among us is unveiled as a serial fabricator. There was James Frey in 2006, who made up great portions of his two best-selling memoirs, A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard. He was memorably tortured by a furious Saint Oprah on her show before millions of viewers (watch the various videos here). There was Jimmy A. Lerner, author of You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish, whose prison tales were uncovered as just that in The New York Times Magazine.

Meghan O’Rourke of Salon mused back then,

Confronted with Lerner’s and Frey’s blithe willingness to tell lies, it’s time to ask: How much leeway does a disclaimer really give an author?

She goes on to parse the wording of the disclaimer in Frey’s book, and just how egregiously he steps beyond its limited license.

But I’m still left wondering: why? Why do writers make stuff up?

The thing is, we writers have a perfectly respectable right to make stuff up. There’s a genre of great writing that falls into this category: it’s called fiction. Jones/Seltzer’s book sounds well plotted, sincere and dramatic enough to stand on its own merits—as fiction. Why did she not call it that and be done with it? Why didn’t Frey?

I do wonder if we in the media don’t feed this predilection among some authors to label their work nonfiction when it isn’t. Would Margaret Seltzer have received the same adulatory press she did as Margaret Jones? Would she have scored not just an adoring review by one of the toughest critics in the business, but also a cooing feature spread in the paper’s lifestyle section? Had she told the truth, would a white girl from a California suburb with no real connection to gang life have been heralded for her uncannily realistic imagination—or ignored as just another wanna-be? Would her book ever have seen the light of day?

We’ll never know.

We can’t claim to know her mind, or to know if some sort of delusion or other mental complex led her to her massive deception. But this I get: maybe it began as a small lie. Maybe it began as a blurted fib to a writing class—a tale of having lived the thug life—to gain desperately craved credibility. The story calls attention to the writer’s considerable talents, and the combination attracts the attention of increasingly more important people. A door cracks open: she catches a glimpse of fame, money, respect.

I find myself feeling terribly sad for Margaret Seltzer, in a way I never did for, say, Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass. Here was a girl with a shot, and she’s blown it, forever. As an outsider, though, at least she won’t suffer the kind of excruciating fall from grace that we journalists prepare for those among us who commit this kind of fraud. Michael Finkel captures this beautifully in his book True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. He writes of the slamming he got in the press after he was fired publicly for making up portions of an article in The New York Times Magazine (read a longer excerpt from the book here):

One writer described my actions as “sleazy,” “arrogant,” “offensive,” and “pernicious,” and then concluded that people like me should “burn in Journalism Hell.”

We journalists and nonfiction writers stick to facts because it’s what we know. Something happens; we record it as best we can; we retell the story. Many of us simply lack the creativity to make up anything better. Why do writers make stuff up? Because they can. Writers ought to make stuff up; readers want to delve into a world alien to their own reality. It’s too obvious to say they need to label fiction as such. But maybe it’s time we in the media looked at our own treatment of fantastic nonfiction. Before we lavish attention on a writer for an outrageously incredible memoir, we need to ask a few questions.

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