Tuesday, March 4, 2008

We were all duped by Peggy Seltzer

And we're pissed off about it.

What does it take for someone to decide she's going to fabricate an entire life? Did Peggy Seltzer wake up one morning and think to herself, how would it all have been different for me if I'd grown up in a foster family in South Central instead of with my biological family in suburban Sherman Oaks? Sure, we all wonder how our lives might be different had we been dealt different cards. But what's going on when someone decides they're going to create that life for themselves in a memoir? Writing is creative expression, but to invent a past that never existed, to betray friends, to hawk your traumatic "life story"? It's unbelievable. And hurtful.

One of Seal's most-revered and best-selling authors, Inga Muscio was duped by Peggy Seltzer right along with the rest of us. In fact, her betrayal was more severe. Inga befriended Peggy. She believed her, like so many others have. And she gave of herself to Peggy. And now to find out, it was all a lie!! Inga Muscio didn't deserve that. We're pissed off for her.

As a publisher and a fan of memoir, I'm also disgusted by what this does for the genre. When we receive a proposal for a memoir, we want to be moved, we want to find something people identify with, we want more than anything else to believe that the brave and honest truth we're publishing might inspire or at least resonate with others struggling themselves. That's the beautiful part of standing up to tell your truth, no matter how painful it might be. If it's your truth, it's going to affect others. It will speak to them. We have to trust our gut instinct when we read memoir proposals. It has to fit the list, and we have to feel it will find its audience, but we also have to feel the author has something to say, something to add, something worthwhile to share. We can't hire a fact-checker to make sure it's the truth. We have to believe our authors.

Peggy Seltzer, and those memoirists before her who've lied and been caught--or not, it doesn't really matter--they're all contributing to the demise of this incredibly powerful genre. It ruins the reading experience to think, is this true? Could this have really happened? Was this traumatic life survived by this strong individual real? Can I trust my instinct? We look to memoir to comfort ourselves. Others have triumphed. If she was strong, I can be strong. There's a lesson here for me. We need this, people. It leads to hopefulness. It leads to finding that additional pocket of strength you didn't think you had. And Peggy Seltzer, (aka Margaret B. Jones, author of Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival) has really fucked that up for all of us.

I'm sad for readers today. I'm sad for Inga Muscio. And I'm sad for anyone who felt writing about a traumatic life she did not have was going to be OK--that somehow the world would be best served by a multitude of lies strung together and marketed as true. I'm sad for Peggy's editor, who felt surely she had connected with Peggy, that she could help the world in her own way by editing and sharing the heart-wrenching experiences of one woman who survived and thrived an impossible life.

And Peggy, whoa. The private Episcopal school in North Hollywood? That and losing your foster brother Terrell to gang violence in front of your South Central home? Uhhhh, they're not the same.

Until next time.



Tim W. Jackson said...

One quick question: Why CAN'T you hire fact checkers?

can o' beans said...

You know, I'm bothered by the fact that so far in the play-out of this story/event I haven't heard anyone talking about the creepiness of a young, privileged white woman being able to easily perform the tropes of race and poverty. Just thought I'd throw it out there--your post is excellent.

Krista Lyons-Gould and Brooke Warner said...

Publishers hire fact-checkers to check real facts, like historical dates and book titles and whether the resources are properly cited. I worked on a book that was almost entirely plagiarized once, and the fact-checker caught that because she was able to find entire lifted sentences from her research.

But when it comes to fact-checking a person's life, it's not our practice to do PI work. People might argue this should be the case, but Publishers are already stretched thin financially. And as editors, we have a relationship with these authors. You do believe what they say at face value. Someone like Petty Seltzer is clearly a pathological liar. She didn't just fabricate the book. She fabricated an entire life that she was living outside of her life as an author. I don't think the responsibility falls to the Publisher in cases like these. For instance, I'm working on a book about open marriage. I haven't contacted the authors husband to ask whether they're really in an open marriage, or contacted her girlfriend to corroborate. Publishing is still very much a gentlewomen's industry. We might see this change as more and more memoirists are being exposed for the liars they are. But I also think it's an industry problem in the amount of money we offer for "real life" stories. Peggy would have never been paid as much if her book were a novel. In fact, the book may have never been published.


Judith van Praag said...

Hi Brooke,

About the book on an open marriage I would most definitely contact the husband and the third party.

Years ago, after Elena Lappin uncovered the real story (in Granta #66 -1999) behind Binjamin Wilkomirski (one of the first non-Jews who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor) I asked Kathryn Harrison's editor at Henry Holt what she would do if she had any suspicions about the truthfulness of a memoir's content. "I'd publish it as fiction," she said.
(Harrison as you know first published her very personal story as fiction, to "come out with the truth" in a memoir a decade later.)

As for Peggy Selzer (nomen es omen - the girl's got too much spritz for her own good) her personal story of betrayal would make a great novel. The poor confabulist.

Sarah said...

I definitely understand the difficulties of hiring a fact checker, but then I think about how EVERYONE is writing a book and how tough it is to get published, and it seems possible, though abominable, that people would lie to make it happen. What about just a few phone calls, a quick check to see if a person really attended the school they say they did, or something along those lines? Isn't that what interns are for??

Krista Lyons-Gould and Brooke Warner said...

Sarah, you bring up an important question regarding interns. I don't know about other houses, but here, interns are a critical part of the process. There aren't enough of them, and they're not here enough hours each week to do fact-checking on top of all the other supporting things they're doing. Permissions, CIPs, slush pile review . . . . It's something we all have to figure out around publishing memoirs, but it's daunting. Do we say to the authors, please provide names and contact information for five people who can corroborate your story? Maybe we do.


PastaQueen said...

When I read about stuff like this, I'm glad I've been keeping a blog for the past 3 years. When my weight-loss memoir comes out in May, there's no way anyone can accuse me of being a fake because I have 3 years of entries and photographs as documentation. Faking something like that would be HARDER than losing 200 pounds.