Eaten by Narrative

There is something weird and utterly fascinating about the newest case of ‘literary fraud.’ Which is to say that I come at this as a consumer of narrative. Not (at least I hope to think) as a tut-tutting moralist with any sort of moralistic judgment to make.

A young woman (Margaret B. Jones/Margaret Seltzer) creates a narrative that she sells as a memoir of a not-so-privileged life. Dupes willing agent and willing publisher. She gets major review in the New York Times. She gets a big puff piece in the New York Times. Then her sister, for whatever reason, exposes her as a fraud upon seeing the latter piece.  

One can only wonder at the level of self-deception necessary to think that she’d actually pull this off. Add to that revelations of a made up foundation to assist inner city kids. A foundation for which she did not actually solicit funds.  

As a general rule, I’m not a memoir reader–but there are plenty of people out there who seem to crave the ‘authenticity’ of the lived life. (The New York Times even cited an ‘authenticity industry.’ That, my friends, is totally awesome.)  

My preference is fiction, except, for the most part, for biography. And it seems to me that all narrative is in some sense fiction. And the kind of fiction I tend to admire most is the kind that is most ruthless. By that I mean fiction in which the author has burned every bridge and exploited every conceivable opportunity and bled it dry. The reason I prefer fiction is that it is almost completely and ineluctably truer than nonfiction. Which is not to say that people bend over backwards to be truthful in nonfiction, but which is also to say that nothing written doesn’t have a point of view. Which is to say that its point of view is authentically inauthentic. Which is to say that while the lived life may be authentic (whatever that really means), the reflected life is reflected against something. (We tend to roast everything, as a great man once said, over the fires of our own prejudices.)  

I’m not sure that I’ve really developed any sort of how-wrong-was-she moral perspective on the young woman and her ‘mendacity’ as the Times put it. But I do think I have firmly come down on the side of the ‘inauthentic’ narrative as being more, or more believably, true than the ‘authentic’ one.  

And maybe it’s a personal/moral shortcoming that, as a consumer of narrative, and a patron of the narrative industry, I really don’t care that much.  

I’m not going to read the book. I decided when I read the Times review that I wasn’t interested. But I do remember thinking as I read the review that it seemed weird that a white girl would be raised by a black foster family in South Central LA and be a drug runner, a calling that–at least I assume–should require some element of invisibility. But whatever. Weird stuff happens so much that one can never know.  

But it’s the whole ‘fraud’ part of this story that I find completely fascinating.  

This story could have fallen out of Gogol’s nose. Or his overcoat.  

All narrative, it seems to me, no matter how honestly wrought, is to some degree fraudulent. We tell ourselves fraudulent narratives all the time. We have to. There’s an element of hope resident in the fraudulent narrative that is pretty much necessary for survival. And the narratives I admire most are largely fictional and largely outrageously fraudulent.  

And herein, at least for me, lies the problem of that willing suspension of disbelief. That prerequisite for belief in any narrative, I would argue, is inherent in the approach to any narrative.  

Whether it’s sitting around a campfire and listening to tall tales or reading the morning paper, every narrative requires some level of suspension of disbelief. Some faith in the truthfulness (or these days in its truthiness).  

Remember Richard Jewell? He was the well-meaning slob at the Atlanta Olympics who found some evidence at the bombing and turned it in. And for his good deed he was publicly humiliated by the FBI (who evidently were too stupid to find the actual culprit). That FBI narrative was picked up by the newspapers, who were clearly suspending their own disbelief, and who convinced themselves somehow that this man who lived in a trailer with his mother was some sort of terrorist mastermind.  

This is just one of perhaps billions of examples of self-serving bits of believable untruth that gets passed down, unquestioned. Surely the FBI, with all its might, could create a better narrative than some lame wannabe cop/security guard.  

And so comes this young woman who apparently can tell a pretty convincing story. For whatever reason, she decides that it is better served as nonfiction than fiction (perhaps, and I think correctly, believing that it will gain a wider audience for people she evidently cares deeply about). She dupes her agent and her publisher, the latter of which in its haste to cover its ass, hung her out to dry as quickly and as thoroughly as they could. And then gave all the appropriate (read:PC) signals of their contrition etc.  

And then she is subjected to enormous and ghastly vitriol. Search her name or her sister’s name. It’s really ugly.  

And but so the thing here that interests me is the narrative. In the privacy of her own mind she told a story. That story turned out to be putatively false. No matter that it might be, in the literary sense, absolutely true. (I have no idea if there are Starbucks or junior Black Panthers in South Central.) But evidently it was true enough to be believable.  

But now the young woman is caught up in the cultural ubernarrative. There’s an entirely new narrative that’s being created about and around her. She set it in motion, of course, with a narrative, and narrative decisions that she had pretty much absolute control over. But now she’s part of the fraud brand. Now she has no control over her own narrative.  

That’s the part that fascinates me.  

There is really no issue of truth here.  

It’s a matter of narrative. I will leave the sociological dissections to others. It would seem clear that what she did was not completely artless. And so if there is art here, then there is something worth considering. Only time will tell what that something is.  

What she needs to do now, it seems to me, is find a way to wrest control of her narrative. That’s not going to be an easy task, and it certainly isn’t something she’s going to do with tearful apologies. To paraphrase Janet Malcolm, whoever has the best narrative wins. 
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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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