Fiction is the New Non-Fiction

March 4, 2008 | 4 books mentioned 4 2 min read

If con artists were smarter, they’d let people forget previous deeds first. Little more than two years after the James Frey debacle, the literature world is once again awash in breaking news stories of fabricated memoirs.

The New York Times reported Monday that Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years is complete bogus. This must be cardinal sin considering that, according to the AP, Defonseca is not even Jewish – real name: Monique De Wael. So, never mind that the “memoir” was translated to 18 languages and made into a feature film, exploiting people’s shock and disgust for a handsome profit. The defense? “The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality,” says Defonseca.

Today, the NYT reports that Margaret Seltzer’s gang memoir, published under the name Margaret B. Jones Love and Consequences – where the author purports to be a half-Native American, half-white girl dealing drugs for the Bloods in Los Angeles – is also, ahem, a fake.

Add to it the revelations about self-knighted chef Robert Irvine of the Food Network – author of Mission: Cook! – who beefed up his resume to include fictional positions as White House Chef and personal friend of Prince Charles (who picks Charles as a mate anyway?) and you might think non-fiction these days is only as real as Frank Abagnale’s Harvard Law degree (Remember Catch Me If You Can?).

What is most shocking in Seltzer and Irvine’s cases is the lack of fact-checking. If it were not for Seltzer’s sister – who alerted the publisher, Riverhead Books, after reading a profile of Seltzer in the NYTLove and Consequences could have enjoyed some success. Look at Irvine, he even had a TV show.

Finding out if the Queen knighted someone should be fairly simple. Finding out the heritage of a person, where they attended school, how many siblings they have and so forth is extremely easy. One would think that after Frey, publishers would take a closer look to the facts in memoirs and make sure that readers don’t end up paging through imaginary non-fiction.

On the plus side, Seltzer must be quite a writer and actress – after all, she managed to keep up the guise of truth for three years while working on her, err, novel.

breathes, eats, drinks, sleeps, reads, writes and works in New York. He also reports Live from Gybria. To maintain his sanity, Emre looks for stories in daily life and books. Should that fail, he orders Chinese food and watches the mind-numbing box.

4 comments:

  1. Regarding Defonseca / De Wael, it appears that she also lied about her father. When she was caught lying on her past, she then said that she was indeed not Jewish but that her father was a resistant. That he indeed was, but what she didn't say is that he sold his comrades to the nazis (a dozen men killed). During her childhood, she was called "the daughter of the traitor" by many people. Maybe this explains why she wanted to invent a new, fictitious life for herself?

  2. The comment above about Defonesca/De Wael’s desire to use fictions to mask the realities of her life reminded me of what many people believe was Paul De Man’s thought process when he created Deconstruction; in De Man’s case, he created an entire theory. (De Man wrote anti-Semitic articles for the Nazi controlled newspaper "Le Soir" in Belgium, a fact he never mentioned in all his years of writing and lecturing about understanding history.)

    It’s true that some simple fact checking would have helped Riverhead and Mt. Ivy Press avoid these situations. With that said (having not read either of these books), it seems that the words written — the stories told — resonated with people enough to make "Misha" successful and "Love and Consequences" primed for success. It’s hard to feel sympathy for these two writers in that they lied to editors, interviewers and fans. What both authors seemed to understand, however, is the publishing industry’s preference for memoirs over novels.

    These news stories speak to an aspect of the publishing industry that is solely concerned with bottom lines. Members of marketing departments should reacquaint themselves with books that they loved as readers reading for the sake of pleasure or enlightenment, books they have never had to shill for, books that made them feel for characters, or think about their own lives in relation to the words on the page. Maybe then they would remember the power of words to influence readers, no matter where you might find the book shelved in a store.

    We all know that Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams embellished the stories of their lives. Don’t we all do that to some extent? Isn’t it an inherent consequence of memory? The line between fact and fiction is thin, barely perceptible at times. If publishers weren’t so concerned with creating neat categories for all titles, if authors could sell books based on their abilities as writers to convey ideas, I bet these debacles would fade from all of our memories.

  3. It's practically a trend all these memoirs that are pure fiction. I've had to wonder if is this a new thing or something that's been slipping by the reading public for years.

  4. How awful that the Rosenblats lied about their story and that the publishers and movie makers fell for it. Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was a great book and now movie, never pretended to be true. The Rosenblats, like Madoff, are harming the good Jewish name and it's terrible.

    I read a New York Times article about Stan Lee and Neal Adams the comic book artists supporting another TRUE Holocaust love story. There was a beautiful young artist, Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. Dina's art became the reason she and her Mother survived Auschwitz.

    Painting the mural for the children caused Dina to be taken in front of Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he decided to make her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber as long as she was doing painting for him.

    Dina's story is true because some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. Also, the story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also a fact.

    I wish Oprah would do a story about Dina and her art not about the Rosenblats who were pulling the wool over all our eyes.

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