THE WORD FROM ELLEN: Okay, I admit I was suckered in, too. Reading "Love and Consequences," the newly published memoir about growing up in South-Central L.A. by Margaret B. Jones, I accepted the idea that the young child Jones was so attached to her natural mother that she would rather stay with her than admit that she was being sexually molested. Here, I thought, is a graphic example of how kids gravitate to bad mothers and would rather stay with their own kin, even when they might be safer with unrelated adults. Wow, this is SOME story.
But that was last week. Now we know that Jones made the whole thing up, a revelation that follows on the heels of the similar discovery that "Misha," a Holocaust "memoir," is also pure fiction. It's James Frey and "A Million Little Pieces" all over again.
And here's how it looks from one critic's point of view:
1. Unbelievably, the book publishing industry is still having a hard time with fact-checking. This, after the public humiliation of the Frey affair and its denouement -- all caught on Oprah, with a doyenne of New York publishing, Nan Talese, made to look like she has spent too much time in Manhattan and not enough in the Real World. That event should have scared the pants off of any sober agent or editor repping anyone who claims his or her book is their story. But apparently, no.
Jones's bubble was burst with a phone call from an obviously estranged sister. In no longer than it took someone to dial a number starting with 212, a THREE-YEAR project built on a lie came to a sudden, gut-dropping halt, with the revelation that Margaret B. Jones was actually Margaret Seltzer, product of a private Episcopal school, not the gritty drug deals portrayed in her book. A deal "for less than $100,000" -- that's big money in my book -- had been allocated to an unworthy cause that could have had its cover blown with a few spot checks. Simply verifying where the author went to high school and college would have upset Jones/Seltzer's apple cart before it started rolling. It might also have given her the chance to recast her book as fiction. But that, of course, presents its own problems, such as how to market a gritty book about home boys when the author's background looks a lot like mine --white-bread, sheltered, not the kind of person who necessarily sounds convincing when she says she understands life on the streets.
2. I believed, too. This concerns me. Of course, I had nothing to do with the deal. Nor did The New York Times. But, as a regular reader of said newspaper, I noted Michiko Kakutani's glowing review and for that reason set aside the book for special attention. (This is not an insignificant act when publishers send you far more books than you can digest. It's up or out in this business.) I also read the article about Jones in the Times' weekly House & Home section closely enough to find out that Jones attended my alma mater, the University of Oregon. (False advertising, apparently. Well, "Go, Ducks," anyway.) I even mentioned the book to two friends, describing Jones's sad depiction of the foster home experience.
My point (and I do have one) is this: Book critics are at the end of a long food chain that's built on confidence in the system. It's centered on the rather modest proposal that books are reasonably vetted before they hit the reviewer. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, reviewers posit that the publisher treated the product with enough care and respect that we ought to, as well.
Should Kakutani have smelled a fraud? Perhaps, and the Times lamely suggests that she did, quoting her remark that "Love and Consequences" feels "self-consciously novelistic" at times. But it wasn't her job to stop the madness. She accepted the book on faith, and so it goes in book publishing: Like the financial markets, ours is a game built on trust. When and if we become cynical about the system -- when we not only suspect but believe that cynical considerations lilke sales potential trump truth-telling -- the gig is up.
Sure, "Love and Consequences" and the Holocaust fantasy "Misha" and Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" are only three books among -- how many? Thousands or tens of thousands, and that's just the memoir category. But you have to wonder how many more frauds have gone undetected, and about why agents and editors don't first beam a strong light on anyone who claims to have a compelling story to tell. Don't tell me these are isolated cases; that's not how the world works. Either publishers start sniffing out the rats first, or critics must play their role assuming there's one to smell.