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« artsdayLA | Main | A Week of Writing and Solitude »



Hi Barbara, I read an article about this today and couldn't understand why the author felt like she needed to lie. Presumably because she thought it would be easier to sell as a memoir?

I don't agree with you that these categories are that distinct -- holding the fact/fiction line is becoming increasingly hard to do, for numerous reasons.

However, I also agree with you: we seem to emotionally commit to a story in a different way when we believe it is real. Is it an emotional stance we take when we know what category something falls in?

This, btw, calls to mind the the concept of "race" as a social construct. The *effects* of believing in "race" are certainly real whether "race" is real or not...


Sophia - I like that idea of "an emotional stance". True!
And you do have an essay in the concept of "race" as a social construct.


I feel personally threatened by this latest memoir deception. Will this make it more difficult for those of us writing real memoirs to get a publisher to take a chance on us?

I would like to know why Selzer did not choose to sell her story as a work of fiction rather than memoir. She took such a risk with such devastating consequences for so many people.

Besides, with a sister like that, she probably could have written a really interesting memoir.

Marit (also known as Mater)

I think, as writers, most of us draw on real life events in much of our writing. When the inspiration comes from someone you have known and loved it is sometimes difficult to imbue the characters with anything else but that voice. It doesn't make it a memoir. It makes for riveting reading - and I read with the thought in mind that this probably did happen to someone somewhere, some time, and my emotions as I read will invariably reflect that.
It's such a pity that what sounds like a book that could indeed make people sit up and take notice, was falsely represented as real life events. We probably needed that book!
One of my working titles is 'Somebody's Memoir'; perhaps I should change it. Because it isn't a memoir, more a transformation of life into fiction. As it says here on this page: 'write your life into story.'


What struck me when I heard this story on the radio yesterday was why the writer didn't present the book as fiction in the first place. It seems like it was a compelling story regardless.


Mary, Marit and Penny - I knew this post would make for interesting comments!


Read Carol Bly's "The Accurate Story". The most intelligent account I've ever read on why truth is essential. I had the same thought as Mary: Does it make it harder for real memoir writers to be trusted? I feel disgusted by people who claim to have had a horrendous upbringing like that.

Loren Stephens

I remember talking about Breaking Out when the author "embellished" a scene in which she says that her father in law took an ax to her typewriter. His comment was, "She has a vivid imagination" because in truth I think he pulled the plug out of the typewriter. The author's retort was that she was getting at the emotional truth. I guess that sometimes we enhance a scene in order to more vividly portray its emotional impact. Imagination certainly comes into play in writing memoir -- the old question - "I can't remember" with the converse "Well, if you did remember" which then opens a wellspring of images, etc. And who cares if your dress was red or green? But in this case I am shocked by the author's misrepresenation of who she is -- and why the necessity to lie? In a way it suggests that memoir is the book du jour and that memoir is an easier sell than a novel (think about the popularity of "reality" shows which almost do away with writers -- just call in a good editor and voila, you have a show and high ratings. Enough but this is certainly a hot button topic, and I am sure that it won't be the last faux memoir that we will see coming to market. Best, Loren

Lisa Manterfield

I'm sure Ms. Selzter was looking for a way to make her book stand out and get noticed. In today's competitive market, that's understandable. It's just a pity she didn't realize that writing such a compelling piece of fiction purely from imagination could be gimmick enough.

I have to jump on Barbara's train regarding memoir. I feel very differently about exploring the horrors of someone's imagination and the horrors of their personal life. What could happen vs. what did happen. If James Patterson came out and admitted that his books were all true...I shudder at the thought.

Tom Foley

A memoir is suppose to reveal a true record of a life lived.
The sister was right to speak out and defend the integrity of the family. This, truly, is a sad story for all involved...


Maria - Yes, Carol Bly's "The Accurate Story" is a terrific and important book.
Loren - Judy Blunt's scene with the ax instead of pulling the plug on her typewriter is kind of borderline. Though why not write the truth there? Pulling the plug is even a better metaphor than what she made up. But yes, the color dress and all of that - you do your best remembering.
Lisa - Yes, why didn't she write it as a novel!? (She should now write a true memoir about this whole mess and how she got into it.)
Tom - Yes, sad indeed.


There's a great essay on this subject in the paperback anthology "The Best Creative Nonfiction" edited by Lee Gutkind. The essay is "Notes on Frey" and is written by Daniel Nester who evidently profiled James Frey for Poets and Writers Magazine well before that whole fall-out. The essay in the anthology is his follow-up to that and is a cogent, interesting discussion. The writer doesn't really defend Frey, but he does posit beautifully what he calls "the right to imitate and harmonize."


I agree with you about memoir vs. fiction. It is so important for the writer to be as honest as possible about events, fact-checking everything she/he can.
Playing too much with facts is dishonest to the reader, who (I agree) is trusting and reading the work in a certain light as memoir. This trust should not be violated.
At the same time, it's important to realize that when we read memoir, it is one person's recollection of events and that they have that right to their interpretation--even if someone disagrees with a writer's memory of an event.
We should give them a certain leeway, but also be able to trust the basic truth of their story.

Dennis Whitehead

You're right about this. Fakery does have it's consequences.

I can't help but think how many people were deceived by the false memoir that Margaret Jones wrote. It is amazing how one can be dishonest with their own voice as a writer, and think that they can keep perpetuating the lie.

It is sad that Ms. Jones gifts as a writer will probably never be taken seriously because she didn't believe in her true voice, and the people who might have benefited from that voice along the way.


I read the book review of Margaret Jones' book and made a note to pick it up the next time I was at a bookstore. So I feel deceived as a potential buyer. I, too like everyone else who has posted, wonder why she didn't write the book as fiction. I also wonder how she imagined she would not be revealed since she was going so public with the book. To me, truth in memoir is essential. It doesn't matter about the color of a dress or the exact details of a room, but the emotional truth of the story needs to be there. I was especially tickled by the line in the L.A. Times that the author insisted that she wrote the most of the book at a Starbucks coffeehouse in South Los Angeles. Gee, does that make her qualified to consider it a memoir?


Elizabeth: I'll see if I can find that essay online. Thanks for letting me know about it.

Pamela: Yes, leeway but not with the basic facts. (You don't of course put everything into a memoir, so you're shaping the truth, one might argue, by selecting certain events and leaving out others.)

Dennis - It is sad to think that her writing career may never recover. (Though on the other hand - we're a culture that loves to forgive scandals. So who knows?)

Cynthia: It absolutely fascinates me that she believed she wouldn't be caught. But on some level she must have wanted to - especially after the profile in the NYT.


Yes, fakery does have its consequences. As Lee Gutkind points out in his "Creative Nonfiction" journal, "no matter how scurrilous, if what you say is true, it cannot be libel." So if someone writes in a memoir that a real person did something they didn't actually do, they can be sued. How much easier and safer to simply tell a true story and call it memoir - or call your fabrications fiction. Writing is hard enough without the extra burden of trying to keep fact and fiction straight!


i'm very disappointed as a result of reading this! i can't, for the life of me, imagine how somone thinks they can get away with this! especially when the differences between the reality & what was written are do drastically different!

i think scandals like this serve to undermine writer's as a whole and perpetuate the stigma of writer's not being taken seriously, regardless of their writing!

i know publishers are busy (a friend of mine is one), but, didn't the publisher have anyone try to look into the writer's background to verify any of what was in the manuscript? if not, why not?!

i've struggled for some time with whether or not my novel is going to be fiction or memoir ~ but i've leaned towards telling parts of my story through my fictional main female character so as not to run into any problems down the line and this makes me feel that fiction is the better choice for me!

again, i'm very disappointed by this! though i thank you for writing about this because it hadn't dawned on me that it's friday & that my ny times was sitting on our porch!


Sarah - Exactly!

Jo - Check out the letters today (Friday) in the NYT about this - They echo your thoughts.


The incident in Blunt's book did not involve an axe but a sledgehammar.


When I read memoirs/autobiographies, I expect it to be true. Since the James Frey blow-up, I hoped the would-be writers learned their lessons from faking their lives and profiting off of it. I do agree that if the writing's good, it should sell. I also agree that if you lie about your own life and write about it, it does have dire consequences once you get caught. Now, I have to question the celebrities who have came out recently with their memoirs (Barbara Walters, etc.). I want to believe them, but since these fake memoir scandals, one has to wonder what's going on in the minds of the authors.

Gutsy Writer

I do hope this won't affect the rest of us who are hoping to get our memoirs published.

anita a

Truth is the truth, no lies are needed to make it better.


I think I prefer a novel-like mmieor-like novel because it allows the novelist/ mmieorist more freedom to weave additional threads into his/her story or change the time line or bring in different characters and experiences that are relevant, but distant. Or maybe, a book written as a novel allows me, the reader, more freedom to take in the story without judgments about the literal truth of the story. In short, in a novel, the writer can tell a better story and I can read a better story. I spent a lot of time living, traveling and working in northern China from 1999-2004, mostly in rural areas. I'm fascinated both with the vast cultural divide between China and the west and the day to day similarities of rural agrarian life. Everything was both unknowable and very obvious, all at the same time. I don't know anything about this book, but given what I do know about the simultaneous earthiness and complexity of both China and Mennonites, I'm anxious to read it. On a similar note, both Mennonites and Chinese are ALWAYS looking for a good deal and free is about as good as it gets!


A novel about 20th century msaeioniriss in China sounds fascinating! I'm currently researching and writing a popular history of three Anabaptist denominations in Colombia, all of whom first put down roots here post-WWII. My sources include the usual documents and records, but my main source is oral histories gathered from church members. During this process I have spent a surprising amount of time thinking about novels: how to weave the overall narrative with individuals' memories, what kind of details illuminate a story, and how to narrate in a way that is both empathetic and critical. I'd love the chance to read a memoir-like novel exploring a similar topic.

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