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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

Writing and Truth in Fact and Fiction

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From a fraudulent story of gang life and drug peddling (Love and Consequences) to Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years and A Million Little Pieces, the list of fake memoirs is growing. Time for some reflections on writing and truthfulness.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This week, it was revealed that the memoir "Love and Consequences" by Margaret Jones, who said that she grew up wild in South Central L.A., ran with gangs and peddled drugs, was actually written by Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in the suburbs and only ran through the Sherman Oaks shopping mall.

The book is a fraud, but Ms. Seltzer came within hours of being on NPR, probably a lot of other places, recalling her life as a drug pusher.

SIMON: I think I thought it was an honor. You look around, and everybody's doing dirt bad and you have hand-me-down shoes and clothes, and the kids at school are making fun of you, and you have a chance to get some little money and get some nice clothes.

SIMON: Now if some Brooklyn or London novelist had written a story set among drug gangs and uttered those words, people might have dismissed them as pretentious nonsense. Put those sentences into a so-called memoir, people call it gritty and real or raw, tender and tough-minded, like the New York Times did.

SIMON: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years," by a woman who claimed she lived with packs of wolves to survive the Holocaust, was revealed to be a fraud, though not before it earned more than $20 million and gotten made into a movie. I hope the wolves got cut into the deal.

Two years ago, there was James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces." This year, troubling questions have been raised about Ishmael Beah's "A Long Way Gone," his memoir of being a child soldier. Ten years ago, prestigious journals published poems by a man billed as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He turned out to be a community college professor in Freeport, Illinois.

Now, I don't decry phony memoirs as a journalist so much as someone who is also a novelist. So I cringe every time someone suggests these frauds should simply have been labeled novels. Novels just don't spill out of people like uncorked champagne.

They take craft and discipline, not just empathy and imagination. Readers have a right to expect style and skill in a novel. The people who wrote these frauds knew that if they had presented their books as novels, they would have had to withstand a whole different kind of criticism.

What critic will bash the literary style of a memoir by someone who was suckled by wolves, ran with gangs or was dragooned into being a child soldier? Calling these books memoirs allows their flaws to masquerade as proof that they're raw and real.

A novelist knows that if his characters are honest, they take hold of a story and can live on in a reader's mind, but a phony memoir gives you characters that just make you feel cheated and deceived. You just want them to go away.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small