2008’s Candidates for the James Frey Memorial Award for Best Fake Memoir

Jeez. Is there anyone these days whose memoir is actually based in reality?

You know, the rules of a memoir are pretty simple. If an event actually happened to you, you can use it in a memoir. If it didn’t actually happen to you, you can’t. Because then it’s fiction, you see. Which is different from a memoir. No, really; you can look it up. I’m not sure why this has suddenly become so difficult for everyone to process.

On the other hand, I’m looking forward to selling my memoir of my life as a teenage transvestite in the Bogota slums, who later joined the Navy SEALs and adopted the twin daughters of the ruthless Afghan opium warlord whom I battled to the death using only a spoon and 14 bars of the 1812 Overture, and then, having beaten back a terrible addiction to khat, went on to become one of the most famous celebrity chefs on The Cooking Channel. Because apparently this would be at least as true as most of the other memoirs on the market today. And, I’d wager, a great deal more entertaining. I’m waiting for my check, I am.

56 thoughts on “2008’s Candidates for the James Frey Memorial Award for Best Fake Memoir

  1. First of all, I don’t get how you don’t think you are going to get caught when you let a NY magazine print your picture and your SISTER turns you in.

    Second, if you have a story to tell about people whose voices aren’t being heard (as is the excuse of Margaret Seltzer in regards to LA gang members and foster children) why don’t you be the vehicle that gives them the voice by, oh I don’t know, letting them tell their own story?

    She could have easily done an investigative/essay style piece like (oh I’m not sure if this is the name?) Jennifer Toth did with “The Mole People” in regards to the underground homeless of NY or “Orphans of the Living” about foster kids. They get their stories told, you get to write a compelling book, everyone is happy.

    The holocaust thing I just don’t get. A last ditch effort at fame or sympathy? Antisemetic guilt? Greed? That’s just sad.

  2. Lisa:

    “Second, if you have a story to tell about people whose voices aren’t being heard (as is the excuse of Margaret Seltzer in regards to LA gang members and foster children) why don’t you be the vehicle that gives them the voice by, oh I don’t know, letting them tell their own story?”

    Or, alternately, sell your story as a novel. Because it’s fiction. And it probably would have sold just fine as a novel.

  3. I dunno, John. I’d read the memoir you described.

    But only with your name on it, as otherwise, it would be far too lacking in credibility…

  4. Defonseca wrote in her book that Nazis seized her parents when she was a child, forcing her to wander the forests and villages of Europe alone for four years. She claimed she found herself trapped in the Warsaw ghetto and was adopted by a pack of wolves that protected her.

    That’s a much more interesting fabrication than James Frey. I’m wondering how she came up with the whole wolves thing; especially as she seems to have almost convinced herself of some of this.

  5. Well, I guess if your life isn’t novel enough, the novelization will just have to do.

    Of course the real problem is this drive for “authenticity”, which I blame “literary fiction” for promoting.

    If something doesn’t sound realistic, than the themes explored in the story must be invalid.
    So if the white girl from the suburbs can’t cut the muster of “authenticity” in the “voice” of a ghetto kid, might as well ignore what she is trying to say about their situation.

  6. “Okay, now you’re just obviously ripping off the great Jonathan Vos Post.”

    No way, if it were JvP, John would have written “using only a spoon which was given to me by Enrico Fermi at a pool party thrown by Carmen Miranda.”

    Anyway, I think Jesse Ventura already wrote that memoir.

  7. The dirty little secret of John’s past life is that it was a spork. Not a spoon. Maddened the forensics guys at CSI:Kabul for weeks trying to figure out the shallow puncture marks.

    Dr. Phil

  8. Or, alternately, sell your story as a novel. Because it’s fiction. And it probably would have sold just fine as a novel.

    Except that it appears (from the Frey case, certainly, and probably from the others) that there are publishing houses hungry to publish “nonfiction” and willing to turn a bit of a blind eye to incredible elements in a story. Indeed, in a “true” story, “incredible” may mean “amazing,” while the same incidents in fiction may mean “not believable” as far as these publishers are concerned.

    In Frey’s case, his story wasn’t salable as fiction: A Million Little Pieces was rejected as a novel 17 times before Doubleday accepted a “retooled” version–as nonfiction.

    I don’t have any experience as a publisher or a published author, and I’m not trying to tell anyone how the industry works. Not my place to. But from the accounts that have appeared in TSG, the New York Times and elsewhere, it looks like the real story isn’t that there are fake memoirs; it’s that there’s a level of cynicism and desperation among some of the publishing houses that makes a piece of fiction more marketable if you swear that it’s true.

  9. So what have we learned? When fake people suffer in mediocre prose it doesn’t sell, but when ‘real’ people suffer in mediocre prose, it’s a goldmine. I think I just stumbled across a summation of post-millenial American pop culture.

  10. John, you could write the part about waiting for the check first, as a warm-up exercise, and then do the rest as flashbacks.

    Oh, and be sure to include your worldbuilding expertise, he said, having read subsequent posts.

  11. The great thing for you, John, is that you have all of us, who(m)(?) you could tap for research into your biography. Think of the things you don’t know you did yet! Not everyone has a resource like that.

  12. Well, you know the ol’ saying: “All writers are liars”…
    ;-)

    Jokes aside… perhaps “authenticity” is overrated.

    I’d be much more comfortable with a world where we openly acknowledge that half of the “news” on TV is spin, doctored fact, manufactured events, or didn’t happen at all.

    A good-sized part of our lives are led in fictions and pseudo-events of some kind or other. So why get mad at these failed fakers, these petty peddlers in “True Confessions”? Because they failed… which they did… or because they remind us how much else might be fake?

    (Quick: Is the economy really in a recession or not…? Is Al-Qaeda really threatening the Western World, or are they just another bunch of violent losers…? Do we really care about the latest celebrity bimbo, or are journalists conspiring to make us think we should care about the empty, soulless lives of the Beautiful People…? Was Rigoberta Menchu really a deserving Nobel Prize winner, or is the Nobel Peace Prize a crock…? Did Uncle Ezra really fall and hit his head twice, or does his wife beat him every Saturday…?)

    Everybody’s spinning a story. We choose to believe which stories are “Important” to us. Exactly why these “I Was A Victim” narratives are all the rage at the moment, I don’t know. Maybe middle-class people are feeling guilty about being well off; I have NO idea.

  13. This has been going on for a long time. There was a similar case in Australia where a novel written under the pseudonym Helen Demidenko won a major literary award in 1995.

    And then there’s Bruno Maddox’s My Little Blue Dress which parodies the fake memoir genre.

  14. Exactly why these “I Was A Victim” narratives are all the rage at the moment, I don’t know.

    I think there’s an interesting pattern to the fake memoirs. Restricting ourselves to the American ones for the moment …

    James Frey claimed to have been a criminal and a drug addict. But you don’t have to worry about the society that produced him. “I’m a victim of nothing but myself”, he writes. (Seth Mnookin, a recovered heroin addict himself, wrote about how Frey told the public what they want to hear about addiction.)

    Nasdijj claimed to be half-Navajo. His stories of life on the reservation featured drunken, illiterate natives who he rescued in various ways – teaching them to read, adopting their disabled children. He bluntly called his mother a “drunk” because “alcoholic” is “a white people word”. Native American writers were calling foul from day one – “Nasdijj” couldn’t even be a Navajo word, any more than “Lpxxp” could be an English word – but it took a while for the truth to reach a larger audience: Nasdijj was a white guy who was making it all up.

    J. T. LeRoy claimed to be “a teenage hustler who’d been pimped out as a cross-dressed prostitute by his mother at truck stops throughout the South”, who’d been saved from the streets by a woman who’d adopted him – the same woman who turned out to have been writing the LeRoy stories.

    These books confirm readers’ prejudices about marginal groups while allowing them to think of themselves as open-minded. The author, after all, is one of the good ones. According to these books, drug addicts, homeless teens, and Native Americans don’t need social services – they need to quit seeing themselves as victims and take charge of their lives. And they can accomplish this by simply reading good books. (Nasdijj claimed to have taken a Navajo woman to a library for the first time, where she was amazed that so many books existed. JT LeRoy got his writing breaks by contacting authors and claiming their books had helped him. Frey’s second memoir was about reading War and Peace to a dumb, illiterate cellmate who loved the story so much that he’d walk around cradling the book like a baby.)

    Jones/Seltzer’s fake memoir seems to fit the same pattern – I can’t be the only one who cringed at her imaginary black “Big Mom”. Since there’s apparently an imaginary college degree in her imaginary autobiography, I wouldn’t be surprised if J/S also claimed to have pulled herself up by her bootstraps by her own hard work once she accepted that anyone could do it.

  15. Dr. Phil @ 13 wrote:
    The dirty little secret of John’s past life is that it was a spork. Not a spoon.

    Ah, so Darby Conley was ripping Scalzi off when he had Bucky the cat say, “Aha! Advancing on me only brings you closer to the cold wrath that is my spork!”

    Yes, it all becomes clear now…

  16. Will that be available as free eBook or an auction of some sort?

    And not that I know that much about publishing, but that seems like a trilogy. Can a memoir be a trilogy?

  17. ““using only a spoon”

    Okay, now you’re just obviously ripping off the great Jonathan Vos Post.”

    Actually it was a titanium spork but, John does not admit to actually owning one, due to the geek multiplier effect.

  18. You know, that could be the plot of a Cory Doctorow book, provided you replaced evil drug lords with the RIAA and MPAA. :-)

  19. I think it’s disgusting that Frey’s book went on to sell another bajillion copies after the fact that it was all bullshit came to light. I hope that this little girl and her book fades into nothingness. And what kind of person makes up a holocaust memoir??? Unbelievable!

  20. Honestly John, I think our lives would be infinitely better if you did write that memoir. Pretty please with sugar on top?

  21. That fake memoirs are proliferating is depressing, but not surprising.

    Certainly in the UK the public appear to have a huge appetite for the books which tell of dreadful abuses – to the extent that they’ve been given their own genre of “misery memoir.”

    It doesn’t appear to matter that a number of these have been discredited.

    Frey is but one example of someone who was unable to sell a story as fiction so sold it as a memoir instead. Where in fiction poor techique attracts criticism (“the prose is simplistic and turgid,” “events are unbelievable”), in these misery memoirs the very opposite appears true; poor technical form, rather than putting a reader off, instead provides added ‘authenticity’. It’s a real story by a real person, of course it’s not going to read like Chekov, no?

    I blame not the publishers for putting these books out, but the gullible members of the public who buy (and continue!) to buy them.

    The worst part, incidentally, is it tars the whole field of memoirs with one brush. After reading one memoir and discovering it fabricated, I’m much less inclined to read another one – any other – viewing it as being tainted with the same brush of suspicion.

  22. Ya know, it’s crap like this that gives the “Holocaust Never Happened” crowd more ammunitions. Thanks alot lady.

  23. Not only did I write a memoir myself, but I used to work for the producers who optioned the Misha, the not-Jewish girl who was not a Holocaust victim and whose parents weren’t either, and who did not trek across Europe and was not raised by wolves.

    People who appropriate the real suffering of others and claim it as their own are scum. That goes double if the real suffering involves genocide.

    Regarding my own memoir, “All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: an American Misfit in India,” I asked if my publisher, Rodale,” wanted any verification. I had hesitated to write it for years because it was such a bizarre story (raised by crazy Americans in India– wolves would have done a better job) that I thought people wouldn’t believe it. They said I was patently honest but they’d let me know if they needed any backup. Which was never requested.

    At the time I was very gratified that I was believed without proof, but in retrospect I think editors ought to at least do some basic fact-checking.

  24. Like Lisa at the top of the comments pile, i’m still blown away by the fact that it was her -sister- who blew the whistle.

    You can’t convince me that was out of a love of honestly. Thats some serious sibling jealousy happening right there. Who catches their family in a lie and turns them in just to watch the fallout?

    As for truth in memoirs, I think that’s asking a bit much sometimes. Lets face it, the “I walked 100 miles to school every day in the snow uphill both ways” attitude to reminiscing is pretty well ingrained these days ;)

  25. Nick Bronson wrote:
    You can’t convince me that was out of a love of honestly. Thats some serious sibling jealousy happening right there. Who catches their family in a lie and turns them in just to watch the fallout?

    Possibly. Or it’s also possible that the article (or book, or both) stated that the author’s sister was dead after delivering not one, but two crack babies, and that her father had raped her when she was five years old, which necessitated her move into the foster care system.

    Had I been the sister, opening up my my NYT one Thursday morning over coffee only to hear that I was a dead crack addict with two addict children, and the product of parents who sexually molested me, I may have called the publisher to find out what the hell was going on.

  26. I mean, the article (or book or both) DID state these things. And that is POSSIBLY why the sister called to clarify that reports of her death and crack addiction had been greatly exaggerated.

  27. mensley @ 25 — when did Bucky Cat do ANYTHING original?

    Oh, and for a point of reference, to show I know about these things, I do own (and use) a titanium spork I bought at REI. Very handy at picnics.

    Dr. Phil

  28. She didn’t call the publisher though… or, the route i’d probably have taken, called the -sister- the see what was going on. She went straight to the papers.

    Just sounds to me like a bit of a case of the sister wanting publicity too. I imagine (again, i’m only speculating, as i’ve never read the book) that the writer didn’t use the names of her real family. I mean, she made up a mother, and is unlikely to want someone to easily be able to look up her sister and check this stuff out. So it’s not like she was claiming her actual sister was all these things, just that she had a family that didn’t exist.

    What the sister did however is tantamount to “i’ll show her” with public humiliation and the complete ruination of her career.

    Not defending the publishing of false memoirs at all, just saying that if my brother published something similar, i’d be more likely to have it out with him in the privacy of the home rather than calling the papers and ruining his life.

    This way, however, does open the way for future sales of “my sister lied to everybody” interviews for trashy magazines.

  29. I just read in another post where Scalzi admits to not knowing all the details of the OMW universe. Therefore invalidating the novel and making fiction. All lies.

  30. What the sister did however is tantamount to “i’ll show her” with public humiliation and the complete ruination of her career.

    The public humiliation and ruin of her career was a given anyway. Her sister might’ve wanted to head off having that happen in an even worse way, such as face-to-face during the planned booksigning tour.

  31. About “Misha”‘s fake holocaust memoir, it’s a convoluted and pretty sad story, all things considered.

    The writer was the daughter of catholic parents who were members of a resistance network. She was just four when they were arrested and killed by the Gestapo, and she went to live with an uncle and aunt who, she said, treated her badly and especially made her feel bad by calling her a “traitor’s daughter”. (“Traitor”, here, being the term used by collaborationists to describe the people who fought against Hitler, at the time, in occupied Europe. Right along with “terrorist”.) Hence for the girl a double helping of “survivor’s guilt”.

    She seems to have fantasized a story in which she was really a Jewish girl whose parents were killed just for being jewish, thus evading the stinging accusation of them being “traitors”. That’s what she wanted to believe, and maybe came to believe herself, in the end.

  32. Read (actually only began to read) the first chapter of Love and Consequences in the NYT today and it was SO obviously a fake to me I can’t believe anyone fell for this crap.. Of course the fact I grew up and live in the inner city probably makes my radar detector for this type of hoax more sensitive.

    Publishers are going to have to become very paranoid about this and demand proof if they have any suspicion at all about the veracity of the story. Saw where her voicemail was full, guess people are calling to congratulate her…

  33. JKRichard – Future Scalzi knows and has been coming back in time to dictate to Current Scalzi. So, now you know – Future Scalzi is a Dictator.

  34. # JKRichardon 05 Mar 2008 at 2:41 am
    “I just read in another post where Scalzi admits to not knowing all the details of the OMW universe. Therefore invalidating the novel and making fiction. All lies.”

    I know – I drove around Greenville for hours after my 40th Birthday looking for the Colonial Forces induction center and couldn’t find it. I was crushed!

    I’ve been reduced to reading blogs and wallowing in self pity. Maybe I should write a memoir…

  35. Why a spoon? Why not a knife, or a sword —
    SCALZI (played by Alan Rickman) Because a spoon is duller, you fool, it’ll hurt more.

  36. I’m not in any position to judge the sister for going directly to the papers. Okay, maybe she wanted publicity. But it seems just as likely that she was angry and trying to clear the record before too much damage was done.

    If the memoir used fictional names, while the paper used the more generic “my/her sister,” there may have been harm in the article that wasn’t present in the memoir. Or it may have been that the memoir was hurtful enough, and the Times article was just the final straw. It’s also possible that someone who is mendacious with her memoir and the press has a history of mendacity with her family that can only be put up with oh-so-long before the levee breaks.

    As I understand it, the sister called the paper after a picture of the author appeared in the article–it’s possible the author didn’t tell her family what she was doing, and the family started getting calls from concerned friends who (understandably) said (in effect), “Are you okay? Your sister has changed her name and says you’re doing drugs. And she thinks you’re dead. And I’m sorry you dad did that.” Awkward, that.

    It’s also possible that the sister did go to the author and the publisher, and the former didn’t pick up and the latter put her on hold or took a message.

    I’m grateful, in any case, that my little sister is the sort of person who would poke both her eyes out before she published a fake memoir or ran my reputation through the mud in the newspapers. Because my sister has that whole “integrity” thing going on, unlike hoaxers-for-profit and the publishers who would rather get a bestseller than do some simple fact checking.

    Am I the only one here who is reminded of that great Richard Gere movie that came out about a year ago about the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes publishing scandal. The Hoax. It’s worth checking out on DVD if you missed it at the theater.

  37. Scalzi doesn’t know all the details of the OMW universe. Scalzi talks about faking a memoir. What else will we learn of the man behind the site? Does he really have a wife and daughter? Are they just supermodels who he pays to pose in photographs? Does he really like cats? What about that hatred of coffee?

    Or is he a unshaven geek, living in the basement of his ancestral home with the ‘rents upstairs…

    Who really is behind OMW and the other “Scalzi works”? I think it might be William Shatner.

  38. [quote]On the other hand, I’m looking forward to selling my memoir of my life as a teenage transvestite in the Bogota slums, who later joined the Navy SEALs and adopted the twin daughters of the ruthless Afghan opium warlord whom I battled to the death using only a spoon and 14 bars of the 1812 Overture, and then, having beaten back a terrible addiction to khat, went on to become one of the most famous celebrity chefs on The Cooking Channel.[/quote]

    I think this story has already been adapted to the screen by Chuck Norris. ;-P

  39. Thanks for the heads up, Scalzi.

    Since I haven’t owned a television in 25 years and stopped the paper last October [which hasn’t stopped me from being in the paper in the least!], all my news comes from online.

    Your blog is one of those online sources keeping me current on the “good stuff”.

    So, when I was chatting with Lisa Scottoline tonight at a signing at the Borders down the street, I was able to speak intelligently with her on the subject of the pseudo-gangsta semi-Amerindian when she mentioned the topic.

    [Lisa’s a memoir buff.]

    This eventually led, through some strange cause and effects, to Ms. Scottoline chasing me around the store in an attempt to stuff a twenty-dollar bill in my pants as if I were a Chippendale.

    Scout’s honor!

    I have the weirdest time with authors at signings, your comment included.

    “I can’t believe I asked how to spell your name, JJ.”

    JJB

  40. Natalie at #24.

    Oh! Victor Greto.

    He’s the reporter who did the story in part about me in January for the News Journal.

    Yes, I recall the pianist story.

    JJB

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