The Fake Memoirist’s Survival Guide

Christopher Beam in Slate:

080229_cb_mishaThe past month has not been kind to literary fabricators. The self-proclaimed half-Native American/foster child/South Central gangster Margaret B. Jones turned out to be Margaret Seltzer, a white girl from the leafy suburb Sherman Oaks. Misha Defonseca confessed that her Holocaust memoir, in which she traversed Europe, escaped Nazis, and lived with a pack of wolves, was a fantasy. Both revelations recall the fallout after James Frey’s 2003 addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces turned out to be partially fabricated.

Lying to readers and editors is shameful, to be sure. But the real embarrassment is that these writers got caught. For all their celebrated imagination, fabulists too often do a shoddy job of covering their tracks. Examine the trajectories of disgraced memoirists and you start to see some patterns that could, if studied closely, help avoid future literary humiliations. To that end, here are a few tips for aspiring fakers to keep in mind, lest they get caught in fabricante delicto.

Specificity is your enemy. Write with passionate vagueness. Avoid precise dates; don’t get more exact than the year if you can help it. Better yet, the decade. One scholar challenged the authenticity of Misha Defonseca’s memoir based on her claim that her family was deported from Belgium in 1941—in reality, the Germans didn’t deport Belgian Jews until 1942. Frey was undone when the Smoking Gun discovered he had spent only a few hours in jail, not three months. When in doubt, go with “awhile.”

Don’t tell anyone—especially your biographer. Another point that should be obvious. But none other than Nadine Gordimer made the mistake of confessing to her biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, that she had fabricated parts of an autobiographical essay published in The New Yorker in 1954. She hasn’t denied his account but accused Roberts of a breach of trust. Ahem.

More here.  And see also this: “The Fog of Memoir: The feud over the truthfulness of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.