Migration — Freyed Again: Forgeries, Fakes, and Other Fabrications

Friday, July 25, 2008
The most recent iteration of literary hoaxes began with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and they don’t seem to want to go away. I was teaching when that book came out, and one of my students insisted that Frey did no wrong. Fiction? Nonfiction? Who cares? My student managed to convert several of her classmates to her view, despite the collective outrage of the rest of the class. Even Oprah couldn’t prevail. And the continued popularity of Pieces indicates my cynical student has plenty of company. As I write this, it is No. 1,728 in nonfiction on Amazon. Frey, of course, wasn’t the first to fabricate large swaths of his life, and he certainly hasn’t been the last.
Next came the boy/girl JT Leroy, a West Virginia drug-addicted prostitute, who was actually a middle-class, middle-aged woman from San Francisco by way of Brooklyn named Laura Albert.

A flurry of fabrications came to light earlier this year: Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca as a Jewish holocaust survivor hung around for more than 10 years before the author revealed that her tale of killing a German soldier, searching for her parents, and being Jewish was not true, as revealed in the Boston Globe .
Then came a sordid account of a young half Native American woman who grew up as a drug-running foster child in gang-ridden South Central Los Angeles. The book was Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones. The New York Times called the book “deeply affecting”  and followed the review with a feature about the author in the Home & Garden section, the idea being that this woman who grew up without a home had succeeded in creating one for herself. The book’s publisher and the world learned of the fraud when the author’s sister called to say that the supposed foster child was Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in an intact family in the suburbs.
Compounding the felony in this case was the appearance of impropriety on the part of the Times. Once the fakery became known, bloggers suggested that the book and author had received extra play because the editor was the daughter of a Times reporter and former Book Review editor. The Times denied any complicity but only after others had raised the issue.
In my view the Times violated another rule of journalism by publishing the Home feature with a single source. That technique fails on several counts: stylistically it gives the story a monochromatic feel. And it risks exactly what happened, a profile built on fabrications. You don’t need “he said/she said” contradictions, just at least one other source to add another dimension. Most of my editors refused to publish one-source stories. Those types of stories leave a big unanswered question. What do other people think about this person?
In any event, the fabrication train got so good that Slate published guidelines on how to fake your next memoir.
Now we’ve got a convicted forger insisting that her memoir is true. Can You Ever Forgive Me? details the life of Lee Israel who faked more than 400 letters by Fanny Brice, Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Lillian Hellman, who herself was accused of fabrication for, among other works, her memoir Pentimento: An Unfinished Woman.
Instead of sex, lies, and videotape, we’ve got lies, fraud, and forgery.

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