Blind Man with a Pistol


Literary Hoaxes: I’m Not Buying

Two more literary hoaxes surfaced last week, turning a two-year trend into a full-on rout. The latest culprit, Marget B. Jones née Seltzer, author of the faux-memoir Love and Consequences, issued a “tearful” apology in the New York Times. The story, hot on the heels of Misha Defonseca’s fictional Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, wrought instant comparisons to James Frey’s admission that A Million Little Pieces exaggerated details of his drug addiction and recovery. Oprah Winfrey demanded—demanded—that Frey apologize to the American public for his lies. And the American public was mollified.

Why the outrage? Why, in a book we ostensibly read for pleasure, does it matter so much that what is given as truth is truth? Would it matter, as Mark Leyner suggests for example, if we found out that Kafka’s Metamorphosis was “based on a true story”? Well, maybe. But does the fact that the protagonists in these literary hoaxes are less than honest eliminate the reality of drug addiction, gang violence or Holocaust survival? “This book is a story, it’s my story,” says Minique de Wael, the non-Jewish author of Misha: Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. “It is not my true story but it is my reality, my way of surviving.”

Any narrative, whether based on fact or fiction, constitutes an imaginative reconstruction of reality. Readers remain well aware of this interpretive act even as they purchase their latest memoir. Even if the backstory is true, historical veracity intersects with formal modes, narrative order and stylistic voice. In fact, non-fiction novels depend upon the discourse of fiction: as these hoaxes move effortlessly across genres, they demonstrate how blurred the distinction between these boundaries become. One could even say that the thrill of a priori betrayal counts towards the overall enjoyment of the fraudulent work. After all, can protests against forged objectivity really be taken at face value from a culture who prefers remake films and Club Med Carnival to the real thing?

I am tempted to suggest that an American public unable to demand that their government repent and abjure their uncountable lies is forced to displace their anger and betrayal onto the pulp (non-)fiction they read before they go to bed. When you cannot count on your media, whose currency should be truth and objectivity, to punish a government that goes to war under false pretenses, you turn to an afternoon talk show that will deliver the repudiation you desire.

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