Q: Why would someone like Margaret Seltzer try to publish a fictional story as a memoir?
A: The novel in the West owes a great deal to the fake memoir, dating back to such classics as Moll Flanders. It was long held in disrepute, for that reason. However…
Nonfiction today makes more money than fiction. It also sells more copies. Plus, nonfiction, memoir in particular, appeals to the mystique of “getting a true story”. Someone said to me a while ago, and I think it was the writer J. S. Marcus, Americans always want their narrators to be their best friends, in describing why the untrustworthy narrator was more of a European tradition than not. People buying memoirs like “A Million Little Pieces” are buying “into” it, they’re buying friends, basically, and looking to lose a little loneliness. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it puts publishing houses in the awkward position of finding readers lots of wacky, funny, people who’ve gone through untold hardship and have landed right-side up. Lots of new friends, in other words.
In an economy where increasingly all we can afford is to watch life instead of be in it, memoirs and reality tv are the “cheap seats” to life. We’ve long ago moved to a sort of entertainment culture where people are encouraged to perform themselves, display themselves, and market themselves as product, and what is useful to life is what allows this, and what does not allow this is considered a new evil, and harmful. And so it is made invisible, and the visible becomes the surface of the story and is thought of as the truth, at the cost of what is hidden. If this is familiar, it’s because it is a recipe for narcissism. It’s also, though, something that says content doesn’t matter as much as the “authenticity” brand. Whatever’s inside is great because it’s “authentic”. And it makes authorship into a puppet show.
That these memoirs are so often faked or that reality tv is written and scripted at below-market rates for writers’ work, this, under the “authentic” brand, becomes not immaterial, but rather, very material, if also beside the point. In doing so, it points simply to the difference between what people say they want (true stories) and what they want (a story about a world they prefer to this one).
The funniest or saddest part, and it might be both, is that the same people who will accuse a novelist of basically writing what happened to them and then making up the names, will turn right around on a memoirist and ask, “How did you remember all of those conversations?” We would be right to corner these people and just ask them what they’re really getting at by playing both sides of the issue. But I think the answer is, they ask that question when they are near waking up.
Also, as Edward P. Jones said, Fame doesn’t change you. It unmasks you. Margaret Seltzer somehow really believed she was going to pull this off.