As an author in search of an agent and a book contract for a memoir about my experiences growing up in poverty and with domestic violence, not to mention around more affluent folks in a gifted track program, it does irk me when I read about these stories of people embellishing their memoirs these days. The latest story involves Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence, a memoir and love story involving him and his eventual wife while he was in a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II. Rosenblat was in a concentration camp. But the idea of him meeting his wife as a kid while she gave him apples through a barbed wire fence was shown recently to be about as plausible as me marrying my second Humanities years crush. At least they caught the lie before they published Rosenblat’s book.
This comes on the heels of the Love and Consequences debacle in March. Margaret B. Jones, the pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, claimed to be half-White, half-American Indian, raised by Black parents in South Central LA and a drug runner for the Bloods. It took 19,000 copies of the book for folks who knew Seltzer as an affluent attendee of a private school in North Hollywood before the truth about her completely fabricated story came out. What a crock! Lest I forget, there’s also James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003), on the Oprah Book Club list until some major aspects of his otherwise truthful account were proven as lies.
This is typical of an industry that prides itself on being relatively high-brow but uses low-brow, make money for us in nanoseconds techniques in book publishing. Like expecting ready-to-publish-tomorrow manuscripts from lit agents in order to save money on copy editing and proofreading. Or not having fact-checkers in house to verify the more provocative, outlandish, or sexy aspects of a book manuscript. Forget about the more typical issues around marketing or promotion. Unless you’re an established author or some “fresh” first-time author, your advance is your marketing and promotion budget.
But I’m jumping too far ahead. An advance assumes an agent, a publishing house with an enthusiastic, interested editor, and a book contract. All need to happen (for the most part) before you or I can successfully publish a book. With the publishing industry using ex-editors and lawyers as agents/gatekeepers, authors face at least two layers of scrutiny to get a definitive “Yes” for their manuscript. This scrutiny, though, isn’t based on the quality of writing or the story. It’s based on what can be packaged and sold quickly and without a whole lot of line-by-line reading. A love story in the midst of the Holocaust — of course! A memoir about a White female growing up with and around Blacks and becoming a gangbanger — great! A coming-of-age story about a Black male finding himself, but no easy answers, in the middle of poverty, abuse, and high-brow education — sounds interesting, but…
Part of the problem, I think, is that the publishing world lacks the intellectual and multicultural diversity necessary to be successful in this century. It seems that most big-named editors and agents all attended the same exclusive private schools and elite liberal arts colleges. Smith, Vassar, Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, not to mention the Ivy Leagues. That’s the world they know, and that’s typically the world they publish. Anything that sounds close to the world they know, and yet takes an unexpected turn is considered “cutting-edge” or “sexy.” Like the Holocaust memoir or the gangbanger story. With few exceptions, most of the folks who are given the opportunity to wax poetic about the experiences of the poor and/or folks of color aren’t authors of color. They’re White journalists like Ron Suskind or Adrian LeBlanc, because they dared to venture into a different world.
I know, I know. Many of you may think that I’ll stop complaining and start acting like these folk once I find an agent and publisher or if I decide to give up on this strange world altogether. or if Oprah gives me a call and has me on her show. Some of you may even think that I’ve made up some stuff about my past. Here’s a simple test to use about my story or any other autobiography to prove its truthfulness:
1. Does the author present themselves in simplistic terms — as a mere victim or as someone who actively shapes their own destiny? Or does the author show themselves as a work in progress, with advances and setbacks, triumphs and struggles, and issues that still need to be worked out even after achieving a major goal?
2. Even as unbelievable events unfold in the story, does it ring true with the kind of descriptions and depictions used in the rest of the story? Or does it seem like a twist more consistent with a fiction novel than with the way a real person’s life would evolve?
3. Is there much “tell-all” involved in telling the story, and did the author do much research beyond themselves in telling the story, such as comparing national, local and personal events, interviewing people, including additional facts about other people and places? Or does the story seem like a very involved stream of consciousness?
It’s far more plausible that I would’ve had two crushes on two classmates that went unfulfilled, given how I describe myself at the age of twelve or seventeen, than it would be for a young biracial “White” woman to be a drug runner in a major LA gang. A prostitute maybe, but not a drug runner. It makes more sense to describe myself as both a victim, a slacker, a passive activist in my family, among other things, than it would to discuss a bond over an apple that survived the Holocaust and led two people who re-met a decade later to marriage. It makes more sense to use evidence from local events that influenced my educational experience and that of my classmates to show the validity of my story than it does to keep writing without evidence as if no one can disprove your story.
I know I’ll publish Boy At The Window eventually. I just hope that the nonfiction memoir fiction writers out there don’t make it harder for me to sell my work.