Yxta Maya Murray on 'Love and Consequences' Hoax
Margaret Seltzer is a liar; we know that now. That she has a novelist’s gift, that she claims to have written her book to better people’s lives, and that she is at heart an activist for social justice — none of that matters in the wake of her admission to The New York Times’ Mokoto Rich that she faked the book because “there was no other way that someone would listen to it.” The book, and my passionate work reviewing it for Truthdig, seems now shabby and somewhat disgusting.
Beyond the emotions bubbling in my blood, however, one clear question arises in my mind: Why didn’t she just turn it into a novel? And why is Seltzer only the latest sinner, joining the other damned, namely James Frey, Nasdijj and Monique De Wael, who all allegedly exploited the stories of oppressed people for their own false ends?
The answer? Because we don’t value the novel anymore. The coin of the realm is Reality: blogging, biography, Web confessions, “The Real Housewives of New York City.” We have learned to so diminish the importance of the imagination that we no longer pay sufficient attention to the “ecstatic truths” (Werner Herzog’s much-repeated maxim) that may be gleaned from fiction. Thus we have created a market that demands “true crime” and “authentic” tales of woe, which are easily exploited by frauds.
To write a novel about the suffering of others is a very different project than writing a nonfiction account of war or racism. To write a novel is to admit that you don’t know everything, but that you want to. When the fiction writer depicts characters who endure poverty, violence and despair, she must work very hard to remember her own pain, or somehow identify with that suffering. In other words, she must place herself in harm’s way, and she must make herself vulnerable. This can be quite a different process than taking interviews with people who have suffered. The fiction writer “gets in character,” as it were. Moreover, she knows that readers may explain away her work as “not true,” as “frivolous.” Writing fiction about these themes is accordingly perilous, and, to many, worthless. But when the writer “makes it up,” she creates a world that isn’t designed to persuade people of a case. “The inner city needs more funding.” “Racism is evil.” “We need to re-evaluate the just war doctrine.” Rather, she conjures up a universe that is designed to transport the reader into deep, pure feeling for other people. All her craft is bent toward that one purpose. Consequently, the novel is one of the only art forms that may touch us deeper than advocacy, deeper than reason. It can be one of the most powerful engines for true social change.
Seltzer had it in her to write a beautiful book about the underclass, but in lying to her editor and to her readers she has debased not only the people of South-Central Los Angeles but the value of “story.” So, this morning, many of my friends who have read the book (or about it) are doing double takes of the tale, and saying things like “Well, now that you think about it, it doesn’t seem that real after all!” “Obviously she was lying!” “A white girl in a black gang? Absurd!” “We should have known!”
My response is this: I believed every single word that Seltzer wrote in “Love and Consequences.” And if I had to do it again, I would believe her a second time, a third time, a fourth. I would believe her because that’s how I want to approach books, and the world: with an open heart. The value of literature is that it gives us hope in the Word and in other human beings. Though Seltzer’s hoax tempts me to begin snooping under people’s words to see if they bear double meanings, or to sniff at them to see if they are rotten, I am going to maintain my faith in women’s witness. If this makes me run the risk of looking the fool, as I certainly do now after writing such a heartfelt review for Truthdig, then so be it. So, here, come close to me, tell me a story. I’m listening. I believe you. Make me feel something. Make a fool out of me.
Yxta Maya Murray is a writer who lives in Los Angeles and is the author of several books, including “Locas: A Novel.”