Faking It

It seems every time you pick up a newspaper, someone new is issuing a mea culpa for having written, published, or promoted a completely fake memoir. Starting with Rigoberta Menchu, back in the ’90s, then continuing through James Frey and his Million Little Pieces to the middle-aged woman who wrote about being a male teen prostitute named JT LeRoy.

This week, we have Margaret Seltzer, who wrote under the pen name Margaret [Peggy] B. Jones and sold a true-to-life book called Love & Consequences. It took her three years to pen this memoir about her young life as a girl gang banger in south Los Angeles and her subsequent salvation at the hands of an African-American foster mother she called Big Mom. Only upon publication, it turned out Seltzer actually grew up in tony Sherman Oaks, CA, and she lived with her own biological parents (and the sister who ratted her out) until leaving for an expensive private school.

What’s interesting about this story — to me, at least — is that Seltzer/Jones editor, Sarah McGrath, was MY editor, back when she was at Scribner and I was at work on my first novel, which we nicknamed Wild Ride. Sarah was a marvelous editor: dedicated, respectful, a real champion. There were times I thought she believed in my book more than I did. And I can easily see how a woman so enthusiastic about the art of the written word could get taken in.

But what does this have to do with food, you’re asking? Well, funny thing. . . .

Around the same time Love & Consequences was being recalled, a chef named Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network’s Dinner Impossible, was busted as well.

It seems Irvine lied on his official resume, saying he’d cooked for President Bush and Princess Diana and somewhere along the line been knighted by the queen. He did none of these things. Nor did he graduate from the University of Leeds.

What he did was star in a successful television show for more than a year — a program that one reviewer said was like James Bond meets MacGyver — serving impromptu gourmet meals to hundreds of people. He was entertaining and the food was good.

So what, I ask, does his past have to do with it?

Did he lie? Well, of course he did. Let’s take a look at YOUR official resume, check the grade point average you listed, the dates of employment for that managerial job you actually held for only two and a half months while your boss was out dead.

And, to come full circle, I’m not sure why readers are so terribly upset about the memoir, either. (McGrath’s publishing house, Penguin, has not only recalled all copies in bookstores, they’ve even offered a refund to anyone who bought the book.) Jones apparently wrote a fabulous book, one that New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani called "humane and deeply affecting." Well, isn’t it still. . . .true to life or not?

I’m puzzled, you see, by the point of all these recriminations. It would appear to me that Seltzer was being paid to tell a good story and Irvine to cook great meals. Each did exactly as she or he was assigned. And, yes, greased their reputations along the way. But given they showed real talent — producing work that other people benefited from and enjoyed — I would ask: What’s the real harm?