Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Another Book Hoax

On NPR this morning, I heard that a former Here and Now guest is an even better creative writer than people thought she was. Unfortunately, the book she wrote and promoted during her earlier interview on the radio show was reported to be about her real life experience growing up on the South Side of LA. (I've never been there but I'm assuming it's the flip side of Beverly Hills.) Apparently, her neighborhood was more burb than hood and the experiences she wrote about were all made up.

Last week, a Belgian writer admitted that she made up the events described in Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, and that she didn't really live in the woods with wolves during the Holocaust. This book was a best seller and inspired a French film about her ordeal. Another hoax.

Rather than vilify these writers as if they were plagiarists, I think we should just refile their books in the fiction section. They didn't steal another writer's words; they just made up some stories. They did lie when they said the stories were reports of actual events, which is a problem, but should the baby be thrown out with the bathwater? Were they journalists reporting the news or authors allowed to express their creativity and opinion?

I haven't read either book but I'm assuming both authors were good storytellers, otherwise their books wouldn't have received such rave reviews. Are their stories less entertaining because they're "pretend?" Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale is a great story. I'm assuming the author didn't travel back from the future where fertile women were enslaved to bear the babies of wealthy citizens, which means the story is made up. It doesn't have to be true to be a compelling story. Perhaps the authors thought or even knew that their works wouldn't have been published if they were presented as fiction.

How did it come to be, I wonder? Was the South Side of LA hood story something the author made up and told to her colleagues so they would see her as tough and worthy of their respect? Did one thing lead to another and she wrote it down and it was published? Was it a lie she told so often that she started to believe it was true? Did she have family? Didn't any of them say: "Um, we grew up in Brentwood, not Watts. What up?"

And what about Misha in the woods with the wolves? Apparently, she wasn't even Jewish but her parents were reportedly killed by the Nazis for participating in the Resistance. During World War II, she resided with relatives in Brussels and not in the woods with a kindly wolf family who adopted her. She claims that, because of her parents' death and the subsequent abuse she suffered by her new guardians, she made up the fantasy as a coping mechanism.

I don't know about you, but I would have questioned right off the bat why the wolves didn't eat the little girl. Call me crazy, but have you heard of Little Red Riding Hood? Nevertheless, it was a good story and one that received rave reviews for decades. In addition to not actually living the story, Misha (not her real name) did not even write the tale down. Her publisher hired a ghost writer who says she was told and believed that the story was true. So, basically, as a little girl, Misha (not her real name) made up a story as little girls often do, told it to the right people, they hired a writer to put it into words, and she made a lot of money and a name for herself all based on her imagination. Pretty darn incredible, if you ask me! I made up lots of stories as a little girl including one about climbing Rattlesnake Mountain and turning into a rattlesnake, but I still have/need a day job! I feel a little bad for the ghost writer who I'm sure didn't make quite as much money as Misha (not her real name). That just doesn't seem kosher (forgive the pun) since it all started with her words.

For me, truth is still stranger--and funnier--than fiction. I swear to God I couldn't make up the stuff that is my life. My childhood is filled with some pretty incredible writing foder. Like when a guy came to look at a car my dad advertised in the want ads. He walked in to find my dad drunk in a bathrobe, staking out a mouse hole with a shotgun while four children looked on while eating breakfast a few feet away. Just as my dad yelled "Come in!" the mouse poked his head out and my dad shot an even bigger hole in the wall. The stranger just stared and then turned and ran up the driveway. My brothers and sister and I just laughed and kept on eating our cereal.

I continued to laugh every time I repeated the gun and the mouse story until I noticed that the listeners weren't always amused. Sometimes they were horrified. That was when I realized I needed to assess my audience and do a little self censorship. As you can read, I've since unlearned that skill. Although that proves my point. Why would I make up some of the the stuff I've written about having MS that makes me look pretty bad? Think about it: Depends Thongs, Getting Lost at Work, Deli Hell, Clown Costume Hangover, etc.

Hey! I just discovered another gift of MS! I have lost whatever was left of my shame...and maybe dignity, too...? Who cares! Saucy single moms don't need dignity.


  1. OMG! The visual of your dad with a shotgun in front of a mouse hole had me roaring!

    Methinks you should write a book too. Label it "fiction" and then no one would be able to challenge it. LOL


  2. You can sugar coat lying all you want.Those writers lied to their advantage and financial gain and it sounds like you condone what they have done. Is that what you aspire too?

  3. Wow! Anonymous, you sure are angry about the whole book hoax...or perhaps your just pissed at my response. You know what? I'm starting to love the negative comments. If I'm not pissing someone off, maybe I'm not close enough to the edge.
    Back to the book hoax: I heard a couple interesting perspectives on NPR this week. One was that, if someone pretends a LITERARY (as opposed to jouralistic) work is true and it inspires and touches people, perhaps the inspiration is more important than the lie. The other comment was that publishers shouldn't be liable for lying authors if no one dies. The speaker compared it to a product recall. Interesting idea.
    I don't condone lying. I just appreciate creativity. And, if it's true that the publishers wouldn't have wanted these books as works of fiction, perhaps that's something that should be changed about the publishing industry....or readers. Are we obsessed with reality tv and true story/memoirs? Hmmm.
    And, no, Anonymous, I do not aspire to be a liar. I aspire to write authentically, humorously, and well. I also aspire to insight anger from snotty bloggers like you. Have a nice day. :-) Julie

  4. I hate when I spell something wrong in an un-spellcheckable comment box! Of course I meant "you're," the contraction for you are and not "your." Ugh.

  5. JOURNALISTIC!!!!!!!!!! Why the hell don't they have spellcheck in the comments section?

  6. My friend Liz sent me this link to an NPR commentary by Scott Simon, a journalist and a novelist who I admire a lot. He gave me a new perspective on the whole book hoax thing. What do you think?

  7. This is probably all about marketing, profits, and the bottom line. Memoirs sell better than fiction. Memoirs make authors, editors, and publishers more money than fiction does. This isn't about creativity - it's about money.

    I read a profile published in the Times a few weeks ago about the alleged LA gang member who wrote a memoir later exposed as fake, and something just didn't seem right about it. I couldn't put my finger on it but as soon as I heard the fraud news I wasn't surprised.

  8. If you write a book, it definitely should be labeled as fiction, I am sure a lot of this blog is, or at the very least, embellished. Is it funny that someone's dad had a shotgun trying to shoot a mouse while his children where in the house? Frickin' hillarious.