I have been writing about both literature and race issues quite a lot lately. The saga of Margaret B. Jones, aka Margaret Seltzer, shows that I’ve been on to something.
She was the author of “Love and Consequences”, a memoir of growing up in a black foster family in South Central Los Angeles. Her tale was a wild ride with a strong mother and gang violence, death and redemption. It also turned out to not be true when Ms. Seltzer was ratted out by her own sister.
It turns out that she was, in fact, raised in Sherman Oaks with her biological family and attended a private school. Her information came from research conducted “sitting at the Starbucks” in South-Central, where “I would talk to kids who were Black Panthers and kids who were gang members and kids who were not.” If you don’t believe me, you need to read the article in the NY Times:
That’s not all there is to this story, however. Penguin, which has since withdrawn the book, spent three years and an advance of $100,000 working on it. Apparently, they loved her and they loved her story. They had every reason to believe it was going to be a big hit.
That’s the interesting part to me. Listen to this interview, given last Friday, where she describes her book and her experience in quite a lot of detail:
Her faked accent is nothing less than appalling. It wouldn’t take anyone with the smallest sense of reality any time at all to realize that there isn’t something right with this, and yet Penguin just ate it up. The whole time that this woman was running her con, to the tune of 100 grand, no one thought to question why she didn’t even have an authentic accent. She was, in the parlance of my native Miami, feeding them candy, and all they wanted was more candy. Why did they eat up this good looking white girl’s story that included every stereotype of life in da ‘hood you could imagine?
Obviously, they wanted to. Like any con, the mark believed the lies because they wanted to.
It’s hard to imagine just how na�ve Penguin was to be taken in by all of this, but their desperate need to believe this con shows just how desperate the publishing industry is for the next big hit. More importantly, it proves a point that I have been making all along, which is that many people in this desperate industry are dangerously out of touch with reality. Their view of a significant slice of American comes from other forms of media, and their decisions do nothing more or less than reinforce what their own insular world has told them has to be true. They honestly must have though that this vision of black city life, concocted by whites for whites, was true.
This can only be called racism.
Racism is a wild beast which is reincarnated in a different form for each generation. In its current state, at least a few whites in positions of power obviously believe the very worst that they hear about “those people”. Indeed, Ms. Seltzer was quoted as saying, “I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.” We don’t? Let’s give this a try:
“Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain �
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be”
That’s at least one voice, and his name is Chuck D. Learn it.
I use that quote because it brings up the other troubling aspect of this, exploitation. What this woman did is nothing less than steal other people’s stories, which as far as I am concerned is the same as stealing their souls. It’s not the first time that popular black culture has been subject to exploitation, either.
In the early days of Rock ‘n’ Roll the popularity of black music was alarming enough to the record industry that they created a category specifically for black music called “R&B”; Bo Diddley referred to it as “Rip-off and Bullshit”. How’s that? Because white musicians would take the same songs and make them big hits, paying black musicians little (the “rip-off”) and confining them to their own segregated charts (the “bullshit”). Elvis made his whole career as the first white man who could sing like a black man, and became wildly successful through exploitation.
What Ms. Seltzer was attempting to achieve was the same exploitation. If it wasn’t for her sister, she might have pulled it off, too. In 2008.
This story is troubling for so many reasons, but what is important is that it puts into stark relief the racism and exploitation that is present in at least one corner of the publishing industry. The smallest knowledge of what the Hell they were dealing with would have told them that this was nonsense, but they believed it out of their own desperation and extraordinarily small view of the world.
The publishing industry needs to demand far, far more if it wants to restore not only its credibility, but also its relevance.