Let’s Bring Back Novels! (Updated)*

love-and-consequences.jpgMemoirs are great, if they’re well-written, tell a compelling story and…are true! 

If you’re Margaret B. Jones Seltzer, here’s the situation with which you were faced:  You’ve been “working to reduce gang violence in Los Angeles,” and spent a brief time in a school gangster types attended, despite your generally affluent existence.  So you’ve had a glimpse of that kind of life.  And you’re a writer. You’ve got an imagination.  

Imagination is nothing to be ashamed of.  

Until about 10 years ago, when the memoir trend hit the publishing industry, you’d write a novel that combined what you know with what you imagined.  You might be like Tom Wolfe, and imbue it with the fruits of journalistic research.  Or you might pin your observations to a genre — crime fiction, say.  As a novelist, you’ve got license to tell your story however you want, as long as it’s labeled “fiction.”

But now, publishers want truth.  Or what they can sell as the truth. As a serious novel,  Seltzer’s Love and Consequences wouldn’t have had much of a commercial prospect.  But as a memoir, it looked like a big seller.

James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, another false memoir, says he initially tried to peddle his writing about life as a drug addict as a novel, but no one bit.  Since this was a novel based on his life experiences at least in part, it didn’t seem like a stretch to change the book into a memoir.  But he left in the parts he made up.

“I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require,” Mr. Frey said in an author’s note released yesterday that will be included in future editions of the book. “I altered events all the way through the book,” he added.

Because that’s what we do when we tell stories.  We don’t sit and recite facts and expect the audience to stay interested.   Even if all the materials we’re working with are in fact true, we shape them.  It occured to many writers to go beyond mere “shaping,” but that’s okay, they could call it fiction. 

At its inception as a communications medium, the novel was a fundamentally journalistic exercise; truth, but not literally true.  Daniel Defoe, by most accounts the father of the English novel, was originally a journalist and pamphleteer whose most famous fictions, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders were extensions of his journalistic activism — Crusoe, an adventure-filled parable, and Flanders, a tour of different tiers of London society in the mid-1700s.   Flanders’ saga reflected what Defoe knew of the streets he worked as a political tribune.  Crusoe’s tale a reflection of his thinking on colonialism, economics, morality and faith.  The things he described didn’t happen, but they reflected a lifetime observing things that did.

Margaret Seltzer’s observations of the 21st century equivalent of London’s demi-monde could have been valuable.  She comes off as a sincere social critic:

“For whatever reason, I was really torn and I thought it was my opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to,” Ms. Seltzer said. “I was in a position where at one point people said you should speak for us because nobody else is going to let us in to talk. Maybe it’s an ego thing — I don’t know. I just felt that there was good that I could do and there was no other way that someone would listen to it.”

Seltzer bowed to publishing realities and turned herself into someone who will have a hard time ever being believed again.  She’s a fool and a liar and all that.  But her story strikes me as tragic, too.  A different publishing ethic might have prevented Seltzer from travelling a dark path.  I haven’t read the book — and won’t, since it’s been withdrawn by the publisher — but I suspect it had the makings of a decent novel.  But nobody wants novels like that anymore, or so publishers think.

*UPDATE, 3/4:  If you want a good laugh at Seltzer’s expense, read this cringeworthy interview from her publicity materials.  It was posted on Gawker.  A sample:

Q: How did this book originate?

A: During my senior year of college one of my professors told me a friend of hers was working on a book and wanted to interview me. I declined. I wasn’t interested in the whole “South-Central-as-petting-zoo” thing. Then my home girl said the teacher might mess around and fail me for rejecting her friend, so I ended up calling the author and doing the interview. She was real nice and asked me if I had ever written anything. I ended up giving her one of a number of short stories I had written for my brothers’ kids and for the kids of my homies serving life sentences.