The Times just posted a fascinating follow-up article on the saga of fake memoirist Magaret Seltzer, the well-off white lady who pretended to be a half-Native American gangbanger raised by a foster parent in the ghetto. In it, we learn that none of the editors or publishers involved in the publication of Seltzer's book or subsequent articles about it feels particularly badly about not detecting Seltzer's lies, because the author lied like a crazy person, enlisted a couple of fake foster siblings and it's not like anyone saw this coming. "The one thing we wish," Riverhead Books publisher Geoffrey Kloske told the Times, "is that the author had told us the truth." Kloske's people, along with the Times itself, were suspicious enough that they did some fact checking, but couldn't manage more than the sad and weak sort of fact checking sadly lacking in primary sources. Here, for example, is how Penguin Group editor Sarah McGrath plumbed the depths of Seltzer's background, or, uh, didn't:
Ms. McGrath, who never met Ms. Seltzer during three years spent editing the book, said Ms. Seltzer, who lives in Eugene, Ore., had provided what she said were photographs of her foster siblings, a letter from a gang leader corroborating her story and had introduced her agent, Faye Bender, to a person who claimed to be a foster sister.
Ms. McGrath said she also trusted Ms. Seltzer because she had come through "a respected literary agent" who had in turn been referred to the author by a writer whom Ms. Bender had worked with previously.
Just to be clear, the evidence collected by Seltzer's publishing house, unless they forgot to tell the Times about something, consisted of an unauthenticated photograph, easily faked; an unauthenticated letter, also easily faked; and a secondhand introduction with an alleged primary actor in the memoir — much easier to fake than, say, a direct and lengthy interview with said source.
Funnier still were the standards at the Times House & Home section, which profiled Seltzer separate from Michiko Kakutani's book review. The section's legwork consisted of trying to find Seltzer family members to interview and, when that proved surprisingly difficult (go figure), tracking down a prison name and prison identification number for Uncle Madd Ronald, Seltzer's supposed gang leader. Did the Times ever reach anyone claiming to be Ronald? No. But they did get this seemingly bulletproof confirmation:
Ms. Seltzer provided a prison name and prison identification number, and a copy editor confirmed that the prison existed.
Of course the writer of the Times story, Mimi Read, thought everything would be fine because, like so many of the Manhattan media types involved in this sad affair, she figured she had a good innate sense of what a ghetto-raised ex-gangbanger would sound like:
"The way I look at it is that it's just like when you get in a car and drive to the store - you assume that the other drivers on the road aren't psychopaths on a suicide mission," said Ms. Read, who was never told Ms. Seltzer's real name by the publisher or by Ms. Seltzer. "She seemed to be who she said she was. Nothing in her home or conversation or happenstance led me to believe otherwise."