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Why Book Reviewers Let Margaret Jones Slide

nonbook.jpg“I’m a critic who was assigned to review Love and Consequences,” says a reader who chose to email me anonymously for fairly obvious reasons. “I had my doubts about the book, but they were smoothed over by the requisite note that names had been changed, experiences conflated, etc… I ignored my instincts, though, because I don’t think it’s a critic’s job to vet memoirs, and the story was compelling and well-written.” (As an occasional book reviewer myself, I’m not entirely unsympathetic; very few publications pay non-staff reviewers enough to make it financially worthwhile for them to do anything more than have an opinion unless they can spot something blatantly inaccurate.)

Anyway, the hoopla of the last few days, once Peggy Seltzer‘s phoniness was exposed, has that anonymous reviewer thinking wistfully of One Small Boat, “a great memoir by a foster parent [Kathy Harrison] about the work she does and the people she’s met that got very little attention when published a couple years ago.” (S/he might actually be thinking of Harrison’s first memoir, Another Place at the Table, but no matter—and, of course, she’s not to be confused with Kathryn Harrison.)

“That’s the truly shameful thing here,” this reviewer reflects, “that we react to the scandal, but not to a story of someone doing honest and earnest work. That’s how the ‘Margaret B. Joneses’ of the world are made.”

But if it’s not the critic’s job to vet memoirs, journalists are certainly rising to the occasion of vetting memoirists. As more and more information about Seltzer comes out—like now we find out maybe she didn’t even volunteer in the hoodKevin Allman is trying to put the pieces together. With the Radar coverage of Seltzer’s old AOL postings and what Allman himself discovered about her connections to anarchist environmentalists in her adopted Oregon homeland, he’s suggesting that the real story might not be in Los Angeles—where Motoko Rich has discovered that real anti-gang violence activists have never heard of her—but in Eugene’s “eco-communities.”

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