Observations of life by author and poet Charles L. Chatmon
This week, due to our new partnership with the L.A. Southwest College English department, the L.A. Black Book Expo joined with the school and its associates, Morningside Park Chronicle and Puente Program for their annual Say The Word celebration of poetry and spoken word. Our segment, not necessarily of that genre was a panel discussion with two lovely ladies, Ms. Robbie Butler (Ms. Single Mom: Yes You Can!) and Cheryl Dorsey (The Creation of a Manifesto: Black & Blue). Our topic was based on Richard Wright's 'The Blueprint of Negro Writing'. The title for our version; The Blueprint for Success.
As moderator, I enjoyed the information between Cheryl and Robbie as they talked about their books, experiences and advice to the young people who stayed to hear them both. One point mentioned by one of the ladies stood out in my mind during the conversation in addressing a blueprint for the next generation: be honest. This is something I have to agree with wholeheartedly. When it comes to this art of crafting stories or disseminating information to a reading public, the only requirement as a writer that your audience requires is that you share the facts from your heart what you know to be true, no matter what the subject. In keeping with the tone of the conversation, the true blueprint for success as a writer is to express truth in your writing. It may make a few in power uncomfortable and even as we hear in church, 'step on toes', but for this twenty-first century literary crowd, the only way a writer can achieve success with his or her fans, is just be honest.
Many people know about James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces which put him in the spotlight especially after winning an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey that caused his sales to go up. After it was found out most of what Frey wrote in his memoir wasn't true, the following clip shows you what happens when you cross the path of a person as influential as Ms. Winfrey herself:
Now this would be the 'death knell' of a writer, any writer to be placed in a platform such as Oprah's Book Club where sheâs promoting the work because she believes it and wants it to be successful. Once itâs been revealed it is less than what she or even her fans expected - the trust factor between reader and author are severed, never to be sown again. However, it does take a bit of âclearing the airâ as Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Frey have done in this clip.
So while reader and author can reconcile on some level, the trust factor, the one quality needed to gain and build a fan base in this competitive market, is hard to get back. To be fair to Mr. Frey, he has rebounded in a way, writing at least two books since that incident. Also to be fair, heâs not the only one as this link reveals and also the following author mentioned below.
Margaret B. Jones ( Margaret Seltzer, real name) is another author who built a trust factor with readers when her book, Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival came out in 2008. When it was released, her account growing up as a half white, half Native American child who became associated with one street gang based out of L.A. I recall when this book was touted on local media in Los Angeles, how this now proved to be unbelievable story captivated the literary world. Ms. Seltzer under her alias was invited to hold book signing in bookstores, interviews on the radio, etc.
In this deservedly scathing article by L.A. Times writer Sandy Banks (penned the same year), she blasts Seltzer's work as truly as it was meant to be - fiction. Part of the blame goes as Ms. Banks mentions, to her publisher who didn't take the time to fact check Margaret B. Jones's background. Unlike James Frey, once she was exposed as fully white, grew up with her biological parents in the upscale San Fernando Valley community of Sherman Oaks and attended Campbell Hall, an affluent Episcopalian day school in the North Hollywood area of Los Angeles. Even Motoko Rich of the New York Times offered her own critical opinion of Ms. Seltzer's work. This proves you don't have to be Oprah to smell a fictitious book under the category of non-fiction to smell a fake, but once you do and you're a part of media (although they have their own trust issues of their own. Look up Jayson Blair), authors who take the fraud route have no chance of redemption, ever. Trust factor blown, never to recover.
By the way, this is the only video of her on the internet where in her guise as Margaret B. Jones, she describes life in the hood. Six years later (she was even outed that year), we know none of this to be true. Unlike Frey, she has not recovered as an author and perhaps never will.
As I stood hearing Cheryl and Robbie yesterday at L.A. Southwest about honesty in your writing, I wondered in our increasingly growing literary community of writers and authors, how much of our written works is factual and how much is sensationalistic? It's hard to tell and even for publishers, unless they have fact checkers on staff, they can get caught up in the fabrication as well. With this in mind, readers should remind themselves whenever they purchase a book it should come with the mindset of âbuyer bewareâ. Either the author wrote a book with engaging subject matter they can believe in, or if it's found the contents of the book are a hoax, their time and money may be lost. It's all a matter of trust.