Say you meet me at a party and I tell you that when I was 7 years old, I killed a full-grown military officer, then ran off and was nurtured by a pack of wolves. Would you believe me or begin edging away quietly, keeping the snack table between us at all times?
Or say I'm a healthy-looking, articulate young white woman, and I tell you I used to work for the Bloods in L.A.—a full-time gun-strapped gangbanger. Would you believe me or laugh in my unbruised, orthodontured face?
If you said you would believe these stories, then please stand by—the process of natural selection will be along for you in a moment. More likely you scoffed at the idea you'd fall for such obvious crap.
But hordes of otherwise intelligent readers did believe those ridiculous stories, as told in two recent "memoirs" later shown to be invented: Misha Defonseca's Surviving With Wolves features a child killing an SS officer and being saved by wolves, and Margaret B. Jones' Love and Consequences is a gang "memoir" by a white girl from a nice, stable family. "Misha Defonseca" was born Monique de Waal, a Belgian Catholic girl. "Margaret B. Jones," supposed author of Love and Consequences, is actually Margaret Seltzer, a white woman who grew up with her intact biological family in California's San Fernando Valley. She has none of the Native-American ancestry she claims, nor did she grow up with the black foster brothers she describes in her book.
The way Seltzer's hoax was revealed shows the gap between mainstream and literary value. When Seltzer's sister read about these claims to infamy in Love and Consequences, she was outraged and started phoning everyone she could to reveal that it was all lies.
She considered her sister's claim an insult to the family. Only within the world of the self-serving memoir is a background in violence and petty crime a thing of value. And this value is quite real, as shown by the huge success of Janet Fitch's novel, White Oleander (1999), which tells a very similar, ostensibly autobiographical story of a white L.A. girl drawn into the underworld.
Of course, when you see a picture of Seltzer's notably white face, your natural reaction is to ask, "And people believed she was a Blood? How could anybody fall for such nonsense?"
People fall for literary forgeries for several reasons, all of which are very embarrassing to the victims (which is why there's always such rage against the poor forger). Improbability is crucial to these stories, a glamorous improbability, with heroes or heroines who survive exotic forms of suffering that people do not, in fact, survive.
The first ingredient is exotic, glamorous pain. We all suffer, but most suffering is not glamorous. Audiences don't want to hear about the kind of suffering they actually endure. So to a medieval peasant sufferings like cold vermin, beatings and plague would not have been exotic or saleable. Those people wanted stories about what they didn't have, like enough to eat or a warm palace to sleep in. They told tales of palaces that fell into the possession of plucky orphans and magic tables that always overflowed with food.
If you read their stories, you'll find the suffering in the first paragraphs: "So-and-so was an orphan who was beaten every day and fed on what the pigs left. Then one day, she found a magic (noun of choice here) ...."
Fast-forward a few hundred years and you find us, the doughy descendants of those wretched peasants, so stuffed with food that we obsess on losing weight. Magic tables constantly filling with roasted goose are the last thing we want to hear about.
Only now do stories about cold and hunger without happy magical endings become popular, because that form of suffering is, for most of us, a nice distraction from the actual sufferings we undergo.