Leading article: Stranger than fiction

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The Independent Online

There's nothing like a spot of autobiographical fraud to put the cat among the literary pigeons. If there's one thing readers enjoy more than a jaw-dropping true-life tale of privation and squalor, it's a jaw-dropping true-life tale of privation and squalor that turns out to have been completely made up. Preferably by someone who has enjoyed a perfectly comfortable existence.

That's why the tale of "Margaret B Jones", who wrote a critically acclaimed life story of growing up among the gangs of South Los Angeles, is so perfect. It turns out that the author, one Margaret Seltzer, rather than being placed in a foster home and selling drugs for the Bloods, was raised by her biological family in a pleasant suburb and was educated at an expensive private school. The fact that it was Ms Seltzer's sister who blew the whistle is the icing on this modern morality fable.

The uncovering of such a fraud provides a double thrill. Readers can enjoy the tale as they might a piece of fiction. And then they can revel in the righteous indignation of being conned. One obvious question is why such fraudsters do not use their fertile imaginations to write fiction in the first place? One suspects that would be too easy; that the thrill lies as much in the pretence as the publication.

But let's not get too dismissive. We should at least acknowledge that fact and fiction have always been rather uncomfortably bound together in literature. As Franklin Pierce Adams, an American hack who was acquainted with both worlds, once observed: "The best part of the fiction in many novels is the notice that the characters are purely imaginary."