Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What Should Be Done About All These Fake Memoirs?

This may be the longest You Tell Me in history, but here goes:

What should be done about all of these fake memoirs?

Let that question percolate a little, and then let's see if your opinion changes by the end of this post.

I've been trying to process the news about two more fake memoirs surfacing, one by Misha Difonseca, who admitted that her memoir about her alleged Holocaust escape was fiction, and now Margaret Seltzer (writing as Margaret B. Jones), who concocted a story about growing up in South Central Los Angeles as a half-white/half-Native American gang member (she is white and grew up in Sherman Oaks). These fabrications, of course, follow closely on the heels of the J.T. Leroy and James Frey scandals (NYTBR blog roundup of these four here), and amid investigations by The Australian questioning elements of Ishmael Beah's memoir A LONG WAY GONE.

My first reaction is, of course, outrage that people could actually go through with these shenanigans, and resignation to the fact that the publishing industry will go through another round of beatdowns in the press and in public opinion. But after these initial reactions wore off, I'm left in a bit of a muddle. What really, should be done about this?

First off, as Michael Cader pointed out in Publishers Lunch today, I don't think people are giving enough credit to Riverhead and editor Sarah McGrath for heading this matter off before the book was published. According to today's NY Times article by Motoko Rich, knowing full well what happened in the Frey case, McGrath asked for (and received) several different pieces of corroborating evidence that backed up Seltzer's story. Seltzer's agent met with someone who claimed to be Seltzer's foster sister. McGrath and her agent did not turn a blind eye to Seltzer's fabrications and she did a more than cursory check, it just turned out that Seltzer had a whole lot more time to fake the truth than McGrath did to investigate it. Once the truth came to light, McGrath and Riverhead acted responsibly. I can't fault them on this. The book was never published and no one bought it.

But fine, so you might say, the editor did what she could do without becoming a full-on investigative reporter. So why don't publishers employ fact-checkers?

It's complicated. As Ross Douthat points out, the Atlantic fact-checks their articles, as does the New Yorker. But for the Atlantic this amounts to checking about 600,000 words per year. That's a holiday weekend in the publishing industry. It would take an army of fact-checkers even to do cursory checks of the millions of words published every year, it would be a tremendous expense, and that expense would inevitably drive up the price of books, reduce already slim margins.... I mean, are you willing to pay a lot more for a book just to root out a few bad apples?

One of the lesser-known (at least to outsiders) portions of a publishing contract is the warranty and indemnity clause. In nearly every publishing contract, the author has to warrant (i.e. promise) that they are the real author, that they have the ability to enter into the agreement, and usually when it's a work of nonfiction, they have to pledge that what they have written is true and based on sound research. If a court rules that the author has broken this warranty they're on the hook. Completely. It can seem onerous to the author to be on the hook like this and we agents negotiate the clause so that it's as fair as possible, but ultimately it's on them to tell the truth. And really, isn't this how it should be?

Another lesser-known component of memoir writing is that, from a legal standpoint, sometimes the truth HAS to be fudged to avoid defaming people, such as removing identifying details and changing names, so that the person in question can't point to the memoir and definitively identify themselves. Far from being a genre that is (or should be) held to journalistic standards, memoir is, and always has been, inherently a very squishy medium.

If anything, isn't this is all a byproduct of the drive by publishers, and in our culture in general, to want an author to be the "perfect package?" Someone whose life story is just as compelling as their work, who isn't just someone with a skill for words but someone who embodies their own work, this whole brand thing. We as a culture have become obsessed with authenticity -- it's not enough to just be talented, you also have to BE compelling. You can't just write a good book, you need to be able to sit down on a talk show host's couch and talk about your own human interest story, even if you're a novelist. The fabulists are just filling a cultural niche that we've created and which is nearly impossible to fill. It's so ironic that the more we as a culture want a great true story the more pressure there is to fake one.

Sure -- it's fun to pile on the publishers, but what really should be done about this? Should publishers bite the bullet, raise the prices on their books, employ fact-checkers and just hope that people will pay more for books when there is already incredible downward pressure on prices? Should we just treat these people as the outliers that they are, a few mistakes in an industry where thousands of books are published every year and live with a few embarrassments? Whatever the answer may be, it's not an easy one.

So now you tell me: what should be done about the fake memoirs?


Precie said...

Well, I don't know about "What Should Be Done"...but I have to admit, as a consumer, I'm becoming more and more reluctant to buy memoirs.

Adaora A. said...

I would like to say that people should present crushing proof that what they're writing about is fact but she did that. She created a world with such rich detail. She even introduced her agent to her 'gang brother' or was it sister? The information is getting to murky for me to distiguish one from the other.

It angers me. Why couldn't she just call it fiction? Some people would have identified with it, others would have thought it was great, some would have been indifferent. She lost her self-respect as a writer, and she is sucking the self-respect out of the buisness. It's people like her and Frey that make aspiring writers look bad. It's baffling to me how someone would just want to do something like this.

I don't know, it's the steriods of baseball.

The only thing about this post that gave me a bit of a chuckle was " shenanigans."

I quoted this man before but GLEN H from the movie ONCE had it right:

"What is a liar? A liar is someone who tells the truth about things that have never happened."


Josephine Damian said...

I remember James Frey saying he could not, as hard as he tried, get "Million Pieces" published as fiction, so he slapped a non-fiction label on it and - voila - instant sale.

Desperate people do desperate things. I don't think any legal or financial penalty will ever stop it; writers can get their friends and family to lie and say what they wrote is true, or have then pose as "real people" from their memoirs - all for a piece of the action - short of hooking up the writer to the lie-detector machine (even that can be beaten), I don't think any publisher can stop a wily, desperate scribe.

And I also think the celebrity culture we live in - people getting famous for no reason - is behind a lot of the mind set of these writers. Sad.

Nathan Bransford said...

I don't know how I wrote that entire post without a single reference to Templeton and The Wire.

I'm off my game. Forgive me.

Anonymous said...

But it seems to me that very basic fact checking could be done. No, an editor/publisher shouldn't be expected to go on a sluething expedition to confirm every detail of minutia in the book.

But common sense at some point should prevail.

ONE PHONE CALL to the Department of Social Services in L.A. could've confirmed if the author was in fact part of the foster care system, and upon finding she wasn't, the book could've been stopped BEFORE the contract was signed.

I don't want to pile on the editor because lord knows she's probably been humiliated enough as it is, but sometimes I think dollar signs outweigh pure common sense in this industry. Authors who can't publish a book as fiction call it a memoir instead and editors/publishers looking for "gold" fall for it in search of a bestseller.

R.C. said...

When you say that authors sign a warranty clause, so that they are "on the hook" to tell the truth, what exactly does that mean? What consequences did these authors pay? Did they lose their royalties? Were they sued? Other than being brandished a liar and having slim odds of being published again, what happens to a fake-memoir writer? (Not that those two things aren't terrible).

I'm not much of a memoir reader, so I don't follow these stories.

benwah said...

The lengths to which Margaret Jones/Seltzer went to support her fraudulent story points out how hard it is for the editor to uncover a fabrication if the writer is willing to make up facts. It's a strange situation, but given the number of books published, I can't imagine this is a hugely common occurance. More likely, I'd think, is that the abundance and availability of information today makes it more likely that fraudulent authors get exposed. Witness the various plagiarism cases of the past few years.

It is the author's product. The editor & publisher help bring it to market, but ultimately the onus is on the author for the content.

It's definitely made for interesting blog reading these past few days.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm not sure it's that simple. Do they just give out names at the Dept. of Social Services?

If they do, yeah, that would be one way to check, but I'm not sure how easy it is to verify these types of stories. I mean, look at the resources The Australian is pouring into Ishmael Beah, and they're professionals, not an editor with already too much work on their plate.

Katie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nathan Bransford said...


It varies based on the contract, but yes, if the author and/or publisher is sued based on the contents of the book the author may be on the hook for damages and sometimes legal fees. I can't get into this in too much detail or specificity because the particular clauses we have are proprietary info, but this is the framework.

Josephine Damian said...

Nathan: all those bad queries must have made you cross-eyed.

Katie said...

What should be done?

I think that those who have earned money off their lies should be fined big-time (as in all the money they made) and the proceeds go to a charity, or the country's libraries, or something like that. If the publisher loses money because the truth comes out after books are printed, and those books are taken back, then the author should have to pay those costs as well. In fact, I wouldn't blame the publishers if they start putting a clause about this in their contracts for memoirs. Of course, if the agent or editor knew and was also in on the scam, then they should be made to pay as well.

Otherwise, what CAN be done? Like you point out, the editors can't possibly make sure everything is true, and I'd hate for them to add that to their list of duties, for the same reasons that you and Jonathan Lyons pointed out.

Nope... America needs to realize that such things happen and blame no one other than the author, and the author should not gain anything through their lie.

r.c. said...

Did anyone sue James Frey? I guess what I'm getting at is that if you've written a NYT bestseller, and a sequel, you've probably made a good chunk of change. What is to stop someone who doesn't necessarily want a career as a writer from doing this to make a quick buck? And perhaps an unscrupulous publisher, too?

Did anyone ask for their money back after reading these books under false pretenses? I kinda doubt it, but I don't know if there was some sort of class action suit or not. Everyone sues for any little thing these days.

Kalynne Pudner said...

I think a new genre should be introduced. It could be called "Normative Conjecture." (That's philosophical jargon for that which coulda, shoulda, woulda been the case.)


"Dear Nathan,

Please consider reviewing my 78,000-word normative conjecture of having been raised by a pack of giant, blood-sucking koalas in the red-light district of San Bernadino."

Just be warned that the interrogative form of a normative conjecture guessed it: a rhetorical question.

Roxan said...

I'm not sure what should be done. I can only think of those who may have a compelling true life story that will be reluctant to even write it.
Not all of the facts in a person's life are recorded except in the stories told by family, friends,etc. of the person(s) involved. While they may back each other up, there no guarantee of it being the truth.

Siren Cristy aka Conspicuous Chick said...

Unfortunately, imo, Frey's career hasn't suffered a bit from his fabrication. In fact, it's made him a celebrity, which, in the current state of our society, practically guarantees him good sales of his upcoming novel. An argument could be made that his trajectory has served as a horrible example to desperate and unscrupulous writers.

Should agents and editors be responsible for a certain amount of fact checking? Yes.

Should agents lose their percentage if their client turns out to be a total fraud? Yes. I know I would be very reluctant to hire an agent I knew was affiliated with one of these projects.

Should the would-be author be required to return all advances and otherwise funds if they're revealed as total liars? Yes, without hesitation.

If we want our children to grow up with integrity and empathy, then we need to stop glomming to the television over Britney's every move, and hold our leaders accountable for their actions. The fake memoirs, and ongoing tales of simple plagarism plaguing the publishing industry are just symptoms of a much larger problem.

Adaora A. said...

James Frey supposedly said he tried to get A MILLION LITTLE PIECES published as 'fiction' but his publisher (i.e. Doubleday who publishes John Grisham's books, and some of Nora Roberts books), said it would sell better as a memoir. Why is this the case? Why is it that memoir continues to sell well when people are busted every day for lying. The author of SARA was discovered to not be the prostitute we believed but actually Laura Albert or whatever.

How often to authors go to jail for being busted as fudging their memoir? I think the royalties out weigh any minor consequences - minor to them anyways i.e. self-respect etc - which might come their way. All I've seen is these books becoming even bigger best-sellers. It's that old 'there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Do they loose royalities when cases such as these are discovered Nathan?

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, there was a class-action lawsuit against James Frey, although not many people signed up, from what I recall. I talked about it here

Publishers don't typically often go after authors for damages (the reward probably wouldn't exceed the cost), but this could, perhaps, be one element of the fallout from these false memoirs. We shall see.


Yes, typically when an author has broken their warranty the publisher may terminate the agreement -- whether this results in the forfeiture of royalties/advances paid or due depends on the agreement.

elarasophia said...

I guess it will depend on whether memoir sales noticeably drop in the wake of these scandals. If they do, then the publishers could argue cause and effect, and hire the army of fact-checkers needed to be able to assure the readers that all memoirs published by them are true.

I think readers of memoirs would be willing to pay the extra cost. I bought Ishmael Beah's book because I specifically wanted to read about his experiences, and I don't recall being overly concerned with how much it cost. Word-of-mouth was a huge factor in my decision, and after reading the book, I recommended it to others. I am hugely disappointed in the findings of the investigators, and certainly won't recommend the book to anyone now, unless the investigators conclude that the book was true. Confidence in the memoir leads directly to continuing word-of-mouth, in this case.

Anonymous said...

Selling a fictional or even partially fictional "memoir," which is supposed to be a type of NON-FICTION work, should be prosecutable as the fraud that it is.

The reason these "memoir" writers are doing this is because they are too impatient to break in to the novel market, and they want to make $$$$$ now. This is essentially a crime of intentional misrepresentation of intellectual property with the intent to mislead book publishers and customers.

If you are caucasian and write in your "memoir" that you are half Indian, that constitutes fraud. Furthermore, the publisher should be held accountable to some degree--if you're going to publish a memoir--it is up to you to uphold the veracity of the content. Yes, as Lyons points out in his blog currently also on this same topic, it would increase their costs if they have to start verifying the veracity of memoirs--however, there will probably be a significant drop in the number of memoirs submitted if all of a sudden writers get the message that the "secret backdoor" into the publishing world has been closed, and now they have to try to sell their NOVEL along with the rest of the herd. So overall, publishers might reduce the amount of work for themselves if they instituted a fact-checking policy for all memoirs about to be published.

Nathan Bransford said...


Well, actually, as the article Jonathan Lyons linked to points out (and kudos to Benwah for finding it originally) the US Court of Appeals has already ruled that publishers cannot be held liable for verifying inaccuracies in the books they publish.

Whether they SHOULD is of course a point of debate, but I doubt this will change anytime soon.

Adaora A. said...

Ok, so it all has to do with the contract then. Thanks.

One of the writers for the New York Post thought A MILLION LITTLE PIECES was shifty back in '03. Have you ever turned down books for being a little bit too 'exciting' or that seem too hot under the collar for it to be realistic. Do you just turn it down immediately or do you ask for proof straight away because you're so interested? These cases always bring up so many questions.

Anonymous said...

Wow this is so interesting. My first reaction was, wow why didn't her sister call HER first? Talk about BLOOD! Whew! now there's a story!

Personally, I am not offended if a writer for a memoir makes it up. In the movies, they say, "based on a true story." That's "based."

Close enough.

If it's a good story, it's a good story.

And, for many compelling stories, there would be lawsuits galore based on privacy issues or, in other cases, a real threat of violence to the author if some of the real people get named.

I know a few very real people who have turned down real opportunities to get very compelling stories published if it meant the facts or names would be public.

The Tabloids write crap all the time and then retract it and do so on purpose because it SELLS. The lawsuits are just a cost of that business. But then, I am still waiting on the details of the Aliens suing over that abduction accusation...

So what is this obsession, in like how could they!! about The Truth?

Newspaper people are now, in some cases, also required to give up their sources or go to jail.

In Europe, I have friends who think Americans are so naive, expecting honesty from politicians, writers, and thieves! What's next, is Mother Goose going to have to stand up and confess her tall tales too?

Jade said...

Different people have different realities when it comes to truth. I have a friend who I've known since we were both about 8 years old. She hasn't had the happiest life, and has always lived in a fantasy world - imagine my surprise after we parted ways in high school and met up again as adults, to find she'd told everyone she could find in the interim that her twin sister had died of a dreadful drug overdose when she was a teenager. Huh? She had no twin sister! No terrible drug overdose! But if she was ever to write her own memoir, that fantasy has become embedded as fact in her memory, and it will find its way onto the page. So what do you do about people who are delusional, live in fantasy worlds, or simply have terrible memories? How do you separate their fact from their fiction if they are not capable of it themselves?

Nathan Bransford said...


My BS detection meter is always turned up to high when I'm dealing with aspiring authors (no offense), so when people make extraordinary claims, whether it's about a sales track, reviews, their own life... I usually will do a cursory check before I'll even request to see more.

But as far as I know I've never dealt with someone who was a serial liar, and so I'm still sympathetic to the editor and agent involved in the Seltzer case. It seemed like they tried, but were dealing with someone really messed up.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

What should be done about fake memoirs? Get people to buy more fiction. That's what should be done. (Yes, I know - if only it were that simple!)

Fiction is a hard sell, memoir isn't nearly so tough. I've heard this from agents and editors for a long time now. In our reality TV-obsessed culture we've confused the person (or in this case, author) with the story - or, perhaps we're just becoming a culture that doesn't value the artistic process. It's much easier for a publisher to position the author as part of the story, rather than just trying to sell the story. Nobody's really figured out how to do that yet in this changed(Internet, YouTube, Facebook, Reality TV) society. But that's another issue.

But the truth is, this author would never have gotten the press she did, had her book been a novel. So - hence the pressure, on publishers, on authors, to try to find a way to rewrite a story that might have been based on the author's observations or maybe even some experience, as a full-fledged memoir.

Now, I'm not saying this excuses an author from blatantly lying to her editor and to her agent, as Seltzer did. I'm just trying to point out how our culture has changed - how few people seem to read or value fiction anymore - and how this unfortunate trend might have come to be.

Anonymous said...

Publishers don't have to fact check every line to be responsible for a product they market as nonfiction, but it seems they have to check major facts--most notably, the author's identity. Did this Jones/Seltzer go to public school in the neighborhood where she says she grew up (for example)? Her social security record will note jobs held during her life, which could place her at various times. A nonprofit I may work for does a background check of all potential employees and consultants, checking last-attained degrees, criminal records, etc. P I don't like this, but I take it they've got their reasons and have determined that these checks won't bankrupt them. Paying for such a minimal effort must be better than pulping a print run and losing the faith of your customers, and if it's still too expensive, how about reducing outlandish memoir advances and, yes, pursuing recourse against fraudulent authors. James Frey continues to reap in the bucks, doesn't he?

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, the truth certainly varies from culprit to culprit.

Non-fiction indeed!

They should have integrity like the nonfiction accounts of
Vampires, ghosts stories, haunted castles, tales of great love...

Even historians now concur that history is subjective.

My own sister, apparently, had a completely different set of parents. Same address and names. Weird!

Anonymous said...

My Life is based on fiction.

Could be the first line in a great memoir!

Jay Montville said...

What should be done, I think, is what is being done since the James Frey incident. If JT Leroy can convince actual people that he/she exists, well, then, I think the publisher and agent have done what they could. Likewise with this latest case - they asked for proof and got some. A memoir is not a newspaper article.

That said, it does have an impact on people buying memoirs as precie said. People buy memoirs instead of fiction because the memoir is supposed to be someone's memory of something that actually happened. People can disagree with that memory (see, e.g., Running With Scissors), but it's supposed to be basically true, if not True.

And a word about warranty/indemnity - while the author must agree to the clause, which, as Nathan said, protects the publisher if the author stole the work from someone else or something, it's not a great bargain for the publisher, really, or the agent. (I know! A writer having sympathy for Big Publishing!) That's because an author is usually...well, broke. Even an author with a decent "real job" or a hefty advance isn't going to have the money to make the publisher or agent whole again. So the clauses do get the publisher and agent off the hook from a liability standpoint, but it's not like Setzer is paying them back for their costs or anything. Her publisher and her agent are probably just eating those costs (not to mention their time and the hits to their reputations) and moving on.

DISCLAIMER - I haven't seen and am not commenting on Curtis Brown's warranty/indemnity clauses here. I haven't seen them. But as a lawyer, I've seen gazillions of these things and, while they are useful, they don't offer a lot of protection when the person signing the clause is just an individual.

Anonymous said...

Sentence the author to live through the pain / horrific conditions / circumstances that they describe as factual for as long as they claimed to have lived though it - or at least until the 'book' is forgotten.

Katrina Stonoff said...

I heard recently that James Frey has coined a new genre: "reality fiction." Stories "based on truth" but with fictional elements added (sometimes lots of them, and whoppers!).

In theory, I like the idea of being charged with fraud if you present fiction as fact, but in practice, it's a slippery slope. The line between "fraud" and mis-remembering is a very wide, gray space, and the potential for shutting down honest communication too risky.

I'm hoping it'll take care of itself. I've nearly stopped buying and reading memoir, and the few I do buy now are rarely the bigger-than-life, unlikely stories like Frey's. If enough people do the same, the market for "reality fiction" labeled "fact" will dry up.

Of course, I also turn the channel when Britney's latest escapade comes on, and we know THAT isn't typical, so there probably isn't much hope for intelligence triumphing over celebrity worship.

Anonymous said...

"...the US Court of Appeals has already ruled that publishers cannot be held liable for verifying inaccuracies in the books they publish."

Therein lies the heart of the problem. Until that law changes, "memoirs" simply do not have to be factually accurate. End of discussion.

Adaora A. said...

No offense taken. Agents have their reputations at stake too. As much as it makes me uncomfortable in regards to how aspiring authors might be viewed, I can't help but feel sorry for her agent, and for her publisher.

She lies better then she can tell the truth. I don't know if you can always teach an old dog new tricks.

Good to know you're BS meter is oiled and watered.

Anonymous said...

You know, it's just not safe out there.

This is exactly why I write fiction.

To hide the truth!

But nowadays, on the Today Show, I keep seeing authors of fiction getting interviewed with questions about how their work of fiction is really a reflection of their own real life experience.

You can't win!

Scott said...

Not being particularly interested in memoir, this isn't likely to change my book purchasing habits. It does, however, make me doubt any claim of a memoir as a true story, the same way I doubt horror movies and ghost stories that are presented as true stories. If somebody tells me something is true because it's a memoir, I'm cynical and automatically react the way I do when somebody says that a TV movie is true because it's "based on a true story" or that pro wrestling isn't staged or that reality shows are real.

What should be done? Dunno. Maybe publishers and bookstores should have the right to prosecute. But I think the market is likely to correct itself. As memoirs become less trusted, publishers will be less ready to seel them and readers will be less willing to buy them (maybe, although a good story presented as true interests a reader even if it's not true).

What is Truth anyway? There's often more capital-T Truth in fiction than in non-fiction.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully, in terms of publishing memoirs 'a few bad apples don't spoil a barrel' for the book-buying public.
If an author emerges as a fake, then I say agent, editor et al should drop them like a hot potato & make sure they don't make a bean from their efforts.
...apples, potatoes, beans - I feel, I too, may be a fraud. Clearly I am desperate to be a greengrocer & not an author.
Love visiting your blog Nathan.
Best Wishes from the UK

pjd said...

"Dear Nathan,
Please consider reviewing my 78,000-word normative conjecture of having been raised by a pack of giant, blood-sucking koalas in the red-light district of San Bernadino."

Just be warned that the interrogative form of a normative conjecture guessed it: a rhetorical question.

Kalynne, I think I just fell in love with you.

terryd said...

I think the time for the satirical memoir has arrived!

Anonymous said...

From another blog:

I say it's high time someone fact checked "Marley and Me." Sure, he said the dog was unruly, a slobberpuss, and overexuberant - but how do we know it's the truth? Maybe he made the whole thing up! But of course the dog has since passed on. How convenient. How utterly convenient...

Anonymous said...

If the author did indeed get close to a $100,000 advance, I think the publisher could have afforded to pay a fact checker for, say, three days. That it was a memoir from an unknown person makes it even more critical to check out. A story this unusual needs a professional fact checker, not just a busy editor who's developed a close personal trusting relationship with the author, albeit over the phone. Paying a fact checker (say, $15/hour x 24 hours - $360) would have been well worth it, considering the consequences and huge lost investment. Hire a fact checker!!

Tom Burchfield said...

The publisher has every right to get every dime they paid that writer back and I'll bet these "writers" will never publish again. Do these characters have any idea that they'll be seen as untouchable damaged goods, no matter how good their writing is? A lifetime in office cubicle hell awaits them (I pray).

BTW, Nathan, did Frey actually have to pay back his publishers? I hope so.

Call me a reactionary old fart ("OK, Tom. You're a . . . "), but I do believe strong fences make good neighbors. If it's fiction, say so. If it's non-fiction say so. If you're doing historical fiction (where the author has to--must--fictionalize and speculate), again, make it clear. We owe it to our readers, the people who put down their money to buy our books. The publishers can only do so much. The author has to be the ultimate fact checker.

Believe me, I have no plans to run myself in circles claiming my vampiric characters exist for real. It's fact. I'm making it all up!

Marva said...

All memoirs should just be considered fiction. You cannot replicate conversations years later. The truth is in the eye of the beholder and everybody knows eyewitnesses suck.

If they want to say something like "based on what I recall, but my memory isn't so hot" on the copyright page then I might believe a bit of what is written.

Paprikapink said...

Personally, I think it's a lot of fuss over not much. Memoir,'s a story. Can any of us believe any of what we we say about our lives? Okay, lots of us can believe most of it. But seriously, no one really sees the truth about themselves all the time. I think even the memoirs that have never been debunked have to be assumed to include a decent amount of bunk nevertheless.

Dwight Wannabe said...

James Frey may be the poster child for the fabricated memoir, but it really should be Augusten Burroughs.

Running with Scissors is a memoir like Kevin Federline is black.

Armistead Maupin's The Night Listener may even predate Running with Scissors.

I think the problem is rooted in the old Hollwood saw, "Based on a true story." Folks know that Hollywood is going to take a few core facts and dramatize the rest, so we've (d)evolved to the point where the writer feels he or she has license to just go ahead and mine the fictional potential of their life story first.

What can you do about it?

In this age of "branded journalism" where people subscribe to the version of the facts they are most comfortable hearing?

Answer: Five little disclaiming words on the bottom of the front cover. Based on a True Story.

Dwight Wannabe said...

Or better yet, Nathan, challenge your readers to coin the new phrase to describe a fake memoir.






Ah, I leave it to more creative minds than my own.

Nathan Bransford said...

One funny note about "based on a true story" in movies that I didn't realize but learned in New Yorker article is that the Coen Brothers put "based on a true story" at the beginning of Fargo even though that was completely false and they made that whole story up.

Morgan Dempsey said...

My crack at an answer:

People should be taught from a young age that lying isn't cool. Barring that, there should be some pretty hefty punishments for writers who do this - returning advances, paying publishers/agents for losses, et cetera. I don't think the responsibility is on the publishers to have to treat everyone like a liar. People should just be honest, and if they won't do it themselves, they should be punished.

I can bet that there's going to be a lot more "If you're lying about your memoir you owe us a million dollars" clauses in contracts now.

Although really, this just ruins it for everyone else. I saw a comment on a forumses that an agent was "wary about taking on memoirs at this moment." Way to piss in the pool, guys.

There's a section for stories people made up. It's called "fiction." If you're going to tell lies for profit, be honest about it.

Also, cheer up. You live in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet and I, stuck in San Jose, envy you :)

Kirsten said...

My two cents:
Most of these fake memoirists seem like scam artists to me. Apart from legal clauses, etc., I can't think of a foolproof method of detecting scammers...

*Winces. Tries not to think of ex-boyfriends.*

In regard to Ishmael Beah, his story was nit-picked over the dates that something occurred. There is no doubt that he wrote about his own life, and that it's a story worth reading. I don't lump him in with the scammers (who should have just labeled their books fiction, damn it). He seems like a heck of a nice guy with an interesting tale to tell.

Furious D said...

I don't know what editors and publishers should do to stop fake memoirs.

I just hope they do it after publishing my memoirs of the time I single-handedly won the Vietnam War, then went on to break the sound barrier and become the first man on the moon, and winning all the Oscars in every category in 1983 while growing up a 1/2-Irish-3/4 Scottish and 1/76 Spanish in a drug infested ghetto wedged between the fjords of Saskatchewan.

Anonymous said...

Obviously the publisher never raised a teenager.

benwah said...

Morgan: I was shopping a first-person non-fiction manuscript (not strict memoir, as I wasn't the focus, but falls under the same umbrella) a few years ago when the James Frey fiasco broke. Several agents told me to try back in a year or so as they were skittish of the genre at the moment. As you put it, the water in the pool's getting warm and green.

superwench83 said...

I think the best way to stop fake memoirs in the future is to make a huge deal about the recent slew of them. Let the authors who fabricated these lies be ridiculed, despised, scorned to the point that they're afraid to leave their homes for fear of facing humiliation. And then make sure that everyone knows of the humiliation they feel. I think this will deter other would-be fake memoirists. They'll realize how bad things will be if they get caught and be too afriad to risk it.

This probably sounds harsh, but I'm sorry; these authors deliberately deceived people in a horrible way. When I read the article about Seltzer, I was most outraged by the fact that in her "apology," she seemed like she was saying, "I didn't know I was doing wrong." That's bullcrap. She faked not only the memoir, but the evidence she thought might condemn her. Obviously, she knew exactly what she was doing. She deserves all the ridicule she gets.

Regarding comments I've read here that say all memoir is fake in a way, because authors can't remember conversations and certain details after all those years have passed.... Personally, I feel that there's a difference. When I pick up a memoir (which I don't very often), I go into it knowing that the conversations will be written differently than the way they actually happened. I feel that this is quite different than saying that you're a half-Indian former gang member when in fact you are not.

sruble said...

There's a big difference between changing a few names to protect yourself and the people you are writing about, and completely fabricating the whole thing.

I don't know what needs to happen, but maybe the memoir category needs to be redefined or broken into NF memoirs and Fiction memoirs.

BTW, I was going to say they should add "based on a true story" to all memoirs until Nathan's comment about Fargo.

I think it will be interesting to see what happens with the memoir genre.

Anonymous said...

And WHAT about ghost writers????

I mean, "THE PUBLIC" thinks that the "EXPERT" wrote the damn book, but the truth is, they are written, day and night, by ghost writers and not by the EXPERTS and I have the ghost writer friends (not that I approve, but it pays their bills) to prove it.

Just curious, but while we're on our high horses...

LindaBudz said...

If only all editors could have Gus' instincts. Of course, there'd probably always be a Klebanow in the wings, waiting to overrule their caution for the sake of publishing sexy stories. (That should be one bright spot this week ... Gus may be vindicated.)

Lorelei said...

Agents, more than just about anybody else, know that there are crazy people out there. People with a rather casual attachment to reality. Agents also know the desperation of people chasing a lifelong dream. So when a memoir comes in the door that seems too good to be true, alarm bells should go off. Agents are the first line of defense for the publishing industry. They have got to be suspicious of everything they read, not see what they want to see.

Editors look for memoirs that are over-the-top. You don't have to attend many conferences and listen to many agents and editors to realize that. An interesting life isn't enough. You need to have experienced something that will get you on the talk shows or NPR or newspapers. That's what sold this book. It wasn't the writing-- they spent three years in the editorial process trying to peel the rind off the manuscript. Early on, the desire for this crazy story overwhelmed everybody's better judgement. After all that time and money, how closely were they going to check? Not very.

Those two drives made this happen. If it hadn't been this lying/crazy writer, it would have been someone else.

Anonymous said...

Let's get him!
It's (who did you say was the guy to blame, Nahan???)

...all his fault!

Mindful Mom said...

I think by the time that something is done to curtail those who fabricate their memoirs, the trend, memoirs, will be on its way out. Maybe by next year, the public will be eager for a different genre--something fiction related.

TransformingPeople said...

As human beings, we are four times as likely to remember something bad as we are something good... which is why you choose to focus on the bogus memoirs over the ones that are true.

I think, being practical, that you should just ignore them like the nonsense they are... acknowledging that they make a great newspaper story and get people buzzing. However, if you were a mathematician and not a publisher, you would be focussing on the hundreds that are authentic.

To think that publishing should be immune from conmen is dare I day possibly naive.

Erik said...
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Anonymous said...

Look, I can't help but say this:

Andy Warhol.

HE was a fake. AND he was real.

He hired people to manufacture his artwork and then sold them like originals.
And then boasted about it and called that manufacturing "art."

And there are photographers who took pictures of other photographers' works and called it original because, technically, it was an original photograph.

In Postmodernism, it gets bizarre out there.

Tell me, then, what defines postmodern ethical?

jerzegurl said...

Kudos to Sarah McGrath who at checked out all that she could. That should be all that publishers are expected to do.

Is it possible to put a clause in a memoir contract that if there is fraud involved the writer could be sued?

Maybe if the phoney memoirs writers had to pay for false memoirs it would set an example.

Anonymous said...

Gee, don't you think that making memoir writers submit to a background check would take care of this?

Cam said...

One of the best things about being a writer is the freedom we have to "make stuff up," provided we don't claim fiction is the truth. I actually got my newspaper to print the following article during the James Frey controversy... Not only is the entire article a crock of you-know-what, but it ended up being one of my best in three years, from readers' perspectives. Fortunately, readers were bright enough to know it was a gag... Then just last month this article became the inspiration for a new fiction project (Read: FICTION). You're right Nathan, et al: The onus is on the author.
For a 550 word chuckle on the topic, check it out:


Jackie said...

is anyone out there in cyberland???

Therese Walsh said...

Okay, I used to work as a researcher and fact checker for Prevention Magazine. Every single article in that magazine was checked on a monthly basis and it still retailed for $2.49 per issue. Would it really mean an increase in the cover price of a memoir to have someone take a few hours out of their day to make a call or two to verify claims by an author? Sorry, but I don't buy it.

Another thing that irks me: Why don't these authors just call their works FICTION? Is there such shame in it? C'mon, people.

Just_Me said...

Skip the fact checkers and add some PR to "fictional memoirs". Raising prices won't encourage me to read memoirs, I don't like them enough to buy them already. But a fictionalized life, that's a different genre and it's still a genre that sells well.

As for the authors who lied.... Is blacklisting to harsh? Maybe tar and feathering them? Or maybe making them sit through high school English until they understand the difference betweem fiction and non-fiction? To give them fair due, they wrote good books, they just labeled them wrong.

Stephe said...

I didn't buy Frey's novel because my sister-in-law already had it and was gushing over it a la Oprah with the rest of the world, so I simply read hers. At the time, I was struggling to polish my own fiction and get a foot in the publishing door, and I thought Man, if only I had a good memoir in me too... You know, that I'm truly glad for another fellow writer to make it, but I wish it was me syndrome.

To find out he'd lied really pissed me off for a good minute. Yet another person getting a break they didn't deserve, and probably taking that break from someone else.

I don't know that there's anything that can be done about this fake memoir craze. People are just too inventive; there will always be yet another way to get around the fact checkers. I can only take a personal stand in my teeny piece of the world. I haven't bought a memoir since before Frey; I have no intentions of ever buying one again.

It won't be that difficult, believe me.

(with the exception of a homeboy makes it to the top memoir by some dude named Nathan Bransford ;)

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
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Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
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Erik said...

Several problems here:

First of all, wanda is, as usual, spot on. I heard the interview this woman gave, and her fake accent is nothing less than appalling. Many other people caught this over the weekend on the site it was posted, so it's not just me. There were red flags all over this.

Second, this was elaborate enough to be called one thing - a con. Like all victims of a con, they believed the lies because they wanted to. You want to stop the cons? You have to figure out why people are so desperate to believe. The main issue is an utter lack of street.

Lastly, the real problem here is that you can pitch nothing more than an idea and an outline for a non-fiction book but fiction requires you to finish the work and then laboriously shop it around. There is a tremendous incentive to call whatever you have in mind a "memoir". The industry has very bad incentives built into it.

So, what to change? Get people with some sense of reality, or who at least know their own limits, and change the incentives that are screwed up. That's my pitch.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why writers with enough gusto and imagination to come up with what is essentially a great plot line don't just put it in a novel? Reading a novel loosely based on a person's life seems like an easier option anyway (and I think the author would breathe easier trying not to keep up a lie). I think it's weirdly interesting when a person dreams up that much life. I wonder if almost everyone has done it to a point, maybe? You take something that is real, replace some of the foggy details, and you sell it to yourself so well it becomes the new "memory". Not saying it's a good thing or that those authors are off the hook (I'm glad their projects were pulled), but still. In the time it took one writer to craft a lie she could have had a cool piece of fiction.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine how a person could lie so easily and readily. It is plain wrong, and I don't support anyone doing it.

However, why does it matter so much to the people who read the memoir? If it was an interesting and entertaining story, why does it make any difference whether or not it was a true story? How does it being true affect the enjoyment of it? I'm sure these fake memoirs made people think about different lifestyles and the pain/circumstances that others face, just as much as they would have if they were true stories. Why are people so upset, really? I can't imagine people suing over it. How have they been harmed? They thought something was a true story and it wasn't - that happens all over the place, not in memoirs, but in life. Watch the news and see how the events of situations change all the time. Did these people donate money or give money to causes or the author because of the books (other than by buying the book)? Where is the damage to the readers? Many of the events in these fake memoirs are the types of things that have happened to actual people.

I don't read memoirs for the most part - the occassional memoir of an already famous person who has done something amazing and I want to know more about his/her journey to that event...other than that, it's not a big pull for me. It does not make a story more interesting to me. I really don't see what the draw to memoirs is anyway.

Anonymous said...

Since the story was so over-the-top and set in the wilds of druggie-ville, wouldn't ya think that perhaps, maybe, just maybe, at one time or another, there may have been some POLICE RECORDS about some little girl caught in the middle of a gang war? Or was all this happening in the clouds somewhere, ya think? Why on earth *would* this story even be plausible? Anyway, I think that not checking out Seltzer's story was just plain dumb, especially on her agent's part. I don't feel sorry for her agent at all, but I do feel for the editor because she was sold a bill of bad goods.

Nathan Bransford said...


Do you know how to check police records? I sure don't. And what if the author said they'd never been arrested? You would check the records in the LA area anyway?

Believe me -- I try and do my due diligence, checking up on claims authors make to me. But I'm also not a professional private investigator.

The agent met with someone pretending to be the author's foster sister. I mean... when the author is taking it to that level I'm guessing a whoooole lot of us would have gotten taken in. Maybe the BS meter was in the shop, but I really can't easily pass judgments on this one.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
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leesmiley said...

I think what will happen is what happens in all business rocked by scandal: the least amount possible so that business can continue. The onus will fall to the writers of memiors, making it hard to get one published. The only thing that might be more difficult will be a memior about a vampire.

If publishers and agents are expected to check the backgrounds of every memior they accept, the obvious answer is that few memiors will hit the shelves.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...
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Other Lisa said...

I don't know what to do about fake memoirs - though I'm really astounded that people are still putting them out. But I do know that combining fact and fiction can be very problematic legally.

I used to do errors and omissions insurance research for films and television - basically anything that airs theatrically/on the tee-vee has to have insurance against certain kinds of lawsuits. For example, fictionalization of names of real people does not necessarily protect a literary property from litigation. If people can be identified in a text, they can sue if they don't like the portrayal. Even if they can't win a lawsuit, it's a nuisance, and studios try to prevent nuisance lawsuits.

Anyway, I don't know how many you remember the film, MISSISSIPPI BURNING. The film was loosely based on the murder of the three civil rights workers in the 60s. "Loosely" although it went out of its way to establish that this was the story they were telling, down to duplicating the contents of the real victims' car in the fictional version.

Then, however, the movie takes a turn into fantasy land. The FBI does all kinds of things the FBI never did in real life, the fictional mayor kills himself, and the fictional sheriff is convicted of the murders.

In real life, the real sheriff was tried and acquitted. Now, this real guy may be a racist murderer, or not, but the fact is, he was acquitted of the crime. He sees this movie, goes, "hey, that's ME they are portraying, and I was judged innocent in a court of law." Sues the studio who made the film. And won, something like eight million bucks.

So you have to be careful when you mix fact and fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Hi there - let me, for a moment, play devil's advocate.

Is it the packaging of these false memoirs that you care about more than the content? If you'd read these memoirs believing them to be fiction, would have enjoyed them any more or less? Is this really much different from being 'sold' great sex if you buy the right toothpaste or scent?

Today, fact and fiction are mixed to great effect all around us. What part of the evening news are you really willing to take as gospel truth? Even where (as in most cases) there's no purposeful intention to deceive, in the process of editing, etc. distortion must occur. There's not such thing as the 'whole truth and nothing but the truth' - there's only someone's version of it.

Likewise, I'm certain that each day each of us says something that's 'not quite true' - granted for a variety of excellent reasons. Ever said 'have a nice day' when you'd really have like to say something like 'go to hell'?

What I'm suggesting is that before we can answer the question of what is to be done about fake memoirs, we have to genuinely come to grips with what it is about then that upsets us so!

CharityH said...

For the sake of argument:

We're talking about shades of gray when it comes to memoirs and truth. Frankly, it surprises me that so many people are shocked that every printed word is not the end-all truth.

Everything is generally subjective, our own lives in particular. So what if someone didn't have a twin sister? So what if the house of one's birth is green rather than blue? Dialog in memoir is accepted to be a paraphrase; why can we read narrative memory this way?

I understand that somethings are beyond subjectivity, like ethnicity and geography--but really, if the book teaches, resonates, grips, etc., why hold it to such rigid standards of truth?

It's not a college textbook from the chemistry shelf.

Bob Day said...

Publish mine. It is all true, and I can prove it.

Jackie said...

hmmm, who can I convince mine is true??? nada

Jackie said...

For me it is simple. Don't remove yourself so far from a situation in over thinking it. A persons first reaction to anything seems to be the path to a truth.Intuition is a valuable tool and can simplify so much. Start as that being "square one" and follow that path unignored.

Anonymous said...

I just began reading Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" this afternoon. (Stay with me, this is going someplace.) From her Preface, written in 1817: "The event on which this fiction is founded has been not of impossible occurrence....I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations."

The reason we're drawn to memoirs of survival is because we want to believe it is possible to survive. So when we find out the person is lying--not just forgetting the facts of her history--we feel betrayed for investing not our money, but our faith and hope.

I don't read memoirs because I don't trust them--not since taking a class my senior year of college on "the autobiographical novel." By the end of the semester, I realized there is no such thing as pure truth when it comes to memories. One of the students presented her senior paper and had the whole class crying over her battle with cancer when she was younger. The next day she confessed she never had cancer, and the teacher knew this when she took on the assignment. The professor's point was to show us that the truth doesn't matter as much as our reaction to the story. It just served to piss most of us off, though.

I'm sure there are plenty of good memoirs out there that are as close to the truth as the author could honestly recall the facts, but I would much rather invest my time in a novel that, like "Frankenstein," preserves human nature through any combination of its principles.

As for what can be done? You know what can be done. Publishers know and agents know. There have been 85 posts already and everyone who's written in knows. Whether anything will be done about the false memoirs is a completely different issue. As long as people buy them, wanting to be suckered in, there will be a market.

Jackie said...

a truth is an individual belief and is interpreted by each person differently (everyone percieves their own truth by seeing things differently). My policy is to ponder a truth and then move on, life is to learn and enjoy. Every person is entitled to their own truth, whether other people agree or not.

M Clement Hall said...

If she had submitted her "false memoir" as simple fiction, would any agent or editor have taken it up?
Isn't the really sad part about this that she had to lie to get published?

Anonymous said...

After reading through Nathan's post and the 88 thoughtful comments, I have to weigh in with my opinion(s). Sad to admit, we have created or allowed, perhaps even encouraged, a culture of lies, half-truths, deceits, frauds, etc. Yes, a "fake" memoir is despicable, but how can we make such a fuss over this while accepting the lies and deceit we live with daily from politicians and business? We desperately need to create a new society based on truth, honesty and integrity, and this requires a positive change in human consciousness--a change few are ready or willing to make. With money and power more important than basic human integrity, how can we expect anything different than what we have?

Peer pressure is possibly our strongest tool for creating a culture of truth and fairness, but than can work only when we live to such high standards ourselves. Then we can demand it of others.

Anonymous said...

Tweaking the conversation a bit:

"If anything, isn't this is all a byproduct of the drive by publishers, and in our culture in general, to want an author to be the "perfect package?" Someone whose life story is just as compelling as their work, who isn't just someone with a skill for words but someone who embodies their own work, this whole brand thing...."

Too right, too too right. Novelist as beauty contestant.


Jackie said...

I disagree with using Peer Pressure as a tool. Our happiness is based on our own perceptions and decisions that we have made or will make. The first lesson to be learned about people is UNDERSTANDING people. That is the first key in motivating a person. From there you can decide if that persons personality compliments what you desire. If there personality does not compliment yours it is as simple as "the glass is half full or half empty"...they are entitled to their view (with no animosity from oneself, but respect)

Anonymous said...

Sebastian Horsley, author of memoir Dandy in the Underworld, admits this privately: Jimmy Boyle and Boyle's ex-wife both deny that Boyle and Horsley ever had an affair.

Wouldn't he had to have gotten permission from Boyle to say that the affair happened? Do publishers require releases for such statements? Now, as the current generation of readers has probably never heard of Jimmy Boyle, it's not impossible that he would grant his permission.

But in the book, Horsley makes much of how afraid he still is of Boyle and how they're not in touch for years.

Sebastian Horsley is published by major publishers in the UK and the U.S. Incidentally, he's also reportedly a racist. the point being, he'll say anything to get famous. He'll now use those shock tactics to sell his so-called memoirs. So who knows what's true in THAT memoir?

Judi said...

But the whole problem is not fake memoirs. It's the dummy who decided to label memoirs nonfiction. They're not. They're not history textbooks-they're personal stories, based on a person's recollections and interpretations. And you have a range-from the fairly accurate to the you can't be serious-and you always will.

Isn't the issue more recategorizing them, and then letting the buyer beware? Letting the market determine the response? If more accurate memoirs sell better, well, that's part of the marketing isn't it? Let the publisher verify their hearts out so they can stamp on the cover "less lies, more filling" to get more sales. Or not.

Seriously, were it not for the nonfiction label, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Suzanne Nam said...

publishing companies make money off of books, and they function as marketers and distributors and are ultimately responsible for scamming readers.

indemnification deals with the relationship between the publisher and writer. it does not address the responsibilities a publishing house has to the buyers of fake memoirs.

if you buy a pair of 100% cotton jeans made by Guess (just a hypothetical!), and later discover that they are actually polyester, it's Guess' responsibility to own up to the deception.

sure, Guess probably bought the jeans from a manufacturer somewhere else, and may not have known they weren't 100% cotton, but it doesn't matter, because they stuck their name on them, just as a publisher sticks their name on a book. they are warranting to the world that the jeans are 100% cotton, just as a publisher is warranting to the world that a memoir is, indeed, non-fiction.

now, Guess will have an indemnification clause, too, and they can go after the manufacturer, but if you bought the jeans, you look to Guess for redress. why are publishers any different?

as someone who started her writing career as a magazine fact checker (after a first career as a lawyer) i agree that it's just untenable to fact check everything in a memoir.

but it's not that hard or expensive to ask for school records, family photos, birth certificate, etc. to at least prove that subject of the memoir actually existed.

is that so hard?

Anonymous said...

To Therese Walsh: unlike books, magazines sell advertising. That's probably why they can afford to fact-check each issue.

My feeling is that the loose system has been working. People are starting to get wise and investigate suspicious-sounding memoirs.

And by the way, it's worth remembering that if James Frey and JT Leroy couldnt write compelling stories no one would care either way.

Publishers should just slap a disclaimer on memoirs, the way supplement manufacturers do, i.e. "we say it makes you thin but there's no proof."

"We say it's true but there's no proof."

Erik said...

judi has an important point - that memoirs are not the same as other nonfiction.

I'm contemplating my own memoir - and I'll probably write it for my kids no matter what. But it's my own memory, and memories are faulty.

One day I happened upon the aftermath of a particularly bloody assassination in the Medellin/Cali cartel war. It weighs on my outlook on life to this day, and I still have a bit of a fear of police disco lights. While I remember every detail of the scene, what about the rest of it?

I think it was in January 1983, but I'm not sure. I remember it as being near 124th St and 77 Ave, but that doesn't jibe with what I remember doing before. If I get Lexus/Nexus access soon, I can research it, but that will certainly push my "memories" in a direction I didn't precisely remember.

When you make a compelling narrative out of your own life, you start from bad memories and you push them into a direction where they appear to make sense. Life itself doesn't make sense at all. I can remember bits and pieces, but I can't sew together the context under which they happened.

Wanna fact check any of this?

The problem, for me, comes in how you define "truth". Even fictional stories need to be "true", in the sense that they are representing people and cultures in a way that depicts their outlook on life. I learned as a kid in Miami that "reality" is very different from "truth", however, and that's what a good hunk of my memoir is about.

All writers must speak from "truth". I don't care if it's a memoir or fable, they have to be "true". Ms. Seltzer's story was not only not "real", it wasn't "true", and that's the problem. It wasn't her story to write far beyond not being an actual memoir. To compose a memoir is to adhere to an even higher standard of "truth" even if some of the bits that weave it together into a compelling narrative aren't precisely "real".

Does that make sense? Hopefully, it doesn't, otherwise I haven't done my job.

The point remains, however, that it's not exactly "non-fiction" in the purest sense no matter how you look at it.

Suzanne Nam said...

erik, maybe seltzer thought she was telling the "truth" even though she had to lie to tell it. only a few people read the book, so who knows, right? maybe it was the "truthiest" fake ever.

that's not the problem.

the problem is she said she was writing a memoir and she was writing fiction.

i can't define truth, nor can i fact check whether your heart was pounding in 1983.

i can check some basics tho.

Therese Walsh said...

To Anonymous:
Yes, magazines sell advertising and that advertising helps to pay for all staff, including the researchers. However, Rodale Press also has a huge book division and all of their books are also fact-checked. Umbrella situation? Maybe. Responsible publishing? Yes. Or is it just a nonfic thing to understand the importance of reputation and investing a little brainpower at the start?

I agree with Wanda: not everything can be fact-checked and some details might only seem false based on gut feel. But there certainly are facts which can be verified. Don't you think the knowledge of a pre-publication check might make the authors of these memoirs try just a little harder to be honest?

Nanette said...

Why can't the author submit the book as fiction and be done with it?

Another small point is this: I wrote a memoir I'm trying to sell, and if someone asks Mayor Bloomberg if the stuff I said about what REALLY goes on in NYC homeless shelters is true, he will deny it. He has already denied it to me, even though I was there. But I guess the editors could find other people who were there and ask them. My point is that on some things, the VILLAIN will deny what the author says to save his/her skin. I'm sure my mother, if she's still alive if my memoir gets published will deny everything I said and most people who were witness are dead or there whereabouts are not known. And my brothers won't say anything, afraid to not get the inheritance.

just a few things to think about.


val said...

Unfortunately, my dial-up is balking at loading the just-shy of 100 comments that are ahead of me so I apologize if I'm repeating something someone else has already commented. That said...

The film industry has long used a phrase that I think the publishing industry could adopt as a new genre: "Based on a true story". In the "Based on" genre, fiction and nonfiction (memoir/history) can blend and interweave. Some few real life individuals can move through real events alongside fictional characters (think: Forest Gump).

Could give reviewers and book clubs new fodder for discussion: which parts/characters were real/which were fabricated.

Just a thought...

Erik said...

suzanne nam said:
> erik, maybe seltzer thought she was telling the "truth" even though she had to lie to tell it.

Yes, you are correct that she thought this - or I'll at least give her the benefit of the doubt. But it wasn't her story to tell.

Stealing someone else's story is the same as stealing their soul. If you want to honor those that really have no voice, possibly because they are dead, you have to really work at it. Anyone who's had to give a eulogy will tell you how hard it is.

I've had a moment from my childhood ripped off and used sensationally in a "Miami Vice" episode. I haven't forgiven television for that shameful act since. To be "true" is to really be a part of the moment and to depict it just as those who were there either reacted or would have reacted. It's hard stuff, but it's what makes works compelling IMHO.

You're probably right that she thought she was somehow being "true" - but I can assure you that after listening to her fake accent and reading a few bits of her work it wasn't. That wasn't her story to write, and I don't care how compelling it sounded. Besides, after three years and all that professional coaching/editing it better damned well at least sound compelling.

I am arguing that "true" is in the heart, while "real" is something out there in the mist. The village of Macondo is very true, even if it isn't real. Reality, I find, is grossly over-rated by this analysis.

Suzanne Nam said...

erik, what is this "not her story to tell" stuff? as far as i knew, the universe and beyond was fair game for fiction writers (tho seltzer claimed not to be one).

the true/real dichotomy is silly and so is the idea of "stealing someone's story." was wally lamb stealing someone's story?! was ishiguro?! (list goes on and on and on)

benwah said...

Because memoir falls under non-fiction, presumably it can be pitched prior to completion of the writing. The NF proposal process is somewhat different from the fiction process which dictates a completed manuscript. If somebody has a good NF idea & proposal, that might be enough to hook an agent and publisher. Which could mean that the barrier to entry, as it were, would be lower than with fiction. Once an author's been given a contract, the pressure to continue the story is greater. Who knows. I'm not condoning the practice, I'm just wondering aloud.

I'm also amused at the people who've said that obviously memoirs are faked, hanging their hats on the idea that dialogue can't be re-created with any fidelity. But isn't there a HUGE difference between reconstructing a conversation vs. claiming a completely fabricated existence, constructing supporting documents and individuals (as Seltzer did)? In many memoirs you often read the disclaimer that dialogue is reconstructed "to the best of the author's ability." That's poetic license. Claiming different parentage seems to fall far outside that particular shade of gray.

Ultimately, I don't think this is a huge crisis in publishing. I think these fakes are and will be easier to spot going forward simply because of the abundance of information out there. But I doubt there are more fakes now then ever before.

Erik said...

suzanne nam:

Obviously, we disagree to the point that you aren't willing to consider what I'm saying. That's fine.

Wally Lamb is a person who values "truth" in fiction very highly, and I would think that this is obvious. He is a good example of what I'm saying.

Why was this story not Ms. Seltzer's to tell? Because it is clear that she didn't know enough about her subject to be able to, as Lamb would say, let the characters do what comes naturally to them.

You may think you're a great writer, and for all I know you are. Let's just assume that. But you are not omnipotent. There are certainly subjects that would be essentially impossible for you to react to in a way other than the conventional wisdom that you were raised in. That means that by attempting to tell that story you will be recounting background noise and your own prejudice.

I could not write a story about a rich white person who went to an Ivy League school and have it come off as "true". That's not my world. If I tried, the result would be laughable. I know this.

To assume that a writer can write absolutely anything, regardless of the culture it comes from, is the root of the echo chamber that reinforces prejudice. I will accept that a writer who understands that they know nothing could, in time, be capable of becoming very wise and writing about anything. But you first have to ditch the idea that anything is open to you - then, and only then, it might wind up being accurate.

Many of you will realize that I am hinting at something without using a very loaded word. I am trying to open a mind or two, not level charges. I find it's better to change the world rather than complain about it.

Writers are invited into someone's head for a while. What do you say when you get in there? Do you offer candy or nutrition? Do you dribble poison? The relationship between the writer and the reader determines a lot of what is retained. But I happen to believe that the author has a steep responsibility to behave themselves and offer something to their host - something that is at least "true".

CherrySoda said...

Erik, I must respectfully disagree with you. Did Shakespeare write truthfully about kings and peasants? About the love of a black man for a white woman?

In this age of identity politics, it seems to me we're all too willing to surrender what can most help us understand one another: the gift of imaginative empathy.

I hope that all writers possess and cherish this, and don't let anyone intimidate them into thinking they can't write about whatsoever they wish.

Not a memoir, of course! :)

Nona said...

In my opinion, writing a fake memoir should fall under the "breach of contract" clause in a legal agreement with the author.

Literary agecies should consult an experienced IP (Intellectual Property) attorney for help in drawing up an air-tight contract with the would-be author. An ounce of prevention here beats a pound of cure.

The burden of proof (regarding authenticity) should rest on the author, not on the agent or publisher.

Cam said...

Hey, all - I just thought of another reason why (lazy) writers may try to pass off fiction as a memoir. Which of the following might make a better back cover:

"After twenty-six year old Miley Richards fell from a cliff on a remote island in the Pacific while on a hiking trip with her fiance, she was declared missing, swept away at sea. But when Miley wakes from a coma six days after the fall, she finds that, in order to survive, she must allow herself to be raised by a pack of separatist, vegetarian beavers."

- OR -

"This moving memoir, written by a young woman with inimitable storytelling prowess, tells the astonishing survival tale of twenty-six year old Miley Richards. After Miley fell from a cliff on a remote island in the Pacific while on a hiking trip with her family in 2004, she was declared missing, assumed swept away at sea. But when Miley wakes from a coma six days after the fall, she finds that in order to survive she must allow herself to be raised by a pack of separatist, vegetarian beavers. Consumed by amnesia, Miley uses sheer determination and will -- and the love of six adoring beavers -- to overcome her injuries, and to allow her to tell her story to all."

Fact of the matter is, readers may not be as sharp as we wish they were. Look at the number of people who still watch sensational daytime TV talk shows! Is truth (even false truth) better than fiction?

I'm going to go ask my beaver family about it.


L.C.McCabe said...


I am glad you brought up this subject.

I have numerous thoughts on various aspects of this Scandal That Never Ends, and it is lengthy to include as a blog reply. Instead, if you are interested, please check out my blog where I expanded on my thoughts previously posted on Jonathon Lyon's blog.

Take care, have a good weekend, may all your clients be trustworthy and make you proud to represent them.


Sarah Kanning said...

How about this: move memoir in between fiction and nonfiction (kind of like poetry, which can be either or both within a single volume), and apply a "truthiness" scale (with a nod to Stephen Colbert). More journalistic gets higher rating, more, ahem, impressionistic gets a lower rating. That way you can tell whether you're dealing with a story that is "true" like your Uncle Ed's fishing stories, or true like most of the reportage on the front page of the New York Times.

Linda said...

Seems we writers have strong opinions about fauxmoir...

Unfortunately, I fear if you're not in the business - writer, agent, publisher - you're blissfully unaware of all this brou-haha. My literate friends had no clue of the Frey and more recent debacles involving memoir gone bad. No idea. And they still buy the books. The mainstream press just doesn't make a big deal of it.

So if you're waiting for the economics of demand and supply to kick in, keep waiting. Peace...

southernbelfry said...

Well, we could line up a few of those authors before a firing squad and perhaps it would discourage future fakes.

I've been writing for magazines for years who had fact-checkers so I knew everything I turned in would be verified. Shouldn't publishers of memoirs be doing this? Couldn't be that difficult.

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