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?