Friday, March 07, 2008

Will the Honest Memoirist Please Stand Up?

This week saw the unmasking of two more memoirists, making this officially -- if it wasn’t already -- a trend. My favorite was the less covered of the two, which led to this amazing correction: “The author was never trapped in the Warsaw ghetto. Neither was she adopted by wolves who protected her from the Nazis...”

If you’re going to lie, I think, lie big. I was raised by a family of bilingual chipmunks in the crawl space underneath the country estate of J.P. Morgan. That kind of thing.

The bullshit that generated more ink was found in a book called Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones. The author wrote that she had been a half-white, half-Native American child raised in a South Central foster home, where she ran drugs for a gang. It turned out that the author had worked with gang members, and used their experiences to create a "memoir" that might call attention to their lives.

Over at Paper Cuts, Rachel Donadio wrote, “Memoirs are seen as more authentic than novels. And we earnest Americans, raised to value hard work and plain talk, will always choose faux authenticity over real artifice.” Donadio has a point, but that choice -- faux authenticity vs. real artifice -- doesn’t seem the most relevant one here. After all, there is a certain kind of authenticity that a memoir not made from total fabrications can be said to have, and some readers might simply prefer such a thing without being overly earnest or gullible.

The larger issue that these scandals raise is fact-checking. Having spent several years in the den of editorial iniquity that is book publishing, here’s my take:

Some editors are publishing 20, 25 books a year. Needless to say, at something like two weeks per book -- and given the ridiculous number of non-editorial duties now handled, at least passingly, by editors -- that’s barely enough time to line edit, much less make useful broader changes or fact-check. In many cases, the lack of investigation is reasonable. At conscientious magazines, the fact-checking of a single essay can take several days. With their amount of text, book publishers just don't have that time. And what's at stake in journalistic outlets is the magazine's name, which needs more protecting than the name of a book imprint. If Harper's or The Atlantic published a series of articles packed with lies, many people would rightfully stop reading those magazines. Book publishers don't have that motivation. Lots of readers will surely look askance at the future work of frauds, if there is any, but no one's going to stop themselves from buying Nick Hornby's next novel just because Riverhead also published Jones' book.

Still, publishing as a whole would clearly benefit from a bit of image scrubbing. Sarah McGrath, the editor who acquired Jones’ memoir, can’t be faulted for ills that are embedded in the industry. But the problem is, everyone claims plausible deniability, other than the writer. The buck stops nowhere. What about the agent who takes on the writer? The author him- or herself is ultimately responsible, but it's hard to make their word the initial stamp of approval -- there’s an awful lot that happens between an author deciding to spin a tale and a consumer paying for the book at a cash register. Is our standard really going to be: Blame the pathological liar?

It seems, at the very least, that publishers could take a small but critical step to lessen the problem. Eye-opening memoirs, though they garner a lot of headlines, are still just a percentage of the books published. It doesn’t seem onerous to suggest that when a proposal for one comes across a publisher’s desk that they make a few phone calls to check the larger, most outrageous claims being made. This might not keep someone like James Frey from embellishing things, but it seems very likely it would turn up the fact that, rather than being raised in a foster home with gang members and an African-American head of household named Big Mom, the details of an author’s life are these:
Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed.


Anonymous Kevin Longrie said...

Love and Consequences.

But yeah, am I the only one that has always read memoirs the way I watch films "inspired by a true story?"

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

Terrific post, JMW.

The controversy over fictitious memoirs never ceases to entertain me. As long as readers continue to state a bias against a good novel - like the character in Sideways who didn't want to waste time reading something somebody made up - you'll continue to have these sham memoirs coming out.

What I don't understand is why most of them have to involve a character on drugs and their rehab. I would much rather read about someone raised by bilingual chipmunks.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Cartooniste said...

One of the things interesting to me, too, as someone dipping her toe into publishing for the first time, is that much of the publicity infrastructure around these kinds of books not only prefers, but seems to demand, the implausible. I saw the first draft of a press release announcing the sale of a novel, and the author told me that it was fully 50% wrong, in both historical and personal details. He had to be very forceful in demanding that the release be corrected. All the inaccuracies where details that made the author's backstory "better," from a marketing standpoint, and I can easily imagine a scenario where an author might not be so forceful.
Of course the final responsibility lies with the author, no question. But it is not only the reading public who likes juicy implausibility- it is the publishing world as well.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous pf said...

I'm with the first commenter. Didn't the term "memoir" used to suggest grey area, and soft-focus (pick your metaphor)?

10:42 AM  

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