Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Truthiness of Memoirs

Another day, another faux memoir. In Love and Consequences, Margaret Seltzer (writing as Margaret Jones) describes her life growing up half-white, half-Native American foster child in gang-infested South Central Los Angeles, running drugs for the Bloods. Too bad none of that is true.

What's a little eery is that the book was released by Riverhead, who published James Frey's second book, My Friend Leonard, and they employ the editor who originally bought A Million Little Pieces. So the next question is... how can this keep happening again and again?

First, let me point out the obvious - people have been exaggerating and fictionalizing true events and personal histories since the beginning of the written word. The only difference is that there are now tools available today to research and verify what was previously taken at face value as true.

So why doesn't the agent or publisher? Well, in the agent's case, we simply don't have the time and resources to check every detail of every book we represent. As I'm sure you've gathered by now from reading my blog, an agent's duties are varied and plentiful, and investigative journalist is just not in the job description.

So what about the editor and publisher? Well, the editor certainly doesn't have the time either to investigate fully each and every nonfiction title they edit. In fact, doing this would have to be a full time job - which is why it's journalists who are breaking the news.

So it appears to me that the only other option available is for the publisher to hire in-house or freelance investigators. Ignoring for now how this changes completely the philosophical and emotional relationship between author and publisher, it would cause havoc on the financial template of publishing, a template that already suffers.

As a result, it seems to me that the problem needs to be fixed on the writer end of things - i.e. stop lying and start calling your memoir a novel.


Heidi the Hick said...

I totally agree with your last sentence.

See, I'm a really bad liar in real life, but I love telling stories. The stories I tell aren't true. It's called fiction and it's wonderful.

If she'd just simply called her good piece of writing fiction she wouldn't be in this mess, right?

benwah said...

Two years ago I began shopping around a memoir of sorts. (A group of stories about medidine from a practitioner's point of view, ie mine. The stories weren't so much about me, per se, but it falls under the umbrella of memoir.) In any event, two weeks after I started agent hunting, Oprah fileted James Frey on her TV show. I recieved multiple letters from agents saying "Interesting, but the climate for memoir is dicey right now. Try again later." This month we've had the Holocaust survivor-raised by wolves memoir exposed as fake and now the fabricated orphan gangbanger story.

What makes me scratch my head is that it takes so much effort to write any manuscript, why risk losing it all over something like this? Is it because non-fiction seems somewhat easier to sell? Or is it that a harrowing memoir does better than a 1st person novelization of the same events?

In any event, I think there's no good way to "police" this but to trust the author. To do otherwise would put yet another strain on the agent/editor/publisher. Given the abundance of information out there, it's likely that many cases of plagiarism, false stories, etc, will be picked up just like these.

Or maybe the object lesson is that if you're writing under a pen name, you shouldn't have your photo in a glowing newspaper spread that your jealous sister will see.

Anonymous said...

I don't know much about the particulars of this case, but publishers are producing and selling a product--in a sense, they're vouching for it. Maybe not a full-scale private investigation, but some simple fact checking? Magazines do it before they publish a story, why not publishers? Do publishers ask memoirists to sign something vouching for the truth of their memoir? Wouldn't a lying author then risk jail or be sued (or something) for fraud?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

When James Frey happened, I was hearing that memoir was easier to sell than fiction, and readers were buying more of it.

So long as that's the case, we'll have people who take the easy way out. There are always those who find a nice, fat advance that doesn't need to be repaid soothes any emotion approaching guilt.

Jonathan Lyons said...

If you want publishers to fact check, you have to hire fact checkers. Where will the money come from to do this?

Supposedly Riverhead did their best to verify the story with the limited time and resources they have, and the author provided a huge amount of evidence supporting her story, including recommendations, letters and even photographs.

When it comes to nonfiction (whether a memoir or something else), the author signs as part of the contract a clause that holds them liable for this type of thing. Criminal action is up to the state, and a bit unrealistic.

Ryan Field said...

I was in a simple little book called Best Date Ever a couple of years ago, which was based on true dating stories. The wonderful editor at Alyson questioned me ruthlessly, more than once, to be sure all content was true; and it was. He did this because I normally submit fiction, and I understood completely. It was a small book, but not telling the truth will always hinder your career in the future. Maybe that's the difference between a writer and an author? I don't know; it just seems these memoir people are only in it for the money.

But I am curious about this: Is is always better to write a memoir in the first person, as a true story? Or can it work as a novel based on true events? Is there a preference?

Lorelei said...

I'm not sure the older sister was jealous so much as she perhaps thought the younger sister needed therapy more than a book tour.

Adaora A. said...

Wow Mr. Lyons that is incredibly spooky. First Mr. Frey and now this. His books (including My Friend Leonard, are all best sellers anyways). It's almost a publicity tool to get more people to read thir book. Get a book that creates buzz due to subject matter, then tyhe truth comes out that it is a farce, your sales shoot through the roof. I said this on another agent's blog (via annonymous), but honestly; I'm in some way all astonishment, but I'm also not. Why didn't she just call it fiction and be done with it?

I completely agree.

Liz said...

I was even more shocked today when I found out that I went to school with Margaret. I didn't recognize her at first until they revealed her real name. The school was a private school filled with wealthy families. Parents would often pick up their kids in fancy cars to go ride their horses after school. An EXTREMELY far cry from the life she wrote about.

I'm shocked that people think they can put out fiction as fact. The truth will always come out!

Just_Me said...

I don't understand why someone, knowing what they're writing is fictional, don't just marekt it as fiction and let the reader wonder what is true. It's better than seeing a memoir and making bets with friends over how much of it is fake!

Anonymous said...

While the author bears the most responsibility, the agent and publisher are also to blame in cases of fabricated memoirs presented as truth. As a publisher, you are telling the public, "look at this material: it's a fascinating MEMOIR," the word memoir implying non-fiction.

Why publishers/authors feel the material sells bettter when presented as a memoir compared to a novel is something else entirely.

benwah said...

This short article suggests that authors are treated as independent contractors, not employees of the publisher, which at least legally shifts most of the responsibility to the author.


Do memoirs in fact sell better than first person novelizations of the same subject?

From my reading on this particular case, it seems that over the three years of the relationship, the author and editor never met in person. Is that common for a MS that requires so much work?

Jonathan Lyons said...

Benwah - Yes, it's common. The publisher can't afford to fly it's editors to meet with every author, and most authors can't afford to fly to NYC or SF.

bookfraud said...

"stop lying and call your memoir a novel." true enough, but i don't know if a publisher would have bought them were they (seltzer, frey, etc.) submitted as novels. would anyone buy a novel about gang life in the 'hood written by a white, privileged woman? maybe, but probably not.

and i do think the editor and publisher bear a major responsibility here. it wasn't a few facts that were lies in seltzer's book, it was the entire premise. they already were slammed by james frey, and they obviously didn't learn their lesson. yes, it would have been a lot of cost and effort to verify the veracity of the book, but better that than another embarrassment.

Heidi the Hick said...

I love it that you used the word "truthiness" in your title.

benwah said...

bookfraud: Oh, i agree with you that the editor & publisher share some culpability. I think the responses by the editors in this case demonstrate a "pass-the-buck" mentality, which it seems is a common approach. One of the amusing quotes from the editor said that part of the reason she trusted the author was because she had a reputable agent.

L.C.McCabe said...

I am also disgusted when I find out that books contain lies. It is reprehensible that the Seltzer lied repeatedly to her agent, editor, publisher and then continued those lies to reporters at her book launch.

Her career is over just as it was beginning for it is impossible to rebuild trust once it is broken.

However, some of the comments in this trail makes me wonder about the state of publishing today and whether her story would have been published as a novel.

I hope that it would have been.

I am assuming from that since the book garnered positive reviews and even profiles in the New York Times that it was well written and "a story well told."

It's that what we as humans really want? A story well told?

We are programmed through time immemorial to listen to stories; some are history, some are parables, and some are just good yarns. We want to be entertained and to be moved emotionally whether or not it is based on true events.

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but we just want to know whether or not it is truth *or* fiction.

Obviously Love and Consequences represented an investment in time, effort, resources, etc., by the publisher, and I wonder if it is necessary to pull the books from circulation or if they could simply be re-labeled and shelved in the another section and see what kind of sales it would generate before after a few months it is returned and remaindered?

Or would that break some rules of publishing ethics I am unaware of?

There is such a blurring of the lines between the literary techniques in novels and memoir that I feel sometimes it is not always the fault of the author when there is confusion. For example, last Christmas as I was browsing in a Barnes and Noble store I found Stephen Clarke's A Year in the Merde in the travel essay section. It was shelved near Peter Mayle's books on Provence and Rebecca Ramsey's French by Heart. So I thought Clarke's book was a light, humorous memoir similar to Mayle's and Ramsey's. It's not. Clarke's book is a novel, which incorporates his love/hate relationship with France based on his time living there.

It was only after reading Clarke's website that I really understood that it was a novel. His story is told in first person POV and well, it could have been a memoir and a blurb from the New York Post calls it an "almost-true memoir."

It was the shelving that threw me off. However, I might not have found the book at all if it was put in the literature section. Then again, the publisher listed "Travel" as the category on the back cover rather than novel or humor, so I cannot blame the bookstore for where it was shelved even though it isn't really a travel essay book.

It's a damned good read and I'm glad I bought it regardless of its category.

So, I hope you will weigh in on your thoughts as to whether or not you think that there is any truth to perception that publishers are more likely to accept stories such as Seltzer's, Frey's, De Wael's as memoirs than as novels.

According to this article in the Register-Guard, Seltzer said publishers “didn’t want to buy it as fiction.”


Writing is such a difficult craft that the humanitarian in me feels that talented writers should be not be banned forever from this creative life, but somehow redirected to utilize their talents appropriately. I just don't know if it is possible in cases such as Seltzer and De Wael due to their serial lying in order to achieve their success.

Chumplet said...

Would the reader treat the book differently if they knew it was fictionalized? If it was written well, why should the writer and publisher lie to get sales?