Fact, fiction, and fudgery

Bob Hoover, book editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an interesting piece in yesterday's paper. "Separating fact from fiction is the author's job" discusses some recent cases where facts were fudged -- sometimes through honest mistakes and sometimes not -- and asks some important questions about who is ultimately responsible for making sure that non-fiction means yeah, we really really mean it this time.

Quoth Hoover:
We've become blase about the issue. Perhaps it was the excessive coverage granted James Frey and his trumped-up autobiography, "A Million Little Pieces," that prepared us for the too-familiar story of Margaret Seltzer, a woman in her 30s who pretended to be the survivor of gang life in South Central Los Angeles and wrote a book about it.

Every word of "Love and Consequences," including the "the's" and the "and's," (thank you, Mary McCarthy) was a lie. Yet, for three years, her editor at Riverhead Books, Sarah McGrath, apparently never challenged Seltzer's work. It took the author's sister to blow the whistle on her fraud, and the book was pulled from sale.

Publishers are not in the business of verifying every fact. They concentrate mainly on checking for plagiarism and libel.

It's not part of their tradition to challenge the contents of their authors' work, but to judge whether the book will succeed in a very competitive market.

"The most important thing for an editor, in my opinion, is keep the job separate from the policing functions of publishing," said Daniel Menaker, who edited fiction and poetry at the New Yorker magazine and Random House for more than 35 years.

I totally agree with Menaker. Thank goodness we live in a world where people never lie, especially when there's a big bucket of money involved, so editors are able to do that.

Oh. Wait.

When I sign on as a ghostwriter for a memoir, an important part of my job is to thoroughly research the client's story to make sure s/he isn't going to be embarrassed by honest errors or hazy recollections. My clients want to be as accurate as possible about everything from the phase of the moon on the night a baby was born to the spelling of the Bulgarian village from which Great-Grampa Czievteksky emigrated. They want to honestly tell their life stories.


Working on a project for a major publishing house a few years ago, I uncovered an uncomfortable truth: the client's story was inconsistent with the research. I went to the editor with this discovery and was subsequently fired with stern reminders that divulging any information to which I'd become privy through the interview process would result in me and my children's children's children being pounded to glass by the client's legal team.

You better believe that I will take that information to my grave (as I will take ALL my clients' private communiques to my grave), so don't bother asking who it was. The project never made it to the bookstore. I later learned that I was the fourth writer who'd been brought in, and two more writers were hired and fired before the thing totally imploded. (I was lucky to be protected by a good collaboration agreement; they got screwed. Repeat after me, class: KILL FEE, KILL FEE, KILL FEE.) In my humble opinion, that editor (and her boss, who was all but sucking the client's toes at our initial project meeting) acted in monumentally bad faith, so I had a hard time feeling bad for them when they got burned. Frankly, swallowing the advance they'd paid out was a cake walk compared to what Sarah McGrath is going through.

So what may we extract from this hideous little tale of fact, fiction, and skulduggery? I think it's that editors and publishers can't pretend to live in a vacuum. Babies are not found under cabbage leaves, and if you are in the business of obstetrics, you'd better know that. Yes, fact checking is the author's job, but author checking is the publisher's job.

Other than that one bad experience, I've worked with wonderful editors who are skilled in the craft of editing and savvy to the biz of publishing, in addition to being delightful, decent, honest folks. New York is full of terrific book people, and every year there are dozens of carefully wrought, candidly told memoirs published. That's the way it can and should be, but it takes a Village, you know?

Hoover concludes:
The truth is that in order for a nonfiction book to be accurate, the author must be willing to recheck every fact. The publisher isn't.

So, in the future, I think it's fair to blame the writer -- for errors of fact.

As for the Margaret Seltzers of the business, the responsibility is on the company that publishes the lies.

True that.

PS ~
Mr. Hoover and I exchanged a few emails after I posted this. He killed a little chunk of my soul by telling me, "What's happening now with me and other book editors is that when we see a memoir arrive -- I received 3 last week alone -- we immediately toss it on the bottom of the pile. There's just too much doubt right now."

But then he cracked me up by adding, "I'm sure that when Dick Cheney's memoir is published, all will be well again in the business, right?"


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