Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Do publishers even fact-check anymore?

It's happened again: another fake memoir has come to light.

This author invented her involvement in a gang and falsified her ethnicity and background. The "memoir," Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones, had received really great critical acclaim and seemed destined to become another one of those great memoirs when her sister saw an article about it and realized that the woman in the photo was not who she claimed to be and called Margaret out.

The publisher, Penguin Group USA, has recalled all copies of the book and canceled her author tour. This came after they had sunk "less than $100,000" into a deal with Jones (whose real name is Margaret Seltzer). (The editor who originally gave Seltzer/Jones the deal actually started out at Simon and Schuster and moved the contract over with her when she went to Riverhead.)

I can't help but think that these publishers and editors would have saved themselves a lot of grief, embarrassment, work hours, and, um, money, had they only had someone verify the stories in the Seltzer/Jones story.

The story details why the author made up the story, but I just can't understand why people think that making up a story and passing it off as true is right. If you create composite characters and base a story off things that happen in real life, it's no longer nonfiction and cannot be passed off as such.

Interestingly enough, I just checked on Amazon.com and the book is still available for purchase. There are numerous angry one-star reviews, most posted within the last 12 hours, calling for the book to be removed from the site. I'll be interested to see if and when the site removes the book from its listings.


john said...

Don't forget Misha Defonseca.

Anonymous said...

In theory, I agree with you. In practice, though...when do you stop?

If you do a background check on a memoir author, and there are gross discrepancies, on the order of the incidents you cited, that's easy.

But, suppose the memoir is superficially based on truth, but vast quantities of material are still invented. For example, suppose Ms. Jones really was "half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child", but lived with a decent family and never did encounter the gang violence cited in the memoir. Is the book publisher supposed to ferret that out?

Suppose that the book is based largely on truth with a few invented scenes or characters. For example, suppose Ms. Jones made up her foster siblings, but most of the rest was spot on. Is the book publisher supposed to ferret that out?

In other words, where do you draw the line?

It's one thing for us to expect newspapers, magazines, and other short-form non-fiction publications to vet their material, because those fall under the rubric of journalism. I don't expect many people would consider memoirs to be journalism. We hold journalism to a higher standard, even if it feels like it misses that standard a lot lately.

As part and parcel of expecting publishers to vet their books, we as a society need to be able to articulate the line dividing publisher responsibility vs. merely having an evil (or forgetful) author. Subjectively, I think people can see the ends of the spectrum (complete fabrication = publisher responsibility, having some date be a year off = forgetful author). But I think we need to have a more objective line before we can expect book publishers to do a lot, lest the wind up in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.