In the New York Sun, Kate Taylor explores “Why Publishers Don’t Fact-Check Memoirs“:

As one person in publishing who asked not to be named said: “You couldn’t get these books out the door, at least not below a $100-a-copy price point, and then nobody would buy them.”

In the context of product liability suits, courts in fact have ruled that publishers are not responsible for independently verifying the accuracy of their books.

On Slate, Meghan O’Rourke asks, “Why are book editors so bad at spotting fake memoirs?” And also “How much leeway does a disclaimer really give an author?” Well, the article is a couple of years old, but it’s certainly not out-of-date (“Lies and Consequences“):

The original function of a disclaimer – which commonly read, “Names and identifying details have been changed” – was to protect the publisher from being sued by people who recognized themselves in an author’s portrait. The disclaimers offered by Frey and Lerner, however, serve the opposite purpose. These disclaimers protect the authors from our realization that the people in their “nonfiction” books are not real people at all . . .

Obviously, in the post-Frey era, editors will show more due diligence.

In the Washington Post, Bob Thompson asks, “So how come you guys didn’t make a phone call or two?” (“True or False: Book Publishers Can Avoid the Agony of Deceit“):

Take the fake-memoir scandal that immediately preceded the Jones/Seltzer affair. As the Associated Press reported last week, the author of “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years” has admitted that she didn’t “live with a pack of wolves to escape the Nazis.”

Lived with a pack of wolves, people! Make a couple of calls!

In the New York Times, Motoko Rich tracks the fallout of another literary fraud (“Tracking the Fallout of (Another) Literary Fraud“), and got Seltzer’s editor, Sarah McGrath, to explain their rigorous vetting process:

"In the post-James Frey world, we all are more careful," Ms. McGrath said. "I had numerous conversations with her about the need to be honest and the need to stick to the facts." 

Of course, the New York Times‘ own profile of Seltzer, the thing that got it all started, was wholly credulous:

Mimi Read, a freelance reporter, wrote a profile of Ms. Seltzer that appeared on Thursday in the House & Home section of The New York Times and did not question the memoirist’s story.

"The way I look at it is that it’s just like when you get in a car and drive to the store – you assume that the other drivers on the road aren’t psychopaths on a suicide mission," said Ms. Read, who was never told Ms. Seltzer’s real name by the publisher or by Ms. Seltzer. "She seemed to be who she said she was. Nothing in her home or conversation or happenstance led me to believe otherwise.")

And Galleycat begins the search for Seltzer’s sources:

But another reader, taking note of Seltzer’s false claims to Native American heritage, spotted what could have been another red flag in Love and Consequences: Sherman Alexie‘s Reservation Blues, which Seltzer is sure to have read while pursuing that ethnic studies degree she never quite picked up from the University of Oregon, also features a wise maternal character named “Big Mom.”

And Seltzer’s publisher is sad (“Riverhead “Saddened” by Love and Consequences Scandal“).

As for myself, I keep thinking about a part of Motoko Rich’s story yesterday, in which she described the roles of Inga Muscio and Faye Bender in encouraging Seltzer to tell “her” story:

Ms. Seltzer said she had been writing about her friends’ experiences for years in creative-writing classes and on her own before a professor asked her to speak with Inga Muscio, an author who was then working on a book about racism. Ms. Seltzer talked about what she portrayed as her experiences and Ms. Muscio used some of those accounts in her book. Ms. Muscio then referred Ms. Seltzer to her agent, Faye Bender, who read some pages that Ms. Seltzer had written and encouraged the young author to write more.

Seltzer certainly has to take responsibility for her own fabrication, and yet the desire of a student to please a professor, or an unpublished writer to please just about anyone, is powerful. I can imagine a scenario in which the whole thing started with a couple of fibs (“well, it makes the story better if I do it like this“) and then snowballs from there. Ishmael Beah seems to have been encouraged a lot, too, and his inaccuracies may have begun at a point when he didn’t even imagine his writings would ever become a published book.

And, on Salon (“Worst Publishing Week Ever“), Daniel Engber asks, “What’s next?”

A prominent human rights activist in Sudan has accused fiction writer Dave Eggers of failing to make up key passages in his recent novel What Is the What. The book purports to give a non-nonfictional account of a real-life child refugee who endured years of starvation and violence in Darfur. “I want to know how this passed the sniff-test with his editors,” said Howard Goldenschmidt of Darfur-NOW. “I mean, man-eating lions? It’s just too good to be not true.”
– Associated Press, April 19, 2008




About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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