One-Minute Book Reviews

February 11, 2008

Do We Need ‘Black Box’ Warnings for Toxic Memoirs?

Some readers may fume about Ishmael Beah’s book, but the publisher appears indifferent to the controvesy

You know that “black box” warning that the Food and Drug Administration requires drug companies to put on the labels of some medications? The one that means that a drug may carry a significant risk of causing serious harm or even death?

Lately I’ve been wondering if we need a similar label for books. A label that means: Warning! This book makes claims nobody can verify. Reading it may cause serious harm or even death to your faith in the author’s credibility. The publisher’s response to questions about the book may cause nausea.

For several weeks the newspaper the Australian has been publishing articles that cast serious doubt on many of the statements that Ishmael Beah makses in his A Long Way Gone, including his assertion that he was a child in Sierra Leone for two years – the foundation of his book, billed as a “memoir.” Beah and his publisher, the Sarah Crichton Books imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), have responded to these articles in ways that are startlingly cavalier or, as one news service put it, “blasé.” Asked if the firm planned to answer one report by the Australian, a senior vice president of FSG joked to the New York Observer that he was “responding with an ulcer.” How funny will this be to people who bought the book in good faith that they would be reading the true story of someone who spent years as a child soldier?

The insensitive responses may tarnish the reputation of FSG, widely regarded as one of the two most prestigious publishers in the U.S. along with Alfred A. Knopf at Random House. They also show a lack of respect for readers, who deserve a better explanation for what is and isn’t true in A Long Way Gone. The “blasé” attitude means, in part, that you need to approach with caution any FSG memoirs, particularly those from first-time authors or others who lack established reputations.

How should critics respond to the indifference by Farrar, Straus and Giroux? Some may stop reviewing FSG books for a while. This would penalize authors and others who are blameless in this fiasco. So I’m going to the adapt the FDA’s idea: Put the equivalent of a “black box” warning on each FSG memoir that is reviewed on this site until the responses by the firm reflect the gravity of the situation.

If you’re not a professional critic, you have another option – return your copy of A Long Way Gone to your bookstore, Starbucks or other vendor. Even if you no longer have your receipt, the circumstances are unusual enough to warrant a refund without it. FSG has sold more than 600,000 copes of A Long Way Gone. How long do you think it would take the company to start providing better answers if just one percent of those readers showed up at bookstores tomorrow and asked for their money back?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Ever since Jason Blair and Janet Cooke thumbed their noses at us I’ve been skeptical about anything resembling sensational, Janice. Those 2 nincompoops probably still don’t realize what damage they did in the name of good journalism. I think they set off a tsunami of writers who play fast and loose with the truth and it’s going to take a lot of effort to change the public notion that truth no longer exists in our world today. It seems as though the whole of society are becoming liars from the top down. So, yes, it’s not a bad idea to have a “black box” warning for books. After all, we also have a Black Box Voting enterprise online. heh janetleigh

    Comment by janetleigh — February 12, 2008 @ 1:05 am | Reply

  2. This is an outrageous situation. Whatever happened to integrity in the written word?

    “They also show a lack of respect for readers, who deserve a better explanation for what is and isn’t true”

    This is the crux of the matter. Publishers and authors alike ignore and disparage their readership at their peril. It’s time these falling standards were hauled up by their bootstraps. I fear however, the general malaise in music and literature, the “make do and mend” culture makes this target a long way off. We can only hope the public do as you suggest. The truth will out!

    Comment by kevmoore — February 12, 2008 @ 6:35 am | Reply

  3. Janetleigh: Thanks for providing context for the Beah mess. You’re absolutely right — the problem did not start with him but has been developing for years. Each year, publishers seem to get away with a little more. I hope soon to offer some suggestions on what readers can do about it.

    Kev: It’s disheartening, isn’t it? The rise of the blogosphere is one of the few things that gives me hope in situations like this.Until recently, readers had no way to respond to such insults from publishers.

    But now bloggers can — and do — jump into the debate. Let’s hope it does some good. I’m encouraged by comments like yours, which show that people do care about whether or not they’re hearing the truth from publishers like Farrar, Straus.

    Thanks much to both of you.


    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 12, 2008 @ 10:51 am | Reply

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