One-Minute Book Reviews

March 4, 2008

Why Critics, Journalists and You, the Reader, Need to Read Defensively

Filed under: Current Events,Life,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:47 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Fabricated tale of gang life reaffirms the need to question “memoirs” that don’t make sense

For more than a year, this site has been raising questions about Ishmael Beah’s purported memoir of two years as a child solider, A Long Way Gone, that have received unsatisfactory responses from the author and his publisher. Why do critics, journalists and you, the reader, need to keep challenging aspects of personal accounts that don’t make sense?

One answer is implicit in a story in today’s New York Times about a young writer’s confession that she made up Love and Consequences, a widely praised book billed as a “memoir” of her life as a drug-runner for the Bloods: Publishers are doing too little to verify the authenticity of their books www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/books/04fake.html. Book publishers have never done – nor can they be expected to do – the exhaustive fact-checking that occurs at The New Yorker. But the Times‘s story shows that they sometimes don’t take the much more basic steps that would be reasonable.

Love and Consequences was reportedly exposed as a fraud by a call to the publisher, Riverhead Books, from a sister of the author, Margaret Seltzer, who used the pen name of Margaret B. Jones. Riverhead is a unit of the Penguin Group USA, one of the world’s largest publishers. It seems that all an editor would have to do to uncover problems with this book would have been to require the writer to provide the telephone numbers of a few immediate-family members, then call those people.

[The Penguin Group has recalled all copies of Love and Consequences, and One-Minute Book Reviews will comment on the recall in a post later today.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

14 Comments »

  1. I’m thinking that the publishers LOVE the $$$ and no longer care about the CONSEQUENCES of disseminating fraudulent information. In our current society, one could say there’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

    Comment by ggelliott — March 4, 2008 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

  2. No doubt, money is a big part of this equation.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 4, 2008 @ 5:30 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Janice –
    I heard this story first thing this morning and have heard it all day now.

    Last week this author was promoting her book on a Boston NPR program called ‘On Point’.

    I think it’s unfortunate that lies like this gets by the publishers and agents, who put so much time, effort and investment into the writing and story. It seems that at some point the story line loses its primary role to other considerations.

    And people ask ‘Why are you so cynical?’

    Well, James Frey, Jayson Blair and now Margret XX. (I think there is another memoir that has been exposed as a fraud that I’ve left out…)

    peace,
    P

    Comment by P — March 4, 2008 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  4. P: Your mention of agents is very pertinent. One reason why scandals may be getting more common is that editors are relying more and more on agents to serve as gatekeepers or to do some of the work editors might have done in the past. No matter how good an agent is, a book will always need an editor, too.
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 4, 2008 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

  5. Am I disingenuous to ask: why not just write fiction and call it thus?

    Comment by ggelliott — March 4, 2008 @ 11:23 pm | Reply

  6. Not disingenous at all. But the financial and other implications of calling a book “fiction” or “nonfiction” can be great. One is that, in general, if you write nonfiction you have many more opportunities to publicize your book. You don’t have to depend on reviews but can be interviewed as an expert on your subject, for example.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 4, 2008 @ 11:35 pm | Reply

  7. One of the first things a novice writer hears about when considering writing articles and nonfiction books is credentials. Such scandals as this one tend to make beginners think they can just wing it, fake it, make it up, or take bits and pieces of other people’s stories and compose a new life for oneself.

    Now, perhaps running drugs isn’t the kind of resume material that can be checked as easily as a prospective author’s other claims. Yet…

    Malcolm

    Comment by knightofswords — March 5, 2008 @ 12:01 am | Reply

  8. I hoped that the scandals would make some people realize they couldn’t fake it. You think they have the opposite effect? That they encourage people to try to wing it?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 5, 2008 @ 12:19 am | Reply

  9. I wonder if it is, in cases such as this one in particular, that they are taken with the opportunity to become an instant celebrity; and that this desire eclipses whatever they might have learned from the mistakes of others.

    Comment by ggelliott — March 5, 2008 @ 9:06 am | Reply

  10. They might well be infatuated with the idea of celebrity. But Seltzer and others seem not to have anticipated the degree of scrutiny of your life that comes with celebrity. That’s the catch, always, with fame: You can’t have the glory without reporters vetting your life story for inconsistencies.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 5, 2008 @ 10:50 am | Reply

  11. Yes, I do think the scandals do encourage people to wing it because many will, I suspect, assume that the scandals are only the tip of the iceberg of fake stuff being published. As the discussion unfolds, it gets worse, for young writers are now hearing that nobody’s minding the store and checking the facts.

    Malcolm

    Comment by knightofswords — March 5, 2008 @ 3:02 pm | Reply

  12. A lot of writing programs may also encourage it “creative nonfiction” classes that don’t make clear that classroom standards may differ from those of publishers.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 5, 2008 @ 4:35 pm | Reply

  13. “Everybody’s doing it. What’s the big deal? Nobody checks. And anyway, I’m different. I won’t get caught.”

    One of my favorites as a former traveling con man with a mip, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

    And they all grew up to be agents, editors and publishers. Or, Bill Belicheck.

    Cha-ching!

    Comment by mickoshay — March 5, 2008 @ 6:14 pm | Reply

  14. The authors who do it are playing with fire, though. Publishers’ contracts typically have a clause requiring you to indemnify them against lawsuits. If authors do get caught, they could have to pay back thousands of dollars — not just for the advance but for any related sales, such as film and foreign rights.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 5, 2008 @ 6:30 pm | Reply


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