One-Minute Book Reviews

March 5, 2008

What Responsibility Do Editors Have for Keeping Fake Memoirs Off the Market?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:58 pm
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Does the publishing industry need New Yorker-style fact checking or just more common sense?

What responsibility do editors have for keeping potentially fake memoirs off the market? An article in today’s New York Times has a telling comment on this from Nan Talese, who edited James Frey‘s memoir A Milllion Little Pieces, a lot of which the author admits he exaggerated or made up Talese makes the observation in the Times‘s second-day report on the furor over Love and Consequences, a fabricated memoir by Margaret Seltzer writing under the name of Margaret B. Jones:

“I think what editors are going to have to do is point to the things that happened recently and say to their authors, ‘If there is anything in your book that can be discovered to be untrue, you better let us know right now, and we’ll deal with it before we publish it.'”

To which Ron Hogan at Galley Cat responds: “Like how about not publishing it? Or at least not calling it a memoir?” Hogan knows it’s a facile response (though it’s no less sensible for it). But he doesn’t agree with Talese that it would be insulting to authors to introduce New Yorker-style fact checking to book publishing.

“If you’re insulted that somebody’s holding your nonfiction writing up to a simple standard of truth,” he writes, “you’re probably not ready to share that writing with anybody, let alone an editor.”

Hogan is right. But there’s a middle ground between the laissez-faire attitude that currently prevails in book publishing and the exhaustive New Yorker–style fact-checking that some would like to see the industry use. That middle ground lies in the system used at responsible newspapers: Most newspapers don’t have fact-checkers on staff, but their editors question writers much more aggressively than many book editors do. You could say: They just use more common sense.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Having grown up in a journalism environment, I’m used to the aggressive copy editor formula. Publishers’ editors nit pick everything else to death as they go through MSS, so perhaps it’s not too much to ask that if they’re going to be manic about getting permissions to quote things that fall within fair use and don’t need permissions, they might look at the stuff that matters: the facts and sources of facts claimed as truth in the MS.


    Comment by knightofswords — March 5, 2008 @ 2:50 pm | Reply

  2. You’ve noticed that about fair use, too? The overkill seems to happen a lot. You have the sense that some publishers are paranoid about the wrong things (such as getting unnecessary permissions) but not paranoid about the right ones (such as wholesale fabrication).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 5, 2008 @ 2:57 pm | Reply

  3. This may be a little off-topic, but these deceptions have been going on for so long, and it seems that they just started angering people when James Frey duped Oprah. “Go Ask Alice,” was a hoax, as were Carlos Castaneda’s books. JT Leroy’s books were a major deception– the intrigue spanned almost ten years, but no one seemed to be terribly upset when he/she was unmasked. All of the writing in these books is beautiful to me, but I may never have gotten my hands on them had they been promoted as fiction. I guess “real life” makes for better sales in the publishing world.

    Comment by moonbeammcqueen — March 7, 2008 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  4. Not off-topic at all, because you’ve hit on a central truth of publishing today: Category matter a lot.

    Whether a book is labeled “fiction” or “memoir” can make a huge difference to sales, partly because memoirs generally sell better than fiction. (That’s particularly true of authors who don’t have a strong following; some of John Updike’s novels might have sold better than his memoir, “Self-consciousness”). So there are lots of numbers back up your comment that “real life” makes for better sales.

    Thanks for giving me an opportunity to go into more detail on this.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — March 7, 2008 @ 4:38 pm | Reply

  5. […] writing.  One might ask (given recent discoveries of fraudulent non-fictions, and several calls for closer fact-checking of such works) does Danticat’s blending of memory and accounts from documented facts in Brother, I’m […]

    Pingback by » Reconciling memory and accounts from official documents in non-fiction writing: Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying signifyincaribwoman — September 15, 2008 @ 1:09 am | Reply

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