Thursday, March 6, 2008

fact checking or PI work? an editorial defense

This week's publishing news is all about the fallout from the industry's most recent memoir hoax. Two years ago, after the James Frey debacle, I remember feeling defensive. I remember how quick people were to blame the publisher, to say that obviously they could have/should have fact checked Frey's claims. Now, again, similar admonishments are being thrown about. Riverhead could have/should have; her agent could have/should have; her friend Inga Muscio could have/should have.

Here's the deal, though: Peggy did more than just lie. She fabricated an entire life. Probably even to the extent that she started to believe her own story. Clearly she'd reconciled the enormity of what she chose to put into motion. Regardless of her motives, it's pathological. And so I feel empathy for Faye, Seltzer's agent, and for Sarah, her editor. It's not that agents and editors are gullible; it's that we go on our gut instinct the best we can. We create relationships with authors who would never be our friends outside of the book we're helping to create. When someone presents us with their truth, it's our job to make it sound as good as it can sound, to read fluidly and logically, and to be the best book it can be. It's not our job to get all FBI and start asking questions like, "Did that really happen?" Because the very nature of memoir is that it's supposed to be true. I don't think the fact that the James Freys and the Peggy Seltzers of the world choose to lie in their books mean that all agents and editors should be required to turn into paranoid skeptics about every word of memoir we have to read for our work. The moment that becomes part of my job description is the moment I want to leave publishing.

Literary agent Laurence J. Kirshbaum, former head of Warner Books, is quoted by CNN saying, "It's a business where honesty prevails 99 percent of the time," and that feels true to me, too. I hope that Peggy's story serves as a warning to other liars that they can't get away with it, that the consequences are dire, that it's not worth it. I don't want to work in an industry that requires its memoirists to take polygraphs just because a handful of writers---out of hundreds and thousands---have such poor judgment and faulty morals that they have to contrive their "truths."



Krista Lyons-Gould and Brooke Warner said...

So true. We have an obsession with unveiling the liars right now. Where are they? Is she lying now? How about now? How can we uncover the liars? How can we out them? Take that new reality show, The Moment of Truth. It makes me ill to think about it. America's watching to see if the poor guy trying to make some fast money will risk (and potentially ruin) his relationships with his friends and family for that chance. Is he lying? Is she lying? America's sitting on the edge of its big greasy couch waiting to see if he's going to lie. Is his wife going to cry? Did she already know he was sleeping around? The polygraph even has the booming deep voice of a woman. She (a machine) is the voice of truth. And we hope "she" catches him. It's very twisted.


Michelle O'Neil said...

These authors that lie certianly takes away from the credibilty of the genre, and that sucks.

On the other side, I know memoir authors who have had to change so many facts to suit the laywers, it's no wonder their credibilty is questioned by readers who knew them when.