Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Truth in Publishing

Although they've been with us for a while, apparently we have a category of writers badly in need of a name. I shall call them the Literary Fabricators.

Recently, there was James Frey. His four-million copy best selling bogus 2003 memoir A Million Little Pieces (purportedly pitched originally as a novel by Frey to his agent and several publishers, including Nan A. Talese, who leads the imprint at Random House’s Doubleday division and who subsequently published A Million Little Pieces). Initially rejected as a novel, someone at Random House supposedly made the suggestion that Mr. Frey's work would sell better as a memoir.

Sean McDonald, the Random House editor ultimately assigned to the project, assured Nan Talese and Oprah Winfrey (the single most powerful - and important - name in publishing) that he was confident the events in A Million Little Pieces did, in fact, occur because he had personally checked them out. "I made sure that everything actually happened," he said as the book was being edited.

Of course, Oprah was subsequently embarrassed (a big no-no in that universe) for being so very much taken in by Frey's fabrication of 'his' sordid tale of drug addiction and rehabilitation. Frey endured a humiliating public spanking by Winfrey on her show (the same show that weeks before presented James Frey as the latest writer to win the coveted "Oprah Loves This Book More Than You Can Possibly Imagine" prize.

Now we have a new Fabricator: [from The New York Times]

In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones [a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer] wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.
Turns out it was all a lie. And what an unnecessary one, too: if the book is critically acclaimed, a fictional approach often possesses a much more powerful 'truth' to tell (Sinclair Lewis' Mainstreet and George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London come to mind).

But a publisher's nimbleness should never be underestimated:

Sarah McGrath, the editor at Riverhead who worked with Ms. Seltzer for three years on the book, said she was stunned to discover that the author had lied. “There’s a huge personal betrayal here as well as a professional one,” she said.
Riverhead Books, a unit of Penguin Group USA, is recalling all copies of the book and has canceled Ms. Seltzer’s book tour. Ms. Jones/Seltzer was about to embark on a nationwide book tour. Could Oprah have been far behind? I suppose that's the breaks: she has little left but her infamy while Frey has his millions, a penthouse in Manhattan, a house in The Hamptons and, of course, the infamy as the garnish on that particular cocktail.

We wonder why talented writers just don't do it the old fashioned way: a writer writes a great story that gets published as is. Sure, it's harder to get published today; but isn't that the reason you've got your thesaurus earmarked and the entry "perseverance" highlighted in yellow? There are many, many success story each year. And if you don't by now understand that "the Internet has changed everything" then your chances of getting noticed will be straight-jacketed from the start. The author has never had so many tools at his or her disposal.

But, the Literary Fabricator succumbs to the curse of the mendacity of the modern age (or what one well-known publishing personality revealed at 3:00 in the morning over her eighth Cosmopolitan as "my livelihood, dear.") Indeed. And who can deny the appeal of center ring in the circus?
But somehow, despite this allure, I simply can not imagine Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Faulkner (who's debut novels were This Side of Paradise, in 1920, The Torrents of Spring in 1925 and Soldier's Pay in 1926 respectively) producing anything fake. Their 'reality' was intense enough for us all.

And if immortality is the goal, well, you can't really fake that. And if money and fifteen minutes of fame is the goal, what a sad waste of talent.