Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Memoirists Can Leverage the Consequences of Lying

The publisher of Love and Consequences, the South Central L.A. gangland memoir that turned out to be a novel, said in a New York Times report today that "there was nothing else that he or Sarah McGrath, the book’s editor, could have done to prevent the author from lying."

Of course you can't stop somebody from lying, but to find out if they are lying, you do some basic factchecking. The Times reports, "Ms. McGrath said she did not independently check parts of Ms. Seltzer’s story or perform any kind of background check. She said she relied on Ms. Seltzer to tell the truth."

It appears the publishing industry learned little from James Frey, a founder of the novel-as-memoir genre. Of course you can't -- and shouldn't -- factcheck every detail in a memoir. But when the story seems a little out there, as this one does, you can pick off a few easy specifics to verify. Even Oregon's Register-Guard did this, postponing a story about the book's author after some basic fact checking revealed she didn't graduate from the University of Oregon as the book jacket claims.

It's a pathetic situation, but one that presents opportunities for memoirists whose books are, truly, their life stories. Make yourself available to the journalists covering this story. Talk about the editing process on your book -- was there any factchecking? Did an editor challenge any of the text in your manuscript? Did any relatives? Is it hard to write something accurately 10, 20 or 30 years later? Could that contribute to this rash of fake memoirs? Start by reaching out to your local media, giving them the local angle on this national story, but get the PR department at your publisher on board too. Let them know you're willing to talk about your experiences.

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