A Moment of Jen
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Wednesday, March 05, 2008
posted by Jen at 3/05/2008 10:05:00 PM

Another day, another fake memoir, another spate of quotes from publishing bigwigs making the industry look even more incestuous, insular and clueless than ever.

But before I get up on my soapbox, I want to tell you about some upcoming events. I’m doing a tiny little tour for CERTAIN GIRLS (on account of the tiny little baby who preceded it), but next month I am going to be at…

Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Center,
1972 Broadway, New York City
April 8, 7:30 p.m.

St. Peters School
109 Lombard Street, Philadelphia
April 9, 7 p.m. (Event sponsored by Head House Books)

The Free Library of Philadelphia
1901 Vine Street
Sunday, April 13, 4 p.m.

So! By now you’ve probably heard all about the strange case of Margaret B. Jones, who passed herself off as a half-white, half-Native American foster child who survived the mean streets of South Central to emerge with her sanity intact and a manuscript in hand.

The book, LOVE AND CONSEQUENCES, was published to great acclaim last week. Then “Jones’” sister saw her picture in a puff piece in the Times, and called the paper to say that – guess what? – Margaret B. Jones wasn’t the author’s real name, she wasn’t half-anything, had never been in the foster care system, had never spent three years carrying a trash bag full of her earthly belongings from one place to the next, was not dealing drugs prior to hitting puberty and was, in fact, a rich white private-school graduate. (She probably never had a boyfriend named Slikk, either, which seems to me the saddest part of all).

Immediately, the books were recalled, and a vigorous game of Pass the Blame commenced. How could the journalists who reported on the book and its author not know that it was a fake? Well, they said, the book was put out by a legitimate publisher, and surely, in this post James Frey era, the publisher must have checked.

Except the publisher didn't. Why not? Well, said Sarah McGrath, daughter of Chip, former editor of the Times Book Review, we didn’t actually ask for any documentation about the tale of drug-slinging or the gang-banging, or the cousin gunned down as the author looked on. Jones said she was telling the truth…and she had a legitimate agent.

How could the legitimate agent not know her client was a big fat fake-o? “There was no reason to doubt her,” says Faye Bender…and, as for “Jones” herself, she’s offered a tearful, Laura Albert-esque mea culpa that makes me think she may be a few beers short of a six-pack.

I hate when this happens. I imagine every author does. Even those of us who don’t write memoir can’t help but feel tainted by the fallout. It makes readers cynical. It makes them walk into bookstores and think that every book is possibly a fake, or got published just because the author knows someone who knows someone.

I don’t believe that Jones' book got special treatment because of Sarah McGrath’s connections. From my understanding of how the Times works, the daily reviewers are completely separate from the Sunday review, which is why there’s the aggravating redundancy of the exact same books getting reviewed in the exact same way in both the daily and the Sunday paper. As fun as it is to imagine Ms. McGrath stamping her foot and saying, a la Veruca Salt, “But daddeeee! I want a good review nowwww!” it doesn’t make sense that McGrath would, or could, lobby the daily critic or the Thursday Styles section for special treatment…but is the average reader going to agree? Probably not.

And I just don’t understand how, after we’ve seen Frey lie and Kaavya copy, nobody at Riverhead did even basic fact-checking.

How hard can it be to ascertain whether someone was in the foster care system? Whether someone died in a gun battle? Whether someone existed in the first place? Not very.

So why don’t publishers ask these questions?

I suspect it's because there's money to be made in them thar memoirs. Readers seem to have an endless appetite for rags-to-riches (or, these days, addiction to sobriety) tales, where the happy ending is inevitable and the depths of degradation are explored in loving, lengthy, almost pornographic detail, especially if the stories are true.

And publishers shouldn't have to trouble themselves overmuch with fact-checking, says Frey's editor Nan Talese. Forcing them to ask their authors tough questions, as in “Did this really happen,” “would be very insulting and divisive in the author-editor relationship.”

Seriously? That’s the relationship she's worried about? Because if I were a big-deal editor, I think I’d be a little more worried about the author-reader relationship, as in, you’re selling the reader something that says “true story” on the cover, and so you probably ought to take a few steps to make sure it’s, you know, true. And if my author got the vapors when asked for some evidence – a birth certificate, a death notice, the phone numbers of someone who can back up her story – I wouldn’t buy what she was selling. At least not as a memoir.


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