When the Los Angeles Times published my short story, “Aftershock,” in its Sunday magazine, it was fact checked. In fact, I was contacted because one of the story’s lines — “She’d never felt the earth shake until she moved to California, even though she’d grown up near the largest earthquake ever recorded, the one that sent the Mississippi flowing backward, that cracked chimneys in Washington, D.C., that made church bells ring in Boston–all from its epicenter in New Madrid” — was not technically accurate. The New Madrid earthquake is, in fact, ranked sixth or seventh on the list of most powerful quakes, and despite the folklore, there is no evidence that the Mississippi River actually flowed backward or that it cracked chimneys in D.C. (I hadn’t checked — this is supposed to be one of the benefits of writing fiction.)
But I was impressed. After all, this was a piece of fiction, and yet it had been checked for accuracy as if it were nonfiction. (We revised the line to read “one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded” and allowed that we could leave the rest alone, as it reflected the character’s perception of those events.) This sort of attention to detail shows a great deal of respect for the reader; it suggests that someone out there, even knowing he or she is reading fiction, might just be sharp enough to catch this inaccuracy. And the problem was resolved in two emails.
If only the New York Times, before publishing its feature on Margaret Jones, aka Peggy Seltzer, had asked fact checkers to send out a few emails, or make a few calls. Instead, the paper ended up publishing an embarrassing follow-up story about how she fabricated her entire memoir.
And now, with more and more memoirs being outed as fiction, it seems that publishers, too, might have to start adding fact checkers to their staffs.