You’d think — after James Frey (we all remember James Frey), then Margaret Seltzer (she’s the one who wrote the “gang memoir” about being a white girl raised in an African-American foster home, when in reality she grew up with her own family in a lovely Los Angeles suburb), and then Misha Defonseca (whose memoir about running from the Nazis and living with wolves turned out to be fabricated) — that we’ve seen the end of fake memoirs, canceled publishing contracts, and poor Oprah being duped. But not quite: this article in today’s New York Times tells the story of yet another one. Another amazing love story, another unbelievable Holocaust memoir — and another confession from the author that its premise is not true. And yes, another canceled book contract.
It’s not that I blame the agents, editors, and publishers — they can’t fact-check every detail of every manuscript that comes across their desks, though they might consider doing a bit more given the prevalence of fake memoirs these days. I’m just not sure what these writers are thinking. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t just go ahead and write a novel instead of a “memoir,” when they know the story is untrue and often have to go to elaborate lengths to perpetuate the lie.
I can empathize with the notion that a story can seem more powerful if readers know it’s true — but this is only the case when, in fact, the story is true. What about the power of fiction to open readers’ eyes to truth as well? (I’m not just saying this as a fiction writer but as a former nonfiction writer who remains a stickler for getting the facts straight.)
In the end, I worry that writers with legitimate stories will find it hard to earn the trust of agents, editors, and publishers, and I worry that readers may stop caring whether a memoir is true or not, as long as it’s a good story (this is especially frightening with such historic events as the Holocaust). If writers keep blurring the lines between fact and fiction — and keep getting published — then what?