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?
I’ve just posted an excerpt of one of the stories in Forgetting English for all of you who are just dying to start reading (okay, just humor me here). Click here for the excerpt, which is from the story “First Sunday,” first published in Indiana Review.
I’d like to say a special THANKS! to Rebecca Raymond, without whom I could not have written this story (which is not in any way based on her life, in case you wonder about that after reading it…all characters and their actions are purely a figment of the author’s imagination and are not based on actual persons, living or dead, yada yada yada). But, being a former journalism type and therefore being a stickler for details even when I’m making stuff up, I wanted the fine print of the story to be just right, from the Tongan phrases to life in kingdom’s villages.
It’s so great to know people who do interesting things and don’t mind your stealing their material. Thanks, Beck.
We were out of town for a week and missed the big news of Miss Snark‘s retirement. Anyone who has read her blog knows that this is terribly sad news … the only good news (aside from the fact that she is alive, well, and retiring only her blog) is that she will maintain the archives for anyone looking for information about agenting and publishing, as well as gin and George Clooney. On behalf of Metro Writing and all writers, we thank her for all that she’s done to demystify a very confusing industry in a most human way.
For fans, there’s a lovely tribute to Miss Snark on YouTube. Enjoy.
Today’s Wall St. Journal has a piece on Simon & Schuster’s newest marketing strategy — an Internet book channel, Bookvideos.tv, to be hosted on YouTube and other sites, on which authors will talk for two minutes (“about as long as you can watch something on your desktop before your boss catches you,” says the chief executive of the corporation producing the videos) about their lives, how they became writers, and other such behind-the-scenes topics. The channel will focus on only Simon & Schuster authors, though the company seems open to expanding in whatever direction viewers take the most interest.
The channel will launch next month and has committed to 40 author videos, with featured authors including bestselling authors from Sandra Brown and Mary Higgins Clark to Ursula Hegi and Marianne Wiggins. You can check out the videos here as well as on the Simon & Schuster web site.
For any of you who may feel as though you’re too old to become a successul writer, check out this AP story about a man who began writing his first book at age 93 and now, at age 96, is a published author.
Harry Bernstein’s memoir, The Invisible Wall, about his childhood in northern England, grew out of the loneliness he encountered after the death of his wife. As he says in the article, “You know when you get into your 90s like I am, there’s nowhere else to think except the past. There’s no future to think about. There’s very little present…So you think of the past.”
But now he has quite a lot of future to think about. A Random House editor in London picked up his book and couldn’t put it down, and now, in addition to being published in England and Sweden, it will be released in Germany, Italy, Finland, and Norway. Bernstein is already at work on a second book, slated to be published in the U.S. by Ballantine.
I think all writers can learn a little from Bernstein’s wisdom. He reports that he writes when inspired rather than forcing deadlines, and he also says, “I’m not satisfied until I finish what I start. And I will not be satisfied until I start something new.”
The New York Times ran a story last week on the Bellevue Literary Press, which will publish its first title next month. The article calls attention to Bellevue Hospital’s former reputation as a psych ward for the “criminally deranged,” which indeed sounds tough to overcome. Yet neither authors nor publishers seem worried about the past.
Bellevue Literary Press grew out of the success of the Bellevue Literary Review, founded in 2000 and described by the Washington Post as “a journal of humanity and human experience — a well-regarded magazine featuring fiction, nonfiction and poetry by Bellevue’s doctors and well-established writers.”
Yet, like most small presses, Bellevue Literary Press is all about the love, not the money. Financed by private donors, the imprint’s first four titles are medical or scientific books written for a general audience, and editorial director Erika Goldman told the Times that authors would be paid advances in the $5,000 range, adding, “We’re in it for love and art.”
Which sounds perfectly sane to me.