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March 09, 2008

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There are people, some of whom comment on this blog, who don't seem to care whether the stories we're told are real, are not.

I have the uncomfortable feeling that you are referring to my comment on your earlier post in which I argued that it's not the responsibility of the publisher to fact check. In case you are, let me state clearly that I'm not in favor of false memoirs, and would feel betrayed if I were sold one. I was just saying that the responsibility is the author's not the publisher's.

>>>I was just saying that the responsibility is the author's not the publisher's.<<<<

Clearly, one would expect the primary moral and ethical responsibility in these cases to start with the author. And the fact so many of these cases are popping up points to a sad decline indeed. But the publisher, as the business entity offering these books for sale to the public, has a responsibility to ensure its product as well. It's fairly obvious, i would think.


Regarding Zev's comment: The blame is on the writer; the shame is on the publisher and media outlets who failed to exercise due diligence.

Nancy, I was making the same point earlier today that you made about our friend with MS, except I was drawing parallel to a woman's account of surviving rape, or breast cancer, or some other sort of life-altering trauma.

Would the same people who are saying "Well, it's a good story" (like, heaven help us, Seltzer's English professor at the U of O) say the same thing if a harrowing first-person account of surviving breast cancer turned out to have been written by a man with access to JAMA and a powerful imagination?

I'm glad to read a writer who has looked at this issue head-on, and not applauded a talented fabulist for the misleading (while still respecting her talent). I was shocked in an MFA program how readily teachers were to gloss over the question -- to say, essentially, well, memory is inherently unreliable and self-deceiving, so what matters is if it's real to the writer. Students were actually more concerned about factuality than the faculty, as a rule, I'm sorry to say.

It's possible to write memoirs that shift time and take chances with memory (for instance, Joanne Beard's "The Boys of My Youth") without deceiving the reader. But apparently it's easier and more lucrative to make up flamboyant stories.

"But the publisher, as the business entity offering these books for sale to the public, has a responsibility to ensure its product as well. It's fairly obvious, i would think."

It's not obvious to me. All they are saying is: "Here's what So-and-so claims is the story of his life." When I buy the book, I'm taking the author at his word, not the publisher. If it turns out he was lying, I blame him, not those who trusted him.

Zev, publishers vet authors all the time, usually when they're writing about well-known persons (political and showbiz memoirs are two that usually pass through the lawyer's office while the editor is juggling other manuscripts and endless sales meetings).

I don't think it's unreasonable for a publisher dealing with an unknown quantity like Seltzer to do the most cursory of background checks - and a cursory background check in this case would've revealed the whole thing. Yes, it's Seltzer's ultimate responsibility, but a writer is, at her essence, an independent contractor, and contractors need to be checked out to some degree.

One person who's escaping scrutiny in most quarters here is Seltzer's agent. In today's publishing world, an agent always acts as a first editor, helping shape the ms for sale. Seltzer's agent didn't exercise due diligence, either; it may be Seltzer's ultimate responsibility, but no one in this mess (including the New York Times) has clean mitts.

Kevin, I think what it comes down to is what a purchaser expects from a publisher. Speaking for myself, I expect nothing from a book publisher but a decently-printed and -bound book with the pages in the right order. I don't hold them responsible for content. With the author it's the opposite; I hold him or her entirely responsible for content, not at all for the physical package. I suspect publishers see it the same way.

>>>>It's not obvious to me. All they are saying is: "Here's what So-and-so claims is the story of his life." When I buy the book, I'm taking the author at his word, not the publisher. <<<

But by that standard you seem to be saying that you wouldn't care if the Washington Post said, "Here are the stories we think might be true today. Our reporters wrote them but no editors checked them out. Good luck, readers." Or, to get even sillier, what if Wendy's said, "Here's a chicken sandwich. We think it's chicken but we didn't really do much checking at the plant."

It's the "publish" part of publisher that is critical here, and I don't mean to sound elemental. The publisher has a responsibility to tell the public that it's product (sorry to reduce writing to selling widgets) is sound, just as the writer does.

And just to add a quick postscript: I understand, Zev, that you are probably referring specifically to the issue of memoirs, where memory might be murky and people get old and stories get embellished like a game of Telephone.

All of these things do come into play--and, in fact, become vital-- in a memoir (and straight non-fiction). But that, I believe, has nothing to do with foisting wholesale fraud on a reading public.

I see newspapers differently. Their function is to deliver the news. If they fake the news or don't report it accurately, they're at fault. I don't see book publishers that way. To my mind, they are there to deliver the physical package, nothing more. And as I've said, I suspect they see themselves that way too. Since they don't assume responsibility for the truth of what they publish, they can't be blamed when it turns out to be untrue. The same can't be said of newspapers, where the publisher takes responsibility for what they print.

And yes, I am speaking of memoirs, and it's silly to expect publishers to be responsible for everything someone claims once happened to him. And I'll agree that if they know the writer's lying they shouldn't publish him. I just don't see that it's their problem to police him.

Anyhow, as I wrote, I think it's a matter of expectations. I do not expect publishers to police their writers. If it becomes common practice for them to do so, I suppose my position will change.

I don't expect publishers to police their writers, either, though disagree they are just there to "deliver the physical package." Every publishing house has editors who find the material, buy it and craft it. And of these editors, I expect them not to foist wholesale bull on the reader and then, when caught, proclaim, "But I thought it was true!"

Example, from "Love and Consequences," which I am reading: five-year-old Margaret comes to kindergarten, and as the day wears on, blood starts running down her legs; teacher picks her up, runs her to the school nurse's office; clasps child to her breast and says, "I'm so so sorry," and within hours, Margaret is in a foster home. This is told in about a page and half of serviceable prose.

I am no expect of child molestation, but any one put in the position of editing this material might think, blood running down her legs? So, her hyman was broken sometime the night before and just now she's bleeding? Also, teacher just "knows" this means molestation? And, child services procedure is such that, instantaneously, the kid is taken from her family? There are writers who could pull this off in a page and a half; who could tell you the truth of what happened to them in that many words. Seltzer is not one of them.

As for Seltzer's appropriation of child molestation: it's an unadulterated bid for attention. There is zero illumination, as she's been contending, on "issues" that no one else writes about; that she, brave brave Margaret Seltzer, will speak for all those kids who cannot. She doesn't; there is nothing illuminating about what she writes. I have no idea what sort of suffering or privilege Seltzer did experience as a kid, but what she writes serves but one purpose: "Look at me; aren't I brave?"

I am not the editor of this book. Had I been, and had I been under the impression my writer was trying to tell the truth, I would have said, "But Margaret, you have to write what really happened; you have to really drill down, because what you're giving me is little more than paint by numbers."

There actually are a few things I like about Seltzer's book. Those I'll get to in a future post.

Nancy, if the falsehoods are that blatant, you're certainly correct that a competent editor should have caught them. Perhaps it wasn't a competent editor. Or maybe, as you're arguing, they realized it was BS but decided to go ahead anyway, in which case I join in the chorus of condemnation.

I'm confused - was the alleged molestation while she was living on the reservation (as she told her U of O professor), or is this iteration of Margaret reservation-free?

Molestation occurred when "Jones" was five and liv ing in LA with her birth mother.
I'm on page 91, and so far, the sole reference to Jones's/Seltzer's native blood is on page 46, this conversation between Big Mom and 8-year-old Margaret:

***

"[Y]ou white an Indian mixed. Just like I'm black an Indian mixed. That's what us black folk call a redbone. But white folk, they jus call us black no matter what we mixed with. Black is black to them."
"What do they call someone who's white and Indian mixed?"
"Well," Big Mom thought for a minute, "Indian people might got a word for it, but I'm not too sure. Ta white folk, if you look Indian, you Indian, an if you look white, you white."
I thought for a minute and then looked at Big Mom. Her eyes were the deepest brown I'd ever seen. "What if I don't want to be white?"

****

One might posit that, with "Love and Consequences," Seltzer has answered her own question.

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