Embellishment – sphincter pucker for publishers

With the continued revelations of writers suffering from James Frey Disease, nonfiction publishers perform their daily ritual of puckering their sphincters – especially when they read an article that questions yet another author’s faulty memory. I’m being nice. Nicer than I’d feel if one of those authors were mine. Actually this sort of thing makes me want to sew voodoo dolls and raid the local JoAnn’s Fabric of all their straight pins.

This latest kerfluffle involves Luis Carlos Montalvan and his book, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him. This is the type of book that invades my dreams and wishie lists of a dream book, and it’s agonizing to find out that his story is being questioned by those who served with him.

This is the main fear I have when I review query letters. James Frey (and yes, it still bugs me that he’s been given so much credibility) and Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea fame have ruined my sense of trust. Instead of accepting experiences at face value, I’m forced to measure my ability to vet any given story. That inability could prevent me from accepting a book of real worth.

On the other hand, maybe it’s good those who dance around the truth have been exposed. If lying is the new paradigm, perhaps it’s best my rose-colored glasses were ripped from my face. After all, if it’s good enough for our politicians, it must be good enough for us. This is a trickle-down idea I can live without. I mourn the loss of honesty and a moral compass.

And I find it particularly shocking when much is made of someone’s honesty – like the guy who returns a wallet, still filled with $20,000…like honesty is as novel an idea as mixing Twinkies and bananas.

Lying is expensive – not necessarily to the one perpetuating the lie (hello James Frey) – but to the publisher, who is left holding the bag. People scoff and believe that a publisher can shoulder this kind of financial hit if they decide to remove the book or offer refunds. But I can promise you that when this stuff happens, people lose their jobs. So while Frey and Mortenson go about their days without a care, someone is taking the hit for their folly.

Lying is intentional. Someone is actively trying to pull one over on you, and hoping you’re dumb enough or trusting enough to pull it off. I wish society condemned lying, but it seems that these are passed off as “transgressions” or “remembering wrong.” Remembering wrong? Have we become so blasé about the truth that we’re willing to forgive and forget? If so, stop the world and let me get off.

If there was no profit or advantage in lying, it would cease to exist. As a publisher, I’ve had my eyes ripped open and I’m more careful about vetting than I ever have been. There have been any number of queries I’ve received where it was painfully obvious the author had no filter for lying, and I could reject them as easily as I can down one of the beagle’s margaritas. But it stinks to reject someone because I know there are big claims they’re making that I can’t ferret out without hiring a detective or researcher.

So to the three people I rejected the other day, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I didn’t have the guts to admit that I was rejecting you because I couldn’t believe you without rock-solid proof. No one appreciates having their integrity questioned, and I’m sorry you were the blowback of the Freys, Mortensons, and Montalvans of the world. I hate that I’ve had to become cynical and suspicious in order to protect all that we’ve worked to build. And my heart goes out to the publishers whose authors have cheated them.

Until society takes the profit out of lying, I’ll continue to keep my sphincter muscles in good working order.

How do you feel about those authors who have been caught lying?

14 Responses to Embellishment – sphincter pucker for publishers

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    If you want to lie with impunity…write fiction.

  2. Amanda Adams says:

    OMG, this is my hottest button!

    1. If you are a good enough writer, you can write about watching paint dry and make it interesting. James Frey I’m talking to you – everyone says you’re a great writer (wouldn’t know I’m boycotting you) so write well about reality and it should be sufficient.

    2. People getting ghost writers to write their stories (Three Cups of Tea and Until Tuesday) should have tried narrative nonfiction about the people around them rather than themselves. Again, those stories when well-crafted, should be sufficiently compelling. If they’re not, write real fiction, or don’t write at all. Motives must be questioned here.

    3. This “will it sell culture” is harsh. I know when I was looking for an agent, I had one teeter on the brink of saying my story would have been better if my son had actually died instead of nearly died. Yep . . . since “nothing actually happens” in my book, according to she who did not actually read it, she thought it wouldn’t sell. Uh huh.

    4. #3 is not a good reason for being a douche bag liar, and see #1.

    When my kids tell me they don’t like a rule I tell them, I don’t like to wait for stoplights when there’s no traffic, but that’s just the way it is and if I get a ticket it’s my fault. I have major issues with books that present absolute fiction as true stories. There are plenty of parents out there whose children HAVE died, whose children have gone through more and less than mine and all have moving stories, BUT those parents are not real writers and while the true events might be harrowing, there is a certain amount of insight and perspective along with basic writing ability that turns an experience into a compelling and readable narrative.

    In Frey’s case, that argument could be made that his experience could stand on its own and he didn’t need to lie. In the case of the other two “authors” I don’t know why they were “writing” in the first place. I know that makes me sound like a snob, but I have no problem with Duggard’s book or other books by people with true and authentic stories using ghost writers, it’s only when they start lying that it really irks me. Then again, ghostwriters for fiction ala Snookie . .. groan that’s another rant.

  3. Julie Rowe says:

    Authors who lie should have to give the refunds, not the publisher. The publisher is just as much a victim as the readers.

    I write medical romance, and while I’d love to write about some of the more amazing and absurd things I’ve seen happen in hospitals, I can’t. No one would believe them (they sure don’t when I tell some of those stories at parties). I find it ironic that I have to made stuff up so people will find my stories believable.

  4. Amanda, you don’t have to tell me about the harshness of “will it sell.” Unfortunately, that’s how we all keep the lights on and beagles in designer doggie chewies.

    But to suggest that it would have been “better” if your son had died is OUTRAGEOUS. They totally missed the point of your book – which isn’t about the hold-on-to-your-seatbelts-blood-and-guts, but rather an amazing journey that exposes every element that a family undergoes when a child has CHD. Your book will be the go-to book for families and friends of those who have CHD. And I’m extremely proud to be publishing this book.

    Julie, I hear you about medical stories. I do medical fiction, too, and some of the stories docs told me were so amazing that I concluded I couldn’t use them because no one would believe it. Oh, the irony.

  5. I thought most contracts have a clause that makes the author financially responsible for the law fees, etc., when something like this happens.

    Heck, I’ve even seen this clause in fiction contracts.

  6. Absolutely, if the author is sued, the publisher is protected from this, and it falls on the author. However, if a book is discovered to be a big fake, the publisher usually offers to refund the buyers, or they pull the book from the shelves. In those cases, the publisher eats it – and that doesn’t begin to cover the marketing and promotion they put into the book.

    Sure, they can sue the author for falsifying their book and making it unsaleable, but the advance is long gone, and the author usually has no real assets. So the publisher loses.

  7. Becky Mushko says:

    Wait . . . you CAN’T mix Twinkies and bananas? Have you told the beagle? What if she offers you a banana Margarita with some deep-fried Twinkies on the side? Would you dare to reject her efforts?

    Now if she submitted a cookbook of banana-Twinkie recipes—yeah, reject that.

  8. NinjaFingers says:

    Twinkies used to be banana flavored.

  9. Amanda Adams says:

    I’m not at all opposed to the need for a viable product to take to market. For instance, there were unnecessary parts in my first drafts that are long gone because it detracted from the reader’s expectations and experience. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t at all necessary, and keeping the proper focus for an audience of reader/consumers was more important than expressing certain thoughts. That’s what essays or diaries are for.

    Honing a book to make it more marketable totally makes sense in a partnership to bring it to the marketplace. When I read all of the advice that said to have a manuscript truly finished before submitting, I took it very seriously. I thought it should not be only technically proficient with solid line editing but also clear and on point and a good experience for readers.

    That said, the desire for marketability shouldn’t be an excuse to play fast and loose with the truth. It also says nothing good about a writer’s character that in response to pressure he/she simply lies. In the earlier comment I wanted to acknowledge that the marketability of a book is a real factor that causes pressure on aspiring nonfiction authors, but it should be an incentive to write a better book not make things up . It’s not only agents and publishers who care about how well a book sells, but it’s not selling, it’s stealing when a writer sells everyone a fake.

  10. Lev Raphael says:

    I couldn’t read Frey because his book sounded too wild, but I never articulated to myself what exactly bothered me. So I can’t say I was prescient. There was another faked memoir about a woman claiming to be in a gang, remember that one? I read reviews and a NYT profile of her and never even got to the book. All I remember thinking consciously was “There’s something wrong with her eyes.”
    So I felt some discordance, without being really clear what bothered me. Finding out both had lied didn’t surprise me, and it mad me more determined that my own memoir “My Germany” would be scrupulously accurate–to the best of my ability. I haven’t been outraged or angered personally by all the memoirists who have punked their audiences, but it’s made me angry as an author in the genre because I think it casts suspicion on all the rest of us who work hard to be as accurate and truthful as possible.

  11. The thing about you, Lev, is that you have a long, illustrious history, so you’re unimpeachable. It’s these new literary wonders who pop up from under their rocks with their packs of “misremembered” memoirs. I know those publishers had to pay through the nose for their lying authors – and that infuriates me – especially when Frey is now given so much respect. Meh.

  12. Lev Raphael says:

    Lynn, can I get that on a t-shirt?

    –Lynn Price

  13. Indeed you may, Lev.

  14. Eddie says:

    So what’s an honest memoirist to do? Does it reek of desperation to include in a query letter “will provide references for all factual information presented” or something like that? How can an author reassure an agent or editor that their story is, indeed, true and has been fact-checked?

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