Facts vs. Fiction – Avoid the Lena

In the nonfiction genre, a publisher’s job is to be confident that the books they publish are fact, not fiction. This can be a tough nut to crack in cases where the only proof they have is the author’s word. And I don’t want to even address those queries that insist theirs are memoirs, but have been fictionalized. WTF?

Being able to verify facts are the very reason I pass on a number of projects. I’m talking about the “Insider story!! I was there working in the Pentagon!! Explosive information that will blow the lid off America! Must read! A sure bestseller!!!” Unless they can present verified proof, then I’m really not looking for a tax audit and listening devices planted in my Vickie Secrets trouble.

End game is that we don’t wanna be sued. And we certainly don’t want our authors to be sued. Who needs the aggravation? We talk to lawyers, the authors, and their agents because we don’t want to ruin our hard-earned reputation, our author’s reputation, or the reputation of anyone who’s mentioned in the story, through intentional or thoughtless creation. And yes, sometimes the author has ulterior motives that the publisher isn’t aware of, which can be a real buzzkill.

But sometimes publishers are aware…

Which leads me to another Lena Dunham story. Yes, I realize I just blogged about her in another post, but she’s really a one-person wrecking crew. Her screw ups are valuable lessons to writers because she represents the perfect storm where idiots in positions of power are let out of their straight-jackets to run amok and destroy lives.

If Lena’s happy admission of sexually abusing her sister wasn’t enough, she went went for the double slam by discussing her college rape at the hands of a fellow student. She named him Barry, and offered up enough specific details to toss suspicion in one man’s direction…a man named Barry, whose college life mirrored the description in Lena’s tome. Predictably, he got fingered as being the college rapist. and public suspicion grew. Lena knew it. Random House knew it, because the man had been contacting them since the beginning of October. And no one did anything about clearing up the mess, until it reached critical mass. It wasn’t until the second week of December that they finally decided to cut Bary a break and admit this wasn’t the Barry in Lena’s book.

Six weeks this man was left twisting in the wind by the author and Random House.

Dunham finally wrote a statement:

“To be very clear, ‘Barry’ is a pseudonym, not the name of the man who assaulted me, and any resemblance to a person with this name is an unfortunate and surreal coincidence. I am sorry about all he has experienced.”

So it’s all a co-hinkey-dinky that Dunham’s intricately detailed description of her fictional rapist exactly matches the actual student named Barry? And she and Random House did nothing to prevent this from ever happening? I’m utterly gobsmacked at this overreaching stupidity.

The Lenas of the literary world always have an agenda, which is why it’s so important that the publisher is a real grown-up – not only to protect their author from looking like a queen-sized asshat, but also to protect themselves. Where was the editor on this, and why didn’t her bloody red editing pen intersect Lena’s manuscript with a hearty “‘Scuse me, but are you on drugs?”?

As a writer, I understand how easy it is to write with great prejudice, which is why first drafts are a writer’s bestest buddy. But at some point, the pain, anger, or agenda needs to be confronted and banished from the finished product so that the story has the highest degree of legitimacy. Narratives that spew malicious invective are on equal footing to the sixth grader who got dumped on the playground via note-passing because the boy lacked little chestnuts to break up in person. Okay, I was in fifth grade, but I digress…

Memoirs are often cathartic, so I see many manuscripts that are dripping with pain – sometimes to the point of being counterproductive. It’s my job – every editor’s job – to help show the author how to refine and shape their pain into something powerful and sage in order to maximize their story.

It’s also the editor’s job to seek out and question anything that doesn’t look to be true because lives can be destroyed. Know how long it takes to destroy someone’s reputation? About an hour, given our online lives. Authors may not care what kind of impact they make on those they write about, but publishers damn well have to. Do publishers really want to risk shouldering that responsibility?

Lena’s a putz, and life will go on just fine without her asshattery. But Random House…in all their largesse…really has me wondering exactly what the hell is going on over there. How did one book create such a hot mess of ineptitude? Such an infantile, immature decision allowed Lena to drag a man’s reputation through the muck, and they sat by and did nothing.

It’s irresponsible writing and publishing. Both author and publisher should be extremely ashamed. Avoid the Lena.

 

 

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