Essay

True or False: Book Publishers Can Avoid the Agony of Deceit

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

To: The publishing industry.

From: Your friends in the news biz.

Re: Fake memoirs.

Two words: Fact check!

Once again, a publisher has been shocked to learn that the author of a memoir has made stuff up.

We're not talking extended lines of dialogue magically remembered from decades earlier -- that little sleight-of-pen seems to have been accepted, Lord knows why, as something memoirists are authorized by the culture to do.

No, we're talking about "Love and Consequences," in which "Margaret B. Jones" writes, as the New York Times put it yesterday, "about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods."

Margaret B. Jones turned out to be a white woman named Margaret Seltzer who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and attended an Episcopal day school. Seltzer's sister ratted her out, the Times reported, after seeing "Jones" profiled in the Times' House & Home section.

Riverhead Books published "Love and Consequences" with no hint that the author was pseudonymous, let alone a bigger, fatter liar than the immortal James Frey.

So how come you guys didn't make a phone call or two?

The humble art of fact checking means precisely what its name implies. At the better grade of magazine, poorly remunerated employees are charged with the task of ascertaining that the articles the magazine plans to publish are true.

It's a tough job, but in book publishing, no one has to do it.


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