Now that the media uproar over James Frey's fabrications in his memoir A Million Little Pieces has begun to fade, the scandal's repercussions are becoming apparent in three ways. A number of forthcoming nonfiction books now carry unusually meticulous author's notes and acknowledgments. A guide to addressing "truth, lies, composite characters" and more in nonfiction is being published. And some editors have noticed that the way they acquire and edit memoirs has changed considerably.
Rodale v-p and executive editor Leigh Haber, who edited Tom Sykes's What Did I Do Last Night? A Drunkard's Tale, said, "I've been very diligent, post—James Frey, in being sure that any piece of nonfiction I'm editing is fact-checked thoroughly, whereas previously, it was more of a judgment call book to book." Haber said the Frey incident was a wakeup call for publishers to act on behalf of their authors, and said fact-checking her authors' works of nonfiction is part of her obligation as a publisher. Sykes's book, published this month, thanks Frey in its acknowledgments, and several of this fall's other books contain what seem to be Frey-inspired notes (see sidebar).
Norton senior editor Amy Cherry has not changed her approach to editing nonfiction since the Frey scandal, but did say she now looks at manuscripts she's considering acquiring with a sharper eye. "I read a manuscript and I think, 'Did they invent that dialogue or not?' " she said. Cherry has noticed agents are being more up-front with her when shopping a manuscript. "The agents are much more aware that this could be an issue," she said, "and they're trying to reassure publishers when they're handing over a memoir that what they're getting is the real deal."
No editor would argue that the Frey incident brought truth in memoir to the forefront; in Cherry's words, "People had gotten a little too lax in understanding the terms of it." To that end, Cherry just acquired writing professor Lee Gutkind's Keep It Real. The book is based on a recent issue of Gutkind's journal Creative Nonfiction that was devoted entirely to truth in memoir, entitled "A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF." While Gutkind wrote the guide in response to the Frey incident, Norton decided to change its title to make it a more universal work on writing.
But not everyone in publishing has changed the way they handle memoirs post-Frey. Erin Hosier of the Gernert Agency represents many memoirists, but said the truth aspect is "not really a part of my pitch. Usually the writing speaks for itself. I don't believe I've ever been asked, 'Is this a true story? Did this really happen?' " Gernert represents Koren Zailckas, whose memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood contained the story of having her stomach pumped at age 16, among other episodes. Smashed, which was released in paperback earlier this year, did not contain an author's note or acknowledgment regarding truth.