The journalist in me is a little embarrassed to admit that my first reaction upon hearing of the Margaret B. Jones Love and Consequences scandal last week was neither shock, nor surprise, nor, believe it or not, schadenfreude. No. My first reaction upon reading about the entirely fabricated story that was passed off as truth was defensive, as in: Oh, no. Now they're going to come after our beloved publishing business! Doesn't the public get it yet? We can't afford fact-checkers!
But pretty quickly my defenses started to ring hollow—even to me. I'd heard them before, and said them before, too many times. Yes, the Jones/Seltzer hoax was worse, in my opinion, than that perpetrated by James Frey, less a hoaxter than a guy who told a fish story that grew too big to bring home. And, yes, I still believe that it is reasonable to extend to memoirists a greater latitude in their storytelling than we give to bona fide journalists. And yes, even fulltime fact-checking or even threatened legal action (see p. 4) may not deter hell-bent hoaxters.
But I also think it's time we, as an industry, checked on another set of facts: that there are a lot of potential liars looking for book deals, that the reality show—obsessed public has upped the ante for more and more outrageous “real stories” that we may be all too anxious to provide and, not incidentally, that we're losing credibility with our audience with every scandal.
In the Jones case, there's plenty of blame to go around. First, there's the author, a woman calculating enough to invent false documentation and personages, but naïve enough to let herself be photographed for the New York Times. (She gives credence to the old saw about how criminals actually want to get caught.) Then there's her agent, Faye Bender, who supposedly met some of Jones's “foster family,” but has said next to nothing about her client and the project. And then, of course, her editor and publisher, Sarah McGrath and Geoff Kloske, who behaved admirably after the fact by immediately withdrawing the book, but who might have done well to have asked a few questions beforehand. For starters: while it's not uncommon these days for authors and editors to communicate entirely electronically, you'd think that with a story this personal and explosive, there might have been some good old-fashioned eye-to-eye contact. That, and maybe a couple of phone calls to, say, the university Jones says she attended or the “foundation” for which she built a Web site.
But publishing remains its old credulous self, falling back on bromides about “trusting the author” and “the smell test,” and the argument that being more inquisitive would be too expensive. And while it's true that these disasters are only a small fraction of the good, well-researched memoirs we publish every year, they have a lasting and perhaps cumulative impact. In these post-Frey, Google-able times, being more, not less, skeptical is not only the right thing to do, it's the expedient thing: you can bet that a mistake or misrepresentation is going to be discovered, sooner or later—so why not protect yourself in advance from the inevitable pillorying? I think we can all agree that the one thing the book business doesn't need right now is less faith from readers.
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