Believe It or Not
Memoir fabulists getting caught means the system is working.
It stands to reason that the same thing would be true for writers (and this includes disgraced journalists like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass as well as memoirists). The more skilled they are, the more deftly they can make people believe. Moreover, in today's competitive literary market, editors and other gatekeepers want to believe. That's in part because people are naturally credulous (the alternative—reflexive skepticism—is unattractive for many people to contemplate) and in part because the rewards are so great. Memoir today is like one big game of misery poker: The more outlandish, outrageous, or just plain out-there the recounted life, the more likely the book is to attract the attention of reviewers, talk-show bookers, and, ultimately, the public.
A personal narrative presented as factual—whether it's between covers or coming out of some guy's mouth at a bar—always plays for some level of stakes. If the story is innocuous or dull, it will probably stay unchallenged. But the higher the stakes—if its "facts" are in support of charged political issues, if it makes unlikely or melodramatic representations, if it defames some recognizable individuals, or if it starts selling in significant numbers—the more likely it becomes that the fakers will be outed.
Lillian Hellman didn't get the investigative treatment until part of Pentimento was made into the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda as Lillian; James Frey didn't get it till Oprah anointed him. The family depicted in Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors didn't sue him until the book became a massive best-seller. And the author of Love and Consequences was exposed only when her picture appeared in a New York Times interview as "Margaret Jones" and her sister called the newspaper to report that the lady in question was really Margaret Seltzer.
As I say, the system works. It throws shame on the perpetrators and metes out more or less appropriate career punishment; certainly, the fabulists lose the credibility needed to publish additional nonfiction books (unless they're in the form of an apology for—or explanation of—their misdeeds, as with disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair). The editors of fake memoirs are suitably chastened: Even if they acted in totally good faith, it's presumably one-more-strike-and-they're-out. And with each scandal, the whole book world—editors, reviewers, and readers—gets a little warier and adjusts its BS detectors one more notch toward Level Orange. The NYT reported that at the request of Riverhead Books, Seltzer "signed a contract in which she had legally promised to tell the truth."
Of course, she lied on the contract, too. So while the system works, it isn't perfect. No matter what color the general alert, at some point in the not-distant future, a memoir—say, an inspiring saga about being raised by autistic parents in the hollows of Kentucky—will come across an editor's desk and knock his socks off. He will meet the author, who will talk a good game and who will, once the book is published, get plentiful bookings and money reviews. It will seem too good to be true. It will be. But sooner or later, someone will do some checking and get the goods.
Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.