Are disclaimers a license to invent?

Examining culture and the arts.
Feb. 7 2006 12:52 PM

Reality Bites

Do disclaimers give memoirists license to invent?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
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In 2002, a man published a memoir chronicling his substance abuse and the months he spent in jail after committing a crime. When a reporter discovered that the memoir was built around a fabrication, the author defended his embellishments in the name of literary license: "What I was doing was a literary genre known as a memoir," he explained, and pointed to a disclaimer in his book noting that identifying details had been changed. The man was not James Frey. He was Jimmy A. Lerner, the author of You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish, published by Broadway Books. The fabrication was a significant one. The book describes Lerner's murder of a thuggish 6-foot-3 maniac he calls "the Monster," in a drug-fueled fight to the death in a hotel room. In fact, as David Kirkpatrick later reported in the New York Times Magazine, Lerner had actually killed a 5-foot-4 former medical equipment salesman who may not have been armed.

Confronted with Lerner's and Frey's blithe willingness to tell lies, it's time to ask: How much leeway does a disclaimer really give an author? Take the disclaimers that James Frey and his publishers recently announced they're appending to forthcoming editions of A Million Little Pieces. "I altered events and details all the way through the book. [One such embellishment] involved jail time I served, which in the book is three months, but which in reality was only several hours," Frey writes in a defensive three-page "Author's Note" that avoids cut-and-dried accountability. He insists that his changes were artistically motivated—serving "what I felt was the greater purpose of the book"—and studiously avoids the word fabrication. Meanwhile, Doubleday's "Publisher's Note" may strike some readers as evasive at best: "We bear a responsibility for what we publish, and apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion surrounding the publication of A Million Little Pieces," Doubleday writes, announcing that it also plans to take out ads "concerning these developments." Precisely what these ads would contain is unclear.

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The original function of a disclaimer—which commonly read, "Names and identifying details have been changed"—was to protect the publisher from being sued by people who recognized themselves in an author's portrait. The disclaimers offered by Frey and Lerner, however, serve the opposite purpose. These disclaimers protect the authors from our realization that the people in their "nonfiction" books are not real people at all. Rather, these once "real" people have been so altered as to be inventions—fictions serving the author's story of redemption. Nothing about these caveats protects identities; nor are they present merely to suggest that the author's memory is imperfect or note that elisions have been made for narrative economy.

My Friend Leonard, by James Frey

This is especially true in the case of My Friend Leonard, Frey's sequel to Pieces, which if anything is filled with fabrications even more extreme than those in his first book. My Friend Leonard was originally published with a disclaimer, which, printed in small type on the copyright page, reads in its entirety: Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed. Some sequences and details of events have been changed. To see just how inadequate this is, consider the memoir's opening lines: "On my first day in jail, a three hundred pound man named Porterhouse hit me in the back of the head with a metal tray. I was standing in line and I didn't see it coming. I went down. When I got up I started throwing punches. … I have been here eighty-seven days. I live in Men's Module B, which is for violent and felonious offenders. … My cell is seven feet wide and ten feet long." Frey spent only three hours in jail. While you could call this description a "change," it's better to call it exactly what it is: a flight of fancy. As Tom Scocca pointed out in the New York Observer, a disclaimer that truly captured the liberties taken here would reach epically absurd proportions within the first paragraph. But Riverhead has done nothing to emend its presentation of the book. Its catalog copy chirpily links to an old CNN article headlined "The angel from the underworld," which describes Frey as a "fearless" writer reluctant to "whitewash" his life. Indeed. He prefers to black-wash it.

Impostors have always stalked publishing, and the embellished recovery memoir is merely the latest specterto hauntthe industry—trading, partly, on readers' willingness to turn a half-blind eye if they feel that the fabrications smack of emotional truth. Given this, what should a publisher do, if anything? One problem is that book publishers have no obvious public venue for holding writers accountable. Magazines and newspapers issue corrections, and readers find those corrections in the same medium in which they read the stories—usually not long afterward. Books don't have corrections pages, and new editions are not issued with the frequency that makes newspaper-type corrections possible. Many editors think it's not economically feasible to fact-check every book; intellectually, it may not be feasible either, given the degree of expertise brought to certain subjects. The publishers' predicament is a real one.

So, what do editors think might be the best way to deal with this problem? "You can destroy the books and reprint, but that is prohibitively expensive," said Jonathan Karp, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Warner Twelve, a new publishing initiative. "Basically, the genie's out of the bottle," he continued. "Most publishers now have online catalogs—so, I guess technically on each book you could refer people to the catalog page for additions and corrections. I don't know if anyone's thought of that." Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, said, "There aren't official procedures, but the supposition is that editors need to be smart and well-trained enough to spot this stuff. The editors are supposed to do some work here—not just have lunch and sign up the book. They are supposed to get to know the author, know the text, roll up their sleeves, and work to learn what the real truth is. And then they should give the copyeditors guidelines for further checking." About issuing disclaimers in cases like these, Sifton said, "It's purposeless, except to save face."

Interestingly, many of the editors I spoke to—several of whom spoke under the condition of anonymity—felt that theywould never have let such a hoax slip through. And yet according to Kirkpatrick, Gerald Howard, Lerner's editor, had carefully tried to vet Lerner, building up a relationship based on trust and scrutinizing the text Lerner sent every week; they spoke regularly by phone. Even so, Howard apparently never requested to see Lerner's court documents or asked his parole officer for the details of the crime—or, if he did, he apparently decided the disparities were not worth itemizing. Perhaps a too-personal relationship makes it harder to apply professional rigor, which may have been the trouble Sean McDonald, Frey's editor, ran into; reportedly, in the course of editing, the two struck up a friendship.

Obviously, in the post-Frey era, editors will show more due diligence. In the meantime, mushy disclaimers don't go far enough in outlining just how false the information in books like these really is. A purist might argue that publishers ought to destroy copies of a book that's full of manipulative fabrications. But—setting aside the question of expense—pulping a book that's still in demand may smack of censorship. Instead, publishers invested in accountability might consider pulling books from stores and limiting their availability to mail-order sites—or, since many books are ordered at Amazon.com and bn.com, announcing there that the product is not as it was advertised. Whatever the case, publishing houses should ensure that their own disclaimers are formulated in clear language, itemizing the author's liberties and making it evident that they are serious about packaging work accurately. The paperback version of You Got Nothing Coming includes an author's note that promises to do just this. Instead, just like Frey's note, Lerner's trumpets the "emotional truth" of his story. It indicts his critics as scolds who didn't get the "literary" motivations for Lerner's alterations: In making the Monster physically huge, Lerner was letting us know that this guy seemed huge to him. (Uh, thanks. That changes everything.) And then he offers a squirrelly apology—one that Frey echoes closely. Out of personal weakness, he confesses, he tried "to present myself as a far braver, stronger, and more heroic person than I really was—or am." (Compare this with Frey's line.) Recently, a spokesperson for Riverhead suggested that changes might be made to future editions of My Friend Leonard. Let's hope they include a new disclaimer that's a little less self-serving than Lerner's.

Part of the predicament editors face, of course, is the continuing appetite for this type of overblown story. Sales for Frey's books may have dropped since the Smoking Gun allegations were made public, but it's not as though the marketplace has turned its back on Frey. Lerner's book is apparently being made into a Hollywood movie starring Liam Neeson. No one's fooled that all the confessional lore that claims big audiences and spots on Oprah is exactly true. But because of labels like "memoir" and "nonfiction," we have to pretend the spectacle is based in reality. So, perhaps instead of rigorous policing, we need a new name for this hybrid category. We're talking about stories inspired by gritty real life—stories that claim to be outrageously "authentic," like the best reality TV, while also playing up their own tabloid qualities. Maybe Doubleday didn't need an author's note; it needed Barnes & Noble to set up a new section in the bookstore. Coming soon to an outlet near you: "Reality fiction."

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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