Just Because You’re in Publishing Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Be a Moron

Here’s a headline, in the wake of James Frey:

Publishers Say Fact-Checking Is Too Costly

Yes, but is it more costly than fighting off a $10 million class-action suit? Personally, I’d guess “no.” Heck, even a lousy settlement will cost more than the salary of one poor bastard fact-checker, slaving away in the bowels of some publishing company’s basement, calling up local law enforcement to see if their author was, in fact, charged with masturbating a parrot in front of schoolchildren, or whatever ridiculous thing you need to claim you have done in order to get Nan Talese to fork over the cash these days.

And, no, thank you, I’m still deeply unimpressed by the “but memoir is about emotional truth” line. Look, I could tell you what I think happened last week and someone else would say “well, I remember it differently.” That’s fine; we’re not perfect data recorders and people tend to remember things in a way that allows them to live with themselves. However, there’s a difference between remembering imperfectly and just lying your ass off because it makes a better story. You should know whether your arrest for onanistic avian encounters actually, you know, happened. It’s not a thing one would forget. And one wouldn’t confuse it, say, with a cite for jaywalking. And in any event, it’s a relatively trivial thing for someone to check. An arrest for parrot masturbation is definitely going to make the local papers. It’d probably be the most exciting thing to happen in two counties that entire day. Thank God Oprah backed off from that ridiculous line of “emotional truth” thinking and ripped Frey a new one when she brought him back on the show. At least someone has a clue.

What I expect will happen is something which the WSJ story suggests will happen, which is that language gets introduced into memoir contracts specifying that the author is at least attempting to tell the God’s honest truth; it’s not as good as an actual fact-checker, but legal indemnity is good enough for the purposes of not being sued. As an author of non-fiction, I certainly wouldn’t mind signing a contract with that sort of amendment, but then, I’ve never been unclear on what non-fiction is. Go ahead and fact-check that statement. You’ll discover it’s the truth.

24 Comments on “Just Because You’re in Publishing Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Be a Moron”

  1. “masturbating a parrot in front of schoolchildren”

    Hot damn, that’s funny! I’m taking in your point and all that, but I can’t get past that part. For the real humor, let’s open the floodgates to the readers for what words that parrot repeats over and over again!

    But yes, lying is wrong. Tsk tsk.

  2. It’s not that much of a jump to confuse “jay walking” with “parrot masturbating.” I can see how the error could be made…

  3. Maybe if you were masturbating a parrot WHILE Jay-walking… in Singapore. So maybe there’s a language barrier, maybe your right to legal counsel and facing your accusers is a little less stringent, maybe you were actually arrested for chewing gum while you did it?

  4. You know, I don’t like that Oprah brought Frey back onto the show just to shred him in front of her audience. She was wrong to have defended him when the truth came out, but she was even more wrong to trash him for ratings. As classy as her mea culpa was, the ‘interview’ afterwards was just barbaric…

  5. Small point–there are actually two different lawsuits here. One is the $10 million suit for ‘injuries’; that one will probably get laughed out of court, and the publisher won’t pay its in-house counsel any extra. The second is a class-action suit for the cost of the book. I would assume the “class” in this case is anyone who bought Frey’s book before he fessed up (with the woman filing the suit being the named plaintiff).

  6. John

    Did you read Frey’s book?

    Here’s the opening few paragraphs:

    I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood. I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives.
    How can I help you?
    Where am I going?
    You don’t know?
    You’re going to Chicago, Sir.
    How did I get here?
    A Doctor and two men brought you on.
    They say anything?
    They talked to the Captain, Sir. We were told to let you sleep.
    How long till we land?
    About twenty minutes.

    How long did it take till you knew Frey was lying. For me–it was the fourth sentence –no one gets on a plane in that conditon. Any book editor–or reader– with half an ounce of common sense ought to know that. Heck, a journalist that reported something like this would have been out of a job.

    For the life of me, I can’t believe Oprah believe this guy, no matter what his publisher told her.

  7. I’m editing a non-fiction book right now, a military history, and it’s driving me nuts that there are no footnotes. There are conversations recounted that I’m pretty sure weren’t recorded except in some old geezer’s memory. But, there aren’t even notes for those. He sent the manuscript out to an agent, who had it for quite awhile. After the agent passed, author cut it down, and I’m editing it, appalled that it was sent out in the condition it was. Author assures me that endnotes will only make it look like a scholarly work and, therefore, less marketable. I’ve known a few authors and know enough that unless you’re A-list, there’s not much editorial support, including for fact checking, continuity, etc. I’ve known the author for years, and trust his reserach skills and veracity, but as a reader (and a wonky librarian), I like a little documentation.

  8. For the real humor, let’s open the floodgates to the readers for what words that parrot repeats over and over again!

    “Polly wants a whacker.”

    Hey…someone had to do it.

  9. I suspect another reason for the lack of fact checking in publishing. If everything published as non-fiction had to be actually factual, large and (presumably) profitabel parts of the publishing industry would have to cease publishing.

    I mean there goes von Däniken, Velikovsky, and anything in their vein. The New Age section of bookshops would have to get rid of the holistic healing, the magic crystal stuff, the … well basically the hole section would have to.

    A very strict interpretation of fact may also eliminate many other books. I suspect that for instance self improvemet and manangement gurus are not always able show scientific proof that their methods actually work.

    Even science books could be attacked on factual grounds. If you pick up a book on the Solar Sytem published fifty years ago you will probably find some inaccuracies. I suppose it’s really not realistic to expect a 1950’s publisher to send a rocket ship to Mercury to check that it’s really tidally locked.

  10. OGN

    “If everything published as non-fiction had to be actually factual, large and (presumably) profitabel parts of the publishing industry would have to cease publishing.”

    Patrick Nielsen Hayden actually talks about that here. His basic point is that the “non-fiction” label is expansive enough to encompass speculation and untruth as well as factual material, and in a general sense I can’t gainsay that position.

    I don’t know that your example of science books is on target, however. Science is always revising and upgrading our understanding of physical phenomena, but by and large the people who write the books try to get things right as much as possible given the information at the time. I wrote an astronomy book a couple of years ago; between now and then, some of the information the book has become outdated. It doesn’t mean the book was wrong (or non-factual) when I wrote it, merely that there’s more and better information now. When I do a second edition (which will be later this year), I’ll get it up to date.

    Also, in the case of Frey, he was quite aware going in that he was writing fiction and passing it off as “truth” — he was busy declaring that every word of the memoir was true until he was confronted by evidence he was lying through his teeth. This is manifestly different from someone blathering on about scientifcally unproven management theories or speculating about UFOs.

  11. O.G.N., I think you’re taking it too far with the science example. There’s a big difference between being mistaken and lying. And scientists continually attack each other’s books on factual grounds.

    But you do have a point. Some publishers aren’t that concerned about the truth. Not because a fact checker would cost money. But because the truth is sometimes just not as provacative and catchy as a seductive lie. A good lie can be what gets someone to pick up a book and take it to the checkout line – after that not much matters in the short term.

    As Bob Smietana pointed out, the editors of the book would have to be incompetent to not realize that wild exagerations were going on. My guess is that they knew but thought that they could slip it by an play word games to cover themselves.

  12. This whole thing seems like “Quiz Show” all over again. Frey lied & got caught. He’s an idiot who deserves public ridicule, and possibly legal/financial penalties. But basically, no one got hurt here.

    The media’s just pissed because it was made to look bad. Oprah actually said it out loud, which was refreshing: “I feel duped.”

    The publisher got duped too. I don’t see how they did anything wrong. If you bought the book & you’re ticked off that it was a bunch of lies, be ticked off at James Frey, not the publisher. Then, get over it. The fact that a total stranger did not have a horrible recovery from drug addiction shouldn’t be that big a deal to you, should it?

    Meanwhile, at the end of the day, all of this hoopla will probably sell more books for James Frey than Oprah’s book club did in the first place…

  13. Rumor has it that when Oprah washed her hands of Frey his sales dropped quite a bit. If true, it would be more evidence that one should not displease her Oprahness.

  14. Last year it was the cat, now it’s the parrot. Dammit, Scalzi, can’t you at least stick to the livestock and stay away from the pets?

  15. Ok, it seems I did not make my points clearly the first time. I’m rather good at being unclear but let me try again.

    In the specific case of James Frey, I agree that he is a rotter and a cad and deserving of little sympathy.

    What I mainly wanted to address was the statement that paying a fact-checker would be cheap. I believe most larger publisher have a variety of “non-fiction” books which they know are about as factual as the tales of H. C. Andersen. The main cost of checking facts wouldn’t be paying the fact-checker, it would be the loss of income from those books.

    When it comes to the tide-locked Mercury I’m aware that I pulled that as far as it would go and then some. The line about 1950’s rocketships to Mercury was intended to show that. Apparently this is where I was best at being unclear.

    The reason I brought up Mercury is that Larry Niven’s first published story “The Coldest Place” depended on Mercury being tide-locked. After he sold the story but before it was printed it was discovered that Mercury was not in fact tide-locked. I haven been told* that at this point Niven contacted his editor and offered to pull the story since it was no longer Science Fiction but pure Fantasy. Poor guy, it was his first professional sale too. When we get this far I hope we can all agree that fact-checking has gone too far. Niven’s editor also agreed and the story was printed.

    The point I was trying to make, rather badly, is that there is a line from fact-checking by way of checking for the right facts to checking for the right opinions, and somewhere along the line the publishing house starts to self censor their output for political correctness and against controversy. There are certainly cases where I believe both writers and editor can see the value of triple checking every fact, encyclopaedias and textbooks would be obvious examples. If an editor receives a non-fiction manuscript which he/she thinks smells particularly fishy some discrete fact-checking may be in order before the book is accepted, but on the hole I think it is better if non-fiction writers are assumed to have tried their best, and that any error is indeed an error and not a deliberate lie.

    Normally I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this last part, but there have been quite the brouhaha over some silly cartoons here in Scandinavia lately, and some of the local politician of whom I thought better have been rather wishy washy over this hole Freedom of Speech thing. As a result I’m feeling a bit grumpy and hyper-allergic to anything that can be interpreted as censorship.

    The story probably haven’t made the news over there so here it is in short: Last year a Danish author was having problems finding someone to illustrate his book about the prophet Mohammed. The newspaper Jyllandsposten and ran an article about self-censorship. They illustrated the article with some cartoons depicting the prophet in various guises. The reaction to those cartoons have been out of all proportions. They include bomb-threats to the Jyllandsposten offices, DoS attacks against their webserver, boycotts against Danish goods in the middle east, demonstrations and the burning of Danish flags, a raid by masked gunmen against the EU office in Gaza, and a wide variety of terrorism threats from all over the Islamic world.

    Several muslims have claimed that the cartoons incite to hatred and distrust of Islam, but from my point of view the reaction to the cartoons have caused significantly more distrust than any cartoon could ever hope to. I mean all religions have their far out whackos, American Xtians have Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for instance, but they seem uncommonly common among the Muslims right now.

    I just notice that Bill Clinton have been condemning “those totally outrageous cartoons against Islam” so you probably have heard about this in the US then. Never mind my blathering, but if you want to judge the outrageous cartoons yourselves you can find them here:

    *But I don’t remember where or by whom and so I will not guarantee that this is the truth, the hole truth, and nothing but the truth, or even that there is grain of truth in it. It may just be a good story.

  16. I don’t keep livestock

    I thought every Ohioanwho did not live in Toledo or Cleveland was required by law to own a certain number of livestock animals?

  17. Damn! Now I can’t seem to recall Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch without seeing Nan Talese behind the pet store counter and Scalzi out front.

  18. Three supposed memoir writers busted in a month for being untruthful. Major stories in New York Times and Washington Post. I really hope this meme spreads to the political journalists. I am tired of reading stenography of public officials that I know the reporter knows is untrue.

  19. Now if he’d have said, “I awoke to the roar of the subway with four teeth missing and covered in blood, snot, urine, and vomit,” I’d have bought it.

    Er… I’d have bought the story, not the book. I did, in fact, see people like that on the subway, and those were on their way to Wall st. during the morning commute.

    And Mythago, I resent that comment about Ohioans and livestock. I’m gonna come out there and kick your ass right after I get done feeding the goat.

  20. “I’m rather good at being unclear but let me try again.”

    I myself list sarcasm and slacking on my own resume. I highly recommend putting “Can be unclear with the best of them” in your skills section because you never know where that will take you in life. You could, in fact, become a micropress novelist just like me.

    (Yes, it’s late on a Saturday. No, I haven’t been drinking. Let me go correct that right now. Damn! Out of Jameson!)

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