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.