Why Publishers Keep Getting Fooled

It's publishing's version of "Groundhog Day," the Bill Murray movie in which a guy lives the same day over and over. In this case it's not a guy, it's a fake memoir. It goes like this: publisher accepts manuscript from writer who claims to have lived through some fascinating or excruciating ordeal, book is published to great acclaim, and then it turns out that the whole thing was made up. The latest version of this story hit this week, when it turned out that Margaret B. Jones's "Love and Consequences," her account of her life as a half-white, half-Native American drug runner for a gang in South Central Los Angeles, is completely untrue—as was her name, which turned out to be Margaret Seltzer. It turns out that the middle-class young woman made it all up. As did Misha Defonseca (real name Monique De Wael), who admitted last week that she had fabricated "Surviving With Wolves," her memoir of being trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto and subsequently protected from the Nazis by wolves. And before that was the phony J. T. Leroy memoir, which followed the James Frey memoir scandal. And on and on it goes.

It's a mystery why people fabricate memoirs and foist them off on unsuspecting readers, in the same way that it's mysterious why people plagiarize, even when there's nothing to gain by it. But the psychologically aberrant, like the poor, will be with us always. Does the same have to hold true for all of publishing? Is it written somewhere that mass delusion must always prevail in these instances? Must publishers fall for the same scam again and again? Must those of us who write about publishing cover the exact same story over and over, getting exactly the same angry and/or puzzled reaction quotes from Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff and Frank McCourt and all the other legitimate memoir writers? Hey, don't get the wrong idea—it's always fun to talk to Mary Karr. But it sure would be nice to have a different conversation now and then.

It would be even nicer to have a conversation with a publisher in which the publisher announced that a new system had been put into place to fact-check the memoirs they planned to publish. Seltzer received something less than $100,000 as an advance for her memoir. Would it not have made sense to pay a freelance journalist a few thousand to make sure the story held up before the book went to press? It would certainly cost less to do that than it will cost Riverhead, Seltzer's publisher, to recall and destroy all the copies of "Love and Consequences." And it's not as though this is an isolated case. It happens, literally, all the time. And it will continue happening so long as memoirs continue to sell, even modestly, because every publisher cherishes the hope, however frail, that he or she will have the next "Liar's Club" or "The Color of Water."

Publishing, unlike, say, daily journalism, is characterized by a sort of cheerleading mentality. The best thing that can happen to a book is for a whole house, from editors to publicists to mail-room personnel, to fall in love with the manuscript. All of those people will talk the book up, to their colleagues, to booksellers, to the media. But it is hard to cheerlead and be skeptical at the same time. Which is why the same mistake keeps getting repeated. Until publishers hire outsiders to play devil's advocate, we're going to be in for six more weeks of winter every day for the rest of our lives.

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