Sunday, April 24, 2011

Controversies and a Squee

Let me start by wishing everyone who celebrates it a Happy Easter this Sunday morning. Be safe and enjoy family and friends.

Now down to business. This week has seen a couple of controversies in the world of publishing. The first began last Sunday night with the 60 Minutes broadcast. One of the stories centered on the facts of Greg Mortenson's best selling "memoir" Three Cups of Tea. In case you missed the story or the follow-up articles, questions have been raised about the accuracy of some of the claims Mortenson made in the book, including whether he actually became separated from his group and wandered into the small village on his own, needing medical assistance and the villagers nursed him back to health. Another part of the book that was questioned was Mortenson's claim he'd been kidnapped by the Taliban. The 60 Minutes piece also raised questions about how much of the money raised by Mortenson's charity -- monies that are supposed to be used to build schools in Afghanistan and other areas -- is put to use.

I don't know whether the inconsistencies raised by 60 Minutes are the result of conscious fabrication by Mortenson and his co-author, editing issues or what. But it does point out a problem that isn't new when it comes to memoirs. Who bears the responsibility for fact-checking and for determining if the book is a non-fiction memoir or a fictionalized memoir?

Remember this isn't the first time this sort of situation has arisen. Oprah got burned by James Frey and his book A Million Little Lies. There was Matt McCarthy’s Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit. When the so-called facts in the book were challenged, “Carolyn Coleburn, the vice president and director of publicity for Viking, which is an imprint of Penguin Group USA, said, “We rely on our authors to tell the truth and fact-check.” Herman Rosenblatt’s memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived was cancelled after it was revealed that, while he was a Holocaust survivor, he’d fabricated the details of how he met his wife. There are a number of others, including Clifford Irving's supposed bio of Howard Hughes.

I detailed some of the responses to the 60 Minutes piece here. One response that came out after I initially wrote about the episode reminds us that the real scandal here -- if there is a scandal -- lies not with the publishing industry but with the charity. While that is true, at least to a degree, the fact that this sort of problem continues in publishing is a scandal. Publishers have to take some responsibility for ensuring that the book they are selling to the public as a non-fiction memoir is just that -- non-fiction. It would have been very easy for Viking to contact some of the people named in the book to see if what Mortenson claimed happened did and in the way he detailed. They need to take to heart this comment from Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic: "At some point, publishers are going to have to start fact-checking memoirs. At least a little bit. No disrespect to my editors, but I know having done a memoir, that it is shockingly easy to create fiction and claim that it's real."

But that wasn't the only controversy of the week. After it was announced that Jennifer Egan had won the Pulitzer, the shine was tarnished some -- not by critics decrying that her book shouldn't have won, but by Egan herself. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Egan took what appears to be a potshot at genre fiction and the authors who write it. Also, she has an opportunity to condemn plagiarism and doesn't; in fact, she appears to tacitly give a hat tip to it -- as long as you do it to the right authors.

Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?

Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.” There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.

For more on this, I recommend you check out this post at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Read the post all the way to the seems this isn't the first time Egan has taken shot at the author of The Tiger's Wife and the fact she didn't plagiarize the right sort of authors.

Finally, a squee. Nocturnal Origins, which has been available as an e-book is now available in print. You can order it from Amazon and it will soon be available through B&N and elsewhere. If you want to get it at your local bookstore, it should be available for them to order within the next few days.


Jim McCoy said...

Congrats Amanda!

I'll be picking up ....

Err....does ordering count as picking up?

Errr...Ordering Nocturnal Origins soon. I may wait for it to hit Barnes and Noble first, but I'll definitely be picking it up.

Jennifer Egan's comments about genre fiction are to be expected. She writes "literature" and is arrogant. That's nothing new.

As far as plagiarism goes, that's the new "in" thing. Didn't you hear about Axolotl Roadkill?

MataPam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MataPam said...

You know, all these memoir writers have to do is either write the true story vividly with tons of emotion, or admit that it's a fictionalization based on their real experiences.

Would they sell less?

Is it that the writers don't understand the meaning of the terms "fiction" and "non-fiction?"

Or have they gotten so lost in their minds that they no longer can distinguish between what really happened and the imaginary embellishments?

MataPam said...

Either I've got to start previewing my posts, or this place has to get an edit button. That one was embarrassingly bad!

Amanda Green said...

Jim, thanks. And yes, ordering counts as picking up.

I also think you're right about Egan. It just amazes me that any author could even tacitly encourage plariarism.

Amanda Green said...

Pam, I agree that the authors should be able to do one or the other. However, I also think the publishers have a responsibility to fact check non-fiction offerings. This is especially true when the publisher has, like Penguin, had a number of these sorts of "oopsies". The very fact they can have an editor say with a straight face that they rely on their authors to fact check just stuns me.

Mike said...

Wow! What's really amazing -- if you read the Egan piece, then the Wall Street Journal interview, and then decide to take a look at the Speakeasy article "How Do You Write a Great Work of Fiction? Jennifer Egan Explains the Steps" because how-to articles are always interesting, right? She's written 5 works of fictions -- noir detective, gothic, and this experimental piece (they didn't mention whether the other two were genre). And for steps? Well... writing fiction should apparently be done in a gingham easy chair from Ikea, with a lap desk and legal pads. With cats. and... um? I think maybe process doesn't mean what she thinks it does? Amusing, but I wouldn't recommend it as laying out steps, exactly?

Amanda Green said...

Mike, or maybe that is the process for writing "literature" and winning prizes ;-p

Maybe that would explain why she doesn't see anything wrong with plagiarism. After all, those other authors, the banal ones, probably don't get their chairs from Ikea and their cats are probably mixed breeds and not designer cats (meow)