As Oprah undoubtedly knows, truth in nonfiction can be subjective, twisted, or entirely absent. “Angel at the Fence,” by Herman Rosenblat recently joined the ranks of “A Million Little Pieces” and “Love and Consequences” as Oprah-endorsed memoirs that turned out to be fictitious. This revelation has sparked concern over Oprah’s prowess in endorsing books.
It shouldn’t-or rather-this factor alone shouldn’t. A sad fact is that readers are often helpless in verifying the authenticity of memoirs. With other nonfiction books, a host of resources help alert readers. Think something is amiss? Just look up the sources they used on the Internet or at the library. Or check out the author’s credentials. Or judge the logic they’re using.
But what’s an average reader to do when it comes to memoirs? Track down the author’s relatives and friends and interrogate them? Sure, common sense or a sharp BS radar may help. Rosenblat’s account of his future wife handing him food through a concentration camp’s barrier is what triggered Holocaust scholars to call into question the book’s veracity. But many nonfiction books are published on unlikely and extraordinary things happening to people-that’s what makes them interesting enough to be published.
Then there’s the problem that almost all memoirs possess an element of fiction. They have to. Unless an author has a picture-perfect memory, memoirs would be awfully flat and boring-very little dialogue (who can perfectly recall a conversation?), no intricate descriptions, sketchy details, etc. David Sedaris, a successful and hilarious writer, acknowledges his stories are oftentimes exaggerated for comedic effect but are based on the truth.
Of course, Oprah has more resources than the average reader. After being burned so many times by authors, she will hopefully use her resources to fully check out the author and their claims. But ultimately, it isn’t really her job.
One of the most disappointing aspect to come from the faked book memoirs is the publishing industry’s ready admittance of fabrication problems without committing to really do anything about it.
In an ABC news article, Publishers Weekly Editor Sara Nelson cites financial difficulty holding back publishers from taking more active steps-even after the Frey fiasco: “There’s not enough manpower to check these books and at no point will there be a battalion of fact checkers hired.”
But when your industry deals with nonfiction books, fact checkers should be a priority in the budget-not viewed as expendable.
What’s disturbing is that there are most likely many more memoirs out there that have been fabricated-either not popular enough to get the scrutiny these other books did or their authors are better at covering the falsehoods.
Until the nonfiction publishers get their priorities straightened out, expect more memoirs to be revealed as fabrications.
Friedman, Emily. “Is Oprah’s Golden Touch Tarnished?” ABC News. 30 Dec. 2008. http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=6543206&page=1
Zane, J. Peder. “The Naked Truth about Sedaris.” PopMatters. 28 Mar. 2007. http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/the-naked-truth-about-sedaris