The truth? That's another story

The Baltimore Sun

The old adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me" doesn't seem to apply to book publishers.

For the second time in less than a week, a memoir that was passed off as fact has turned out to be fiction, causing observers to wonder if the industry should be doing more to regulate itself.

Margaret Seltzer and Misha Defonseca's names have been added to the pantheon of recent fabulists headed by James Frey, who admitted exaggerating and inventing parts of A Million Little Pieces, his 2003 best-selling account of his recovery from drug addiction.

"It's no more possible to protect yourself 100 percent from a hoax than it is to protect yourself 100 percent from a suicide bomber," says Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly magazine.

"But if a book sends up red flags, more fact-checking should be done than is done routinely."

On Monday, Riverhead Publishing announced that it is recalling the 19,000 copies of Love and Consequences that have been released and is offering a refund to consumers who purchased the memoir. The book purportedly was the story of a half-Native American, half-white girl named Margaret B. Jones who sold drugs for a gang in Los Angeles.

Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, also is canceling planned book tours for the author, whose real name is Margaret Seltzer, and who comes from a privileged background.

"Riverhead is saddened by this turn of events," says a statement released by the company.

"Riverhead relies on authors to tell us the truth. ... When it became known that the author was misrepresenting her personal story, we took it seriously, moved very quickly and attempted to corroborate new information we were presented with."

Riverhead can take comfort in the knowledge that it isn't the only publishing entity to be hoodwinked recently. This past Thursday, it was revealed that Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years also had been falsified.

The author, Misha Defonseca, a Belgian woman, is not Jewish, as she claimed. Nor was she orphaned at age 4 and forced to wander alone through the forests, where she was protected by a pack of wolves.

Defonseca's book apparently has not yet been published in the U.S., but it has been disseminated worldwide, translated into 18 languages and made into a feature film in France.

Similar scandals are not uncommon in other branches of publishing. Stephen Glass pulled the wool over the eyes of his editors and colleagues at the New Republic magazine until he was caught in 1998, while Jayson Blair notoriously bamboozled The New York Times for four years before his lies were discovered in 2003.

Experts say these cases expose the vulnerability of an industry that relies heavily on trust.

Journalists have access to tools not commonly used in book publishing, such as a public-records database at newspapers, and fact-checkers at magazines. But neither is foolproof; Glass circumvented fact-checkers at The New Republic, and public records are not error-free.

David Poindexter, publisher of MacAdam Cage, an independent press based in San Francisco, says he isn't troubled if a date in a memoir is later found to be incorrect, or if a name is misspelled.

"But to have a whole book fabricated, I don't know how that can happen," he says.

"You spend a lot of time with an author. The editor of Love and Consequences says she talked to the writer nearly every day for three years. If there was a disconnect in the story, the editor should have picked it up."

When Poindexter edited a dramatic memoir called Farewell to Prague in 2001, he approached the author, Miriam Darvas, with healthy skepticism.

"I did kind of question her whole story about how she escaped the Nazis," he says. "I did have a question as to whether her story could have been fabricated. But I saw family pictures and I read letters. It was all true."

Apparently, Margaret Seltzer, who goes by the name Peggy, also produced supporting documentation for Love and Consequences.

"Prior to publication, the author provided a great deal of evidence to support her story: photographs, letters; parts of Peggy's life story in another published book," Riverhead says in the statement.

"Peggy's story had been supported by one of her former professors. Peggy even introduced the agent to people who misrepresented themselves as her foster siblings."

Nelson of Publishers Weekly says that editors who have invested years in a project may become blinded by their own desire for the story to be true.

She says officials at Riverhead "took some steps, yes, but I think they might have looked harder," she says.

"Sometimes, when you put a lot of energy and emotion into a project, you don't want to see possible holes."

While the recent scandals are embarrassing, there is also a danger in going to the opposite extreme and over-scrutinizing manuscripts, the experts say.

"You can't check every fact, or that's all you'd do," Poindexter says. "If editors become too cynical, it could have a chilling effect on what gets published."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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