Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Life after being debunked

Remember when James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was discovered to be a collection of "a million little lies"? The story was everywhere in the summer of 2006. Since then, several other memoirs have been discovered as being not quite factual. Other authors have been accused of plagiarism. Is there literary life after you’ve been caught?

Possibly. But it’s difficult.

A couple years after the Million Little Pieces debacle, James Frey released his first novel, Bright Shiny Morning, last May to reviews that didn’t really pan the novel, but didn’t really call it the next great American masterpiece either. Former Publisher’s Weekly editor-in-chief Sara Nelson wrote in her review: “Yet the guy has something: an energy, a drive, a relentlessness, maybe, that can pull readers along, past the voice, past the stock characters, past the clichés. Bright Shiny Morning is a train wreck of a novel, but it’s un-put-downable, a real page-turner—in what may come to be known as the Frey tradition.” The novel went on to appear on the Times’ best seller list. By all accounts, Frey is currently at work on his next novel.

In March 2008, Margaret B. Jones was caught fabricating a memoir of life as a foster kid in south central Los Angeles. Her sister tattled on her to her publisher, Riverhead, after seeing a feature story in The New York Times. Jones’ book, Love and Consequences, ceased production. Her book tour was canceled.

These cases weren’t enough to deter another author from trying his hand at inventing his autobiography. A couple of months ago, Herman Rosenblat’s tale Angel at the Fence was discovered to be a hoax. The jig was up when reporters at The New Republic asked Holocaust historians to verify Rosenblat’s claims. It didn’t take long for his story to crumble. No telling where he’ll go from here.

Finally, this week’s edition of Newsweek has an update on the new life of Kaavya Viswanathan. In 2007, Viswanathan was accused of plagiarizing pieces of her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, from various sources including Chick Lit authors Megan McCafferty and Sophie Kinsella. The similarities were tough to blame on happenstance. Viswanathan lost her publishing contract, the book was pulled from shelves and DreamWorks dropped their plans to make a movie based on the book. Two years later, she’s now a law student at Georgetown and seems to have put her literary aspirations to rest for good. Maybe she’s studying copyright law?

Generally, Americans love a come back story. However, I think it’s safe to say that if you’re writing a memoir, it’d be best not to put yourself in a situation where your credibility may be compromised. Members of the media are growing increasingly weary of memoirs, so much so that an author of ours built a website called "A Million Little Proofs" to prove all the claims he made in his memoir of being an orphan were real. The website was a great place for us to direct media members when we were pitching his book.

As publicists, we spend a good deal of time trying to build credibility for our authors with members of the media. Once that credibility is put in jeopardy, it can be difficult to get it back. Even Frey was slammed by various media outlets when Bright Shiny Morning came out. If you’re working on a memoir, tell the truth, check your facts and be honest with your publisher. And remember: you can still write a compelling story, even if it’s not your personal biography. Just make sure you’re writing your own thoughts.

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