A Million Little Fabulists

Having spent some time now on the outskirts of both the book business and the fact-checking business, my first inclination when someone asks - as Rod does today, of the latest critically-acclaimed, basically fraudulent personal history to hit shelves and then get pulled from them - how a publisher could have possibly allowed themselves to be taken in by one of the seemingly endless slew of memoirist-cum-fabulists, my first instinct is to sympathize with the publisher in question. People usually assume that books are held to a higher standard of accuracy than, say, magazine pieces - after all, they're longer, more detail-rich, and more expensive to produce and market, so you'd think they'd be subjected to more scrutiny as well. But in reality, precisely because books are so much longer and more detailed than magazine articles, fact-checking becomes a luxury that your typical cash-strapped, time-strapped publishing house can't afford. The Atlantic, for instance, probably fact-checks about 50-75,000 words per issue, or about 600,000 words a year; to match our rigor, Simon and Schuster (to pick a publisher at random) would have to fact-check around half a million words for the first half of March alone. Which means that publishing-house editors are more or less at the mercy of their writers' honesty, particularly in a genre where the line between fact and quasi-fiction is always going to be at least slightly blurry. If they can't sniff out a gifted faker through some sort of sixth sense, they don't have anybody else to do it for them - until, that is, the book comes out and the wisdom of crowds (or angry sisters) takes over the fact-checking job for them.

As I said, that's my first instinct. But Rod's right: The list of fabulists has grown too long, and as resource-strapped as today's publishers may be, if you can't do just a little due diligence on a memoir whose subject matter - a white girl growing up among black gangs in South Central L.A. - sounds like it was, well, invented to sucker a publishing house, you deserve all the ignominy that's about to be heaped on the saps at Riverhead Books.