There’s a disturbing new trend in the literary world right now, it seems: emerging writers are creating amazing works of fiction and calling them memoirs. You’ve probably already heard about most of these instances:
James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces was published by Doubleday in 2003. It was marketed as a “brutally honest” account of Frey’s struggle with addiction and rehab, and classified as non-fiction. Frey’s authenticity was questioned that same year by The Minneapolis Star Tribune, though Frey insisted the contents of the work were true. Three years later, in 2006, TheSmokingGun website published a report challenging the veracity of Frey’s work, and presented evidence of his exaggerations and embellishments. After several months of controversy, Frey admitted that he had fabricated some portions of the book.
Kaavya Viswanathan wrote How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, which was billed as a semi-autobiographical work of fiction. Viswanathan was an undergrad at Harvard at the time of publication in 2006. It was reported not long after publication that Viswanathan had plagiarized passages from several well-known authors, including Megan McCafferty, Salman Rushdie (!!), Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Tanuja Desai Hidier. That’s a lot of plagiarism right there. Viswanathan issued statements through her publisher that works she previously read may have unconsciously influenced her writing.
Monique Levy, author of Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, published under the book in 1997 under the name Misha Defonseca. Her book recounts her story of survival through living with a wild pack wolves after her parents were deported in 1941. It turns out, however, that Levy was not Jewish, had never lived with wolves, and her parents were resistance fighters who were executed, not citizens deported to camps. On February 29, Levy admitted the story was untrue, but said “There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.”
Margaret Seltzer published Love and Consequences under the pseudonym Margaret B. Jones. The book originally was marketed as an autobiographical account of Seltzer’s childhood as a biracial foster child and gang member. Seltzer’s own sister sold her out to the publishers: Seltzer actually grew up in an affluent town, is not biracial, and attended a prep school. In interviews, Seltzer has admitted to using the stories of friends’ community service work in gang territory to flesh out her book.
And now, most recently, Ishmael Beah’s autobiographical account of his life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone is being questioned as well. An Australian newspaper is questioning the accuracy of Beah’s timeline, as well as the occurrence of some events that Beah reported witnessing or taking part in. Beah and his publishers are currently denying any fabrications.
While Viswanathan’s plagiarism is troubling, irritating and unethical, I find it to be less so than the other instances. While I don’t believe that Viswanathan’s writing was “unconsciously influenced” by other writers (see the wikipage for side-by-side comparisons of sample passages), I do understand how easy it is to channel work that you love without realizing it. I have often unintentionally mimicked the line structure, phrasing and word choices of some of my favorite poets (Sexton, Plath, cummings) – fortunately I have excellent proofreaders to call me out on it. I suppose what bothers me the most about Viswanathan’s plagiarism is that she is a student at one of the most highly-respected universities in the country. One would think that the standards a Harvard student would impose on oneself would be slightly higher than the frat boy types at a local community college.
But it’s the non-fiction instances of fraud that disturb me the most, especially concerning such difficult and politically charged issues: addiction, the Holocaust, gang violence, and the Sierra Leonean Civil War.
Most often, these writers have lives that are interesting enough without fabrication. Or, if they decide to invent stories, characters or events, the narrative is compelling enough that I would happily read it even if classified as a fictionalized account of a current or historical event. But instead, they’ve chosen to fabricate events, classify them as true, and market them to the public. And the public is consuming now, asking questions later – as we are wont to do – and of course getting incredibly pissed off in the aftermath of the controversies.
What concerns me is that these writers are so hungry for something (fame, money, attention, validation, whatever) that they disregard some basic facts:
This kind of fraud casts doubts on the integrity of other writers. As Terry Gross mentioned this morning on Fresh Air (NPR), she is reconsidering the idea of having authors of autobiographical works on air for interviews. She’s been lied to before, she said, and in light of everything that’s happening now, she’s really considering not including non-fiction authors anymore. Is this over-reaction on Gross’ part? Perhaps, but she’s probably not the only one to think it.
This kind of fraud creates dissent (and, quite possibly, animosity) among survivors of world events. Survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides were calling in to Fresh Air this morning to offer their opinions on the problems that these situations create. Some survivors were understandly angry and hurt over the idea that anyone would take such liberties with their experiences. Others were understanding, even forgiving, of the author’s predicaments. But no two survivors had the same position, and there was potential for some strong tension and vehement disagreement.
This kind of fraud gives deniers something to shout about. Although the Holocaust is academically accepted as truth, although it has been documented on paper, in photographs, and on film, although accounts of survival and death are abundant and verified, there are still some people in the world who believe that the Holocaust was nothing but a big hoax, a conspiracy created by Jews in order to exert their power for world domination. Fabricating stories of survival – not only from the Holocaust, but other events as well – gives detractors something to make some noise about. And really, does anyone want to hear David Irving talk anymore?
You always get caught. In this world of immediate gratification, pretty much anything can be fact-checked in a matter of minutes. For instance, if I met you at a party and told you that I was the youngest Director of Human Resources in the history of my company – even if I nailed every damn piece of information, from employee relations to demographic information; even if I was so well-versed in industry politics and culture – you could verify my claim in a matter of five minutes. All it requires is a computer (to get the 800 number of my company), a telephone (to call the HR department and talk to someone who isn’t me), and a good cover (you’re completing a verification of employee for an auto loan). So when someone writes an account of their life during a well-documented current or historical event, or as part of a well-documented culture, it’s easy enough to verify the authenticity.
Hopefully others will be learning from their mistakes. And hopefully Ishmael Beah will prove to be a falsely accused victim of paranoia. If not – how many of you will be surprised?