Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Dubious Year for Memoirs

For authors, publishers, agents, and readers 2008 will go down as a dubious year. In March, the memoir Love and Consequences, a story of foster care, sexual abuse, drugs, and gangs by Margaret B. Jones, turned out to be fiction. So did Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca, who pretended to be a Jewish girl living with wolves during World War II. Now the revelation that Angel at the Fence authored by Herman Rosenblat and recounting meeting his wife of 50 years while imprisoned at the Buchenwald camp is also a fabrication.

What makes these memoirs different from Jonathan Frey’s A Million Little Pieces is that these memoirs aren’t simply an exaggeration of real events, but complete and total fiction. Rosenblat has rationalized why he chose to write a memoir that was a lie by saying, “I wanted to bring happiness to people. I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in the world.” His former publisher, Berkley Books failed to see his logic, cancelling publication of the memoir slated for February.

Holocaust scholars and other survivors fear that fabricated stories such as Rosenblat’s will only encourage doubts about the Holocaust. They also argue that the Holocaust experience was by no means “heartwarming” but “heart rending” and that books such as Angel at the Fence trivialize the horror.

But there is also the issue of why the publishing industry continues to be so trusting of authors after being burned publicly so many times. In the case of each of these books, fact checking might have prevented such fabrications. However, the literary industry seems to be a willing sucker for stories of suffering and redemption. I’ve said this before - publishers appear to feel the more outlandish a true story or memoir the better, and the hell with checking the facts.

Occasionally, a reviewer will question whether Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace is indeed inspired by a true story, however; I possess the evidence to back up that claim with court documents, newspaper accounts, correspondence, and other materials. Each of these “memoirs” told outlandish stories, yet by the time someone questioned the authenticity or blew the whistle on the author, it was too late. As 2008 draws to a close, publishers may want to put fact checking at the top of their New Year’s Resolutions.

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