03.06.09

Who's Afraid of Fake Memoirists?

Another memoirist—a baseball player—came under scrutiny this week. But don’t listen to those who say we’re living in an age of James Frey and JT LeRoy. We’re living in an age where we’re finally adept enough to catch them.

Plus: Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Sound the alarm! The kingdom of letters has admitted Trojan horses: James Frey, JT Leroy, Misha Defonseca, Margaret B. Jones, Herman Rosenblat, and now Matt McCarthy, portions of whose baseball memoir, the New York Times reports, are “incorrect, embellished or impossible.” The watchmen have let down their guards. Meghan O’Rourke writes, “The line between what is factually true and what is purveyed as ‘authentic’ [is] blurry indeed.” David Callahan says, “We live in a self-revelatory age, a culture of narcissism.” Daniel Mendelsohn writes, “The very concept of ‘reality’ seems to be in danger.”

I write: Hold your horses. In the rush to diagnose these fake memoirs as symptoms of a diseased culture, we have failed to consider an equally plausible alternative. What if the exposure of fake memoirists is not due to an increased frequency of lying, but rather to our increased ability to root out liars and hold them accountable for their verisimilitudes? Perhaps the outings of these hoaxes mark not a blurring of the line between fact and fiction, but a further demarcation.

It seems unlikely that, say, every claim in Casanova’s The Story of My Life would hold up to such scrutiny. And yet, if we knew this were the case, would we excise it from the canon?

In his interview with Bloomberg, Callahan, who wrote The Cheating Culture, acknowledged that, with regards to literary fraud, “It's hard to know if there's more of it—or if there is just a spate of these coming to light.” Indeed, before making too many pronouncements about the age of literary fraud, it may be helpful to remember that the novel was born from exactly such confusion. One of the standards by which the earliest novels were judged was their ability to convince readers that their narratives were, in fact, real. Authors deployed several tricks to scaffold the illusion. Robinson Crusoe was “written by himself,” according to the novel’s title page, which omitted Daniel Defoe’s name. In Samuel Richardson’s preface to Pamela, which excluded his name altogether, Richardson included several real letters from friends to whom he had shown the manuscript, but he changed the salutation from “Dear Author” to “Dear Editor” and even, writing under the guise of “editor,” praised “Pamela’s” letters. “This was a lie, but not a hoax,” Jill Lepore writes. “Richardson wanted his novels to be read with ‘Historical Faith,’ since they contained, he believed, the truth of the possible, the truth of human nature.” Richardson’s authorship was revealed shortly after Pamela’s publication, but rather than serving time on Oprah’s couch, he was hailed as an innovator of the novelistic form.

Whereas novels were unashamedly fake memoirs at their conception, our recent hoaxes suggest that the line between the genres, once drawn, cannot easily be erased. This is in no small part due to the Internet’s surveillance. The Web is often derided by its critics as a tinderbox for rumor, but it has, in fact, been an unprecedented forum for readers to broadcast their doubts and work together to verify an author’s claims. All along, historians had raised questions about Misha Defonseca, who claimed to have survived the Holocaust by living with a pack of wolves, but the engine of her downfall was her former publisher Jane Daniel’s blog. Frey’s sine qua non of the fudged-memoir genre, A Million Little Pieces, was debunked by the website The Smoking Gun, which posted his actual arrest records and compared them to Frey’s embellished retellings. Beginning in 2007, Deborah Lipstadt used her blog to gather evidence against Herman Rosenblat’s memoir, which told of his reunion with a woman who once smuggled food to him through the fence of a Nazi concentration camp. One year later, doubts over Rosenblat’s story burst into the mainstream media.

If anything, you could argue that the fact-checkers are doing too good a job. There seems to be some risk that, in attempting to hold memoirs to journalistic standards of factuality, the watchdogs miss the forest for the trees, fixating on minor details in books whose general pictures are correct. The New York Times includes in its dossier against Matt McCarthy disputations by teammates who McCarthy alleges threatened children and made fun of Hispanics, as though their denials of having said such self-incriminating things were more trustworthy than McCarthy’s accusations. In a New Republic article from 2007, Alex Heard tried to yoke David Sedaris to Frey and his ilk in part by reporting that the people Sedaris made fun of were unhappy with their portrayals. When Jose Canseco published his baseball memoirs Juiced and Vindicated, reviewers caviled over minor details and unsubstantiated claims, including that Alex Rodriguez had used steroids. Needless to say, recent events have proven the gist of Canseco’s memoirs largely correct.

Indeed, it seems unlikely that, say, every claim in Casanova’s The Story of My Life would hold up to such scrutiny. And yet, if we knew this were the case, would we excise it from the canon? Writers’ enormous talents can sometimes render moot questions of their works’ factuality; our fraudsters, meanwhile, attempted to compensate for their meager talents by actually inhabiting their bloated fictions. They suffer not an excess of imagination, which can illuminate even the most mundane experiences, but a retreat from it. And yet simply because they lost their handles on the truth does not mean that the culture also has. Maybe now, with new tools at our disposal, we are simply detecting a condition that has long gone underreported. Maybe the symptom of our age is not the fake memoirists themselves, but the catching of fake memoirists. In which case: Sound the church bells! The traitors are routed! The watchmen won!

Ben Crair is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.