The Truth is Stranger than Fiction?


So, inspired by a discussion that came up in my MA class last week, I have been thinking about ‘true’ stories. There are, of course, lots of true stories published every year, but the uncomfortable question that readers and publishers have to ask themselves sometimes is, exactly how much of this is true?

As a child I adored Roald Dahl. As a teen I devoured ‘Boy’, and later, ‘Going Solo’, Dahl’s autobiographies, well aware that they were almost completely made up. Did it bother me? Not really. Having been told that they contained a lot of lies made me feel more secure in reading them. The honesty meant that I had no expectations, and no sense of anger at being lied to. As a reader you place a huge amount of trust in the writer. You hand them your feelings and thoughts on a plate and you invest time and emotion into what you read, and to be let down by a book is a terrible thing.

Dahl’s books, fictionalised though they were, were amazing. To this day I don’t know what, if any, parts of them were true. And I don’t care.

But I’ve been wondering how I would feel if I had read them expecting them to be accurate and true, and only to find out later that they were fabrications? Would it change my opinions on them? On other books by the writer? On other books in the genre?

In recent years there have been a couple of high profile cases of writers who have lied in their autobiographies. Not just the little white sort to gloss over things we don’t want to discuss in public, or the actions that in hindsight make us look like tools, but lie about the whole thing.

Possibly the biggest case in the last decade has been that of James Frey. His book, ‘A Million Little Pieces’, was picked up by the Oprah book club and became a massive bestseller. It chronicled his life as an addict, detailing some pretty gruesome events and struggles, and the process of recovery. It was applauded for being gritty and honest. But here’s the thing – he made it all up.

He’s not the only one either.

In 2002 Simon and Shuster paid £300,000 for what they believed to be an autobiography by Michael Gambino, son of Mafia boss Carlos Gambino. In reality the book was completely fictionalised and written by Michael Pellegrino – a conman who has never met the Gambino’s and has no connection with the Mafia. The book was pulled from shelves and resulting legal battle for damages involved not only the author, but his agents, AMG and the publisher. It’s a sobering reminder that it’s not just the author who is at fault.

It would seem that celebrity memoirs would be easy to check, but Clifford Irving, in an attempt to boost his career, claimed to have co-authored the autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. The problem came when Hughes himself came forward and exposed the whole thing as a hoax before the book even made to print. Irving spent 17 months in prison on a fraud conviction.

In 2000 a Navajo named Nasdijj published a bestselling autobiography called ‘The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams.’ It was the first in a series of three memoirs in which Nasdijj wrote about his dysfunctional childhood, Navajo heritage, and the abuse he suffered as a young boy. The books followed his story into adulthood, where he describes how he adopted a child with fetal alcohol syndrome and another who was HIV-positive. Wanna guess where this is going? That’s right, it’s all fake. Nasdijj turned out to be a man named Tim Barrus who has no Navajo connections, but has a failed career as an gay S&M fiction.

Native American stories seem to be big business in the publishing world, and seem to attract their fair share of fakery (and plagiarism, but we’ll come to that in a later post Cassie Edwards), like The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter, which follows “Little Tree” Carter, a Cherokee boy in the early 20th century who learns about life from his grandparents and resists the Western world. Turns out that, surprise surprise, Carter was really a white supremacist Klansman called Asa Earl Carter, and who worked at one point as a speechwriter for George Wallace.

Big events and disasters seems to attract fakers like lawyers to a pileup. After all, as we have seen with some of the well documented fakers of events like 9/11, it’s surprisingly easy to fake your way into a situation, and when it’s a large scale event, the chances of anyone proving you wrong are slim. Take, for example, the Holocaust.

Normally a sensitive subject bravely tackled by historians, veterans and survivors and victims, it’s a difficult subject to take on. Not for some of these folk though. ‘Angel on the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived’ by Herman Rosenblat didn’t even make it into print in 2009, despite the publicity and hype around it. The book supposedly revolved around Rosenblat’s youth spent in the Buchenwald prison camp during the Holocaust, and how a local girl would pose as a Christian and meet him at the fence to give him food. Apparently they lost track of each other, but met years later on a blind date. Even before the book was in print the film rights had been optioned and Oprah was singing it’s praises. This time the tale has a slight hint of truth, Rosenblat did survive the Holocaust. But everything else in the book is a lie, as pointed out by Holocaust scholars doing a basic fact check. The book was cancelled two months before release, resulting in massive debts and behind the scenes chaos as a new title was scheduled for the release slot. Never mind the loss in credibility for both the author and the publisher. In 1997 Mischa Defonesca published ‘Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years’, which detailed her experiences of being a Jewish girl during the Holocaust, drug addiction, travelling Europe, reuniting with her parents and living with wolves (no, seriously!), but it wasn’t until 2008 that she finally admitted her real name was Monique de Wael, and that she wasn’t Jewish, and apparently she didn’t live with wolves. Before de Wael there was Binjamin Wilkomirski and his 1995 novel ‘Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood’, about, you guessed it, the Holocaust. An entirely fabricated account of a childhood spent in labour camps. Binjamin Wilkomirski turned out to be Bruno Dosekker.

More recently Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, published, to great acclaim, the memoir Margaret Seltzer (under the pseudonym Margaret B. Jones) ‘Love and Consequences.’ It was a painful tale of her life as a foster child in gang-infested South-Central Los Angeles. Naturally when it turned out to be a fabrication, the focus turned to her publisher and the news organizations that helped publicize what appeared to be a searing autobiography.

And this is perhaps the part that writers, and readers, don’t really appreciate. When you present something as a memoir, we have no option but to take you at your word. This means that publishers and promoter are putting an awful lot of trust, not to mention money, into you and your book. So, is it really okay to make it up?

Sure. I mean, if it’s a novel, then by all means, make it all up. That’s what a novel is, right? But when it comes to a memoir, something which is, but it’s nature and definition, an accurate, true and very personal account of a history or events, is it morally right to lie?

So, what drives these writers to fabricate their memoirs? Well, sometimes the story is just too out there to sell as fiction, sometimes it’s a case of timing, maybe your story isn’t right for the market, maybe it’ll be a hard sell as a piece of fiction, or maybe it just attracts more attention if you can say ‘this is a true story’. There you go, instant marketing tool. And sadly I think that’s what the case is most of the time.

Admittedly, there are aspects of our own lives that we would all choose to lie about, and most of us do. We edit ourselves and our pasts as we go, there are things we hold back and things we exaggerate. But there comes a point where we have to ask ourselves, as writers, what is this story?

I’m not a big fan of memoirs in general. I have to admit that the majority of them I have come across have been self-indulgent celebrity memoirs, and tragic tales of neglected children and abuse. Neither of which is really for me I’m afraid. The truth, I suspect, is that I personally don’t find real people all that interesting.

Of course, not all fabrication is a bad thing. There are thousands of fabricated books published every day. They are called NOVELS. I do have to wonder, if the writer is so good, why not just publish the book as a novel, why LIE about it? And the sad truth, I suspect, is that it comes down to marketing. There’s just so much more you can say about a ‘true’ story, especially if it’s full of struggle, sadness, Native Americans and drugs.


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