That said, the issue is quite a bit more complicated than the Atlantic writer, Kate Newman, presents it. She is right to point out that sometimes publisher justifications for not fact-checking the basic facts of a memoir are kind of thin:
The reluctance may stem in part from a sense that it's unkind to question victims, especially when their pasts portray them unfavorably. Nan Talese, [James] Frey's editor, sat beside him on the couch at Oprah. "As an editor," Talese wondered, "do you ask someone, 'Are you really as bad as you are?'"
"Yes," Winfrey flatly replied.
Or perhaps people are too in love with resilience narratives—the more harrowing Frey's original circumstances, the more buoyed we felt by his success.
But Newman is overly focussed on the Big Lie Memoirs, the ones whose complete-bullshit premise could have been disproven by a couple simple phone calls. While those cases make headlines (and Oprah) they're not at all the only liabilities there. Plenty of those big researched and reported books you read — the histories, the biographies, the current events books — aren't fact-checked either.
Newman suggests that publishers should shoulder the expense of verifying "key details." Not to defend publishers overly, but I think she is underestimating the cost by quite a lot. The problem is that what makes a fact "key" to one of those more general non-fiction books isn't quite as clear. The inaccuracies in them might be "smaller," but they still have the power to undermine the whole. Think, as just one example, the fake Bob Dylan quote in Jonah Lehrer's Imagine.
And even the fabulists are the easy cases. Lots of respected reporters, historians and biographers make huge factual errors, all the time. Some of them are plain sloppy. Others get stuck because the work is hard and painstaking and the "truth" of a matter is not always as stable as you'd like it to be. Old newspaper articles get dates and names wrong; anecdotes are misheard and misremembered; people are fallible, etc, etc.
You can often tell the "good" non-fiction writers from the "bad" ones by how honest they are about this. Years of watching hacks and fabulists come and go persuade me that the one thing they never are is humble. In this interview at the Awl, for example, John Updike's biographer Adam Begley is relatively candid:
I know that there are mistakes in here, because I've seen them already. At one point, I'd transcribed Updike wrong. I used the word ensnared when, in fact, he'd used the word ensnarled. That was a bitter pill when I saw that I'd done that. That was caught by New York magazine, whose fact checker was checking my excerpt. If I'd had a fact checker all along, I think this would be a much cleaner book. I'm sad to say that, but I'd be dishonest if I weren't owning up to it.
This sort of humility is the only legitimate approach, though very few writers actually manage it. Too bad, really, because the fact is there is no fact-checking apparatus on earth that will catch every single error. I have it on good authority that even The New Yorker, with its vaunted fact-checker army, prints the occasional mistake.
[Image via Shutterstock.]