Lying authors and the readers who love them

Much ado has been made lately over the case of Winfrey v. Frey, the public tiff between the Queen of Pages and the author who fabricated large parts of his criminal history so as to arouse the sympathy of his readers. While I thought the whole affair was a carnival sideshow to begin with, I am pleased that The O had a change of mind and brought James Frey back to justice. While her sheep are hers to command, I’m glad she is herding them back to an appreciation of the truth. It will be interesting to see whose stock rises faster now, hers or his.

Predictably, the evil publishing industry and its media minstrels have been falling over themselves to “debate” the issue of whether nonfiction should be true. I find the whole thing rather distressing, because I believe that books are sacred and not to be trifled with. Call me naive, but the idea of an author, editor, or publisher knowingly permitting outright lies to go into a book offends me deeply.

On the other hand, it is amusing for bookwatchers to act as though this kind of thing has never happened before, and that’s the main reason for this post. I was reminded by some of the Frey coverage that John Berendt was similarly involved in a controversy over his book, Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil. Not only did I buy this book, it inspired me to take a trip to Savannah so I could see it for myself. Only after I got back did I learn just how much had been made up in his story. This Columbia Journalism Review article from 1998 lists some of Berendt’s sins (not all, I should note, are admitted by him). The most egregious in my mind is the allegation that he did not really start hanging around Savannah until 1985, four years after the murder that is the central event of the story, but there are several other slips and misstatements. Several of these problems, I researched, made it into national newspapers.

I think it is interesting to compare this historical book “flap” (pun couldn’t have been avoided) with today’s. Both authors were embarrassed in the national press. Both prompted a nominal “debate” over the fate of nonfiction. And both sold like a jillion copies. Nothing much changes, it seems.