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Memoirs and publishing culture

In light of recent scandals in memoir-writing, publishing agents talk of the tradition of trusting authors.

india Updated: Feb 04, 2006 14:43 IST

Five years ago, literary agent Andrew Stuart received an e-mail from a writer named Nasdijj saying he was in need of representation. Stuart was impressed by Nasdijj's manuscript, a memoir about life as a Navajo, and got the author a two-book deal with Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, Inc. Although the two communicated frequently by e-mail over the next couple of years, author and agent never actually met. Stuart lived in New York, Nasdijj in North Carolina. The author had already published with a prestigious house, Houghton Mifflin, and had written an acclaimed essay for a high-profile magazine, Esquire. "It never occurred to me that this was a trick," Stuart said of his former client, now believed to be a white writer, Timothy Patrick Barrus, pretending he was an Indian. "In this industry, you take somebody at their word." Allegations that Nasdijj was in fact Barrus surfaced last week in an article in the LA Weekly, and later in The News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C., which reported Friday that Nasdijj's government-issued Social Security identification number matched that of Barrus.

The revelations about Nasdijj, an award-winning author whose books Ballantine has stopped selling, and the acknowledged fabrications of James Frey's addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces, have made publishers appear indifferent to truth at the expense of profit. But the failure to catch such fabricators has as much to do with honour as with dishonour- the industry's noble, if naive, reluctance to question the word of the author. Call it a culture of trust.

"In Hollywood, the culture allows people to dissemble and deceive and then they'll do another deal together. Those are the rules in Hollywood, but those are not the rules in publishing," says Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

"Contemporary publishing is a strange amalgam of art and commerce, as it has always been. But despite most houses now existing as pieces of big multinational companies, it is still an old fashioned business of gentlemen and gentlewomen," says Eric Simonoff, a literary agent with Janklow & Nesbitt Associates. "There is an assumption that authors of serious books- memoirs, works of history, book-length works of journalism- will approach their jobs with integrity and decency. Going forward, however, I suspect that when editors read a work of nonfiction that is too good to be true, they will think twice and ask more questions." Publishers don't fact-check memoirs and that is unlikely to change. Publishers say the process is too expensive and too time-consuming and note that fact checkers didn't stop Jayson Blair of The New York Times from writing about places he had not visited or Stephen Glass of The New Republic from writing about events that never happened.

But the reluctance runs even deeper, to how the industry sees itself, the sense that asking for a birth certificate or criminal background check- requests that could have prevented such authors as Nasdijj and Frey from moving forward- is beneath the dignity of publishers and writers.

"When you're dealing with a new writer, at least a writer new to you, you're trying to establish a relationship. And starting off that relationship by making it seem like a passport application isn't the right way to do it," says Ashbel Green, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf.

"It would mean entering into a deal with complete suspicion and skepticism," Entrekin says. "This is more than a business. A book deal is a complicated transaction that's got a lot of psychological and emotional content to it."

At least one literary agent, Ira Silverberg, has a right to be suspicious. Silverberg represents author JT Leroy, or at least the books that have been published under Leroy's name. Leroy is now widely believed not to exist, a literary invention impersonated by a bewigged woman in public appearances, while someone else secretly writes the books based on Leroy's supposed past as a prostitute and drug addict.

Silverberg had met the person who claimed to be Leroy, but acknowledges he never suspected he was being fooled. Now, he says, "There are these days where I scratch my head, and wonder about a lot people, `Who was that I was just speaking on the phone with?' I second-guess myself more often."

But Silverberg speaks of a new client, a fiction writer from "the middle of America," whom the agent has never met and, noting that they have mutual acquaintances, doesn't plan on doing so. "I have a nice relationship with him, I like the work and he's not telling me that he's an HIV positive, drug-addicted prostitute," Silverberg says. "There's no persona. He's just an average person not pretending to be anything."

First Published: Feb 02, 2006 16:19 IST