Friday, January 09, 2009

Since when are an author's lies the editor's fault?

I grow weary of armchair critics who blame editors and fact-checkers for bold, audacious falsehoods by authors. "What happened to editing?" these critics cry. "Where are the fact-checkers?"

They're right where they've always been, stupendously overworked and underpaid. Do these critics seriously believe that a busy editor with 50 nonfiction books on her list is also personally responsible for making sure that every one of them is absolutely true? Or that an underpaid fact-checker who works for an entire publishing house, not just one editor, can possibly think of and then catch everything in every manuscript?

I'm not talking about having a basic fact-checking procedure. Some of that is routine, and if my own experience at FSG is any indication, it does happen. Not only did I have to provide evidence of certain facts to the publisher, but I also had to spend a couple of hours on the phone with a lawyer going over the potentially actionable parts. All fine, all good, but (I would add), all my responsibility as an author. The fact-checkers and lawyers were there to advise and instruct, not to police. Even if they were there to be the truth cops, if an author has the deep-seated, pathological ability to fabricate things that happened years ago in a place that no longer exists, how would an editor or fact-checker ever know?

If you think you're so smart and no one would ever pull one over on you, take down any major nonfiction bestseller from your shelf and ask yourself how you would start proving that the important, big-picture aspects of the book are true. Where do you begin? Someone says, for example, that they should have checked to see if James Frey ever went to prison. Really? Okay, but if you don't know that's the suspect fact, where does it fall in a list of maybe 2,000 other facts that need to be checked? Now multiply the book in your hand by dozens of books, piled up all around you. They all need fact-checking. Where do you start? How long will it take? Whom do you hire, and what happens when most of the facts do check out? At what point do you stop and conclude the book is true?

Sure, it would have been nice if somebody knew that a young woman in starving Eastern Europe in wartime couldn't hide a stash of apples to toss over a fence to a boy in a concentration camp, and that her beau couldn't have made it to the fence in the first place. But that fact amid all the other checkable facts becomes a needle in an amazingly complex haystack. In retrospect we know a lot of things that are not at all evident in the moment.

I believe the critics should give editors and fact-checkers a break. The responsibility for telling the truth rests with authors.

1 comment:

The Prodigal Tourist said...

You're right, of course, but most people don't expect bald-face lies, so they're not looking for that. I also think a lot of the checking is done by lawyers now and they're probably more concerned with getting sued than with a mistake.