The recent allegations, by no less an eminence than 60 MINUTES, that Greg Mortenson’s bestseller THREE CUPS OF TEA contains what the author himself now acknowledges as “some omissions or compressions” – in other words, in the now-immortal phrase from the office of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), there are parts of the book that are “not intended to be a factual statement” – again underline an open but inconvenient secret: there are no fact-checkers at book publishers.
So how can we trust any “factual statement” in a nonfiction book? That’s a darn good question!
Some magazines – not all, by any means – have teams of in-house fact-checkers; for generations the gold standard has been The New Yorker. For an early-1997 issue, I was quoted three times in a John Seabrook piece (it was later adapted for his book NOBROW) about the STAR WARS merchandising empire, once not for attribution, a request which Mr. Seabrook observed. A couple weeks before pub, I spent about half an hour on the phone with a New Yorker fact-checker who not only confirmed my own quotes (including the anonymous one), but also took me through the entire piece and asked if I could shed any light on any of the other facts. By about :10 I felt slightly annoyed, but almost instantly overruled myself, realizing that I had a rare front-row, first-person seat for this long-heralded process. So it was she who finally ended the call, not me. Indeed, I was actually able to help her out a couple of times beyond my own quotes.
I remembered that incident after reading a recent New Yorker piece on the fan impatience over George R.R. Martin’s multivolume fantasy saga A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE (HBO calls its derived series GAME OF THRONES, omitting the initial “A” which appeared on the first novel – I’m sure The New Yorker is aware of every tiny mote of these facts). Within the piece is a quote from Anne Groell, my former Bantam colleague and George’s editor. I’ll bet you Anne had a similar conversation with the New Yorker fact-checking department; whether she permitted it to go on as I did, I’m not so sure.
But this is the extreme – a weekly publication which is obsessed with verifying every possible fact. I’m going to pull a Potemkin number out of my rear end (the place in each of us where all Potemkins reside) and guess that an average “single issue” of The New Yorker contains about 30,000 fact-checkable words, not counting the front-of-the-book listings, which are fairly cut and dried and don’t require fact-checking by phone, or fiction. Even if it’s as much as 50,000, which I doubt, that’s still only about half of a typical nonfiction book. Put another way, even using the liberal estimate, The New Yorker publishes the equivalent of just under two books per month. Note that there’s a difference between proofreading, which book publishers do too, and fact-checking. Also, every book is copyedited, a process which does fix the most glaring factoids. But nobody at a book publisher comes behind you on the phone to confirm every single fact.
If book publishers operated like The New Yorker, their product would (a) cost more – you think books are expensive now? and (b) take much longer to produce. It’s all they can do to provide legal reads for potential libel, and not every book even gets one of those: whether to ask is usually a value judgment on the editor’s part. (There are some obvious exceptions: a tell-all celebrity book will almost always get a sniff by the publisher’s legal department, especially if it’s unauthorized.)
In the standard publishing contract, the author warrants that s/he is presenting original material – not plagiarized – to which s/he deserves the copyright. When an author delivers a nonfiction manuscript, s/he is assumed to have fact-checked it through research. On memoirs, which seem to produce the most trouble these days, people like Mortenson and James Frey are saying, this is what happened to me, and if you begin with disbelief, you’re distorting the whole publishing process. Just as a journalist trusts eyewitness reporters to turn in the truth (which is why the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass affairs were so shocking and hurtful to a profession which is, word for word, fairly honest), so the book publisher trusts its author to know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Has to. It wouldn’t work otherwise.
So: how do you know what to trust?
There are several indicators, the first being reputation. If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough or Robert Caro writes something about an historical luminary, I tend to believe it without question, but that’s based on their prize-winning former work. If anybody of this stature were ever caught fudging the truth, I’d be flabbergasted. Similarly, I’d be more willing to trust a Nobel laureate in physics on the subject of physics, or a lifelong gardener on the subject of gardening. If the physicist writes about gardening, though, establishing authority is an uphill battle. The second is substantiation. More and more authors of serious nonfiction are including extensive notes sections afterward, opening up their own research process for all to see. (Some polemical books use the same format, but it can be instructive to sift through the cited sources: this or that website, a second-hand comment, etc. “Research” can be made to seem more rigorous than it really was. Caveat lector.) Finally there is plausibility. If someone writes that George Washington canoodled with space aliens, the burden of proof is on the author, and it better be damn good. Legitimate nonfiction writers unearth surprising facts all the time, but they back them up with evidence.
Sadly, none of this works with a memoir, which is a private recounting of personal details and is almost always gentler to the author than the actual events may have been (c.f., Donald Rumsfeld). Even most Presidential memoirs, significant though they may be, we take with a grain of salt. We don’t know that a scene is honestly rendered, only that the author asserts it. As with all the other reassuring fantasies of childhood, we simply have to grow up and let go of this one: just because it’s printed in a book doesn’t make it true.