Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Million Little Lies

I recently saw a documentary on James Frey and his controversial book A Million Little Pieces. I decided to do some research, and I found this review on A Million Little Pieces on It got me thinking, "Should editors be more careful (I guess you could say) about what they choose to publish?"
News from Doubleday & Anchor Books

The controversy over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces has caused serious concern at Doubleday and Anchor Books. Recent interpretations of our previous statement notwithstanding, it is not the policy or stance of this company that it doesn’t matter whether a book sold as nonfiction is true. A nonfiction book should adhere to the facts as the author knows them.

It is, however, Doubleday and Anchor's policy to stand with our authors when accusations are initially leveled against their work, and we continue to believe this is right and proper. A publisher's relationship with an author is based to an extent on trust. Mr. Frey's repeated representations of the book's accuracy, throughout publication and promotion, assured us that everything in it was true to his recollections. When the Smoking Gun report appeared, our first response, given that we were still learning the facts of the matter, was to support our author. Since then, we have questioned him about the allegations and have sadly come to the realization that a number of facts have been altered and incidents embellished.

We bear a responsibility for what we publish, and apologize to the reading public for any unintentional confusion surrounding the publication of A Million Little Pieces. We are immediately taking the following actions:

  • We are issuing a publisher's note to be included in all future printings of the book.*
  • James Frey has written an author's note that will appear in all future printings of the book.* Read the author's note.
  • The jacket for all future editions will carry the line "With new notes from the publisher and from the author."

    Anonymous said...

    More careful what they publish or more careful putting a piece of writing in the correct genre--it's probably just a marketing scheme.

    Pat said...

    And a million little chances to do the right thing—all spurned in the quest for fame and profit.

    Frey is a liar and a thief: someone who stole people's esteem, faith, and goodwill. Not to mention all the money he made off the sales of his book.

    Doubleday and Anchor are chastened, and they have no doubt added a penalty clause to their contracts that is activated when the author misrepresents his or her work. Or, rather, when they find out the author has done so.

    Plagiarism is another plague that has visited some of the U.S.'s biggest and most important publishers in the last decade. This story about Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore who plagiarized the work of a woman named Megan McCafferty, got a tremendous amount of coverage when it appeared; below is an excerpt.

    * * *


    Even if Viswanathan is found to have plagiarized passages, McCafferty may not be able to bring a copyright lawsuit against her. In fact, Viswanathan may be more likely to face a suit from her own publisher over a contract violation.

    According to legal experts, infringement litigation operates under a “different standard” [from] plagiarism. They said that it is possible to plagiarize a work without infringing on its copyright.

    “Plagiarism is passing off one’s work as your own, but that doesn’t necessarily make it copyright infringement,” Justin Hughes, the director of the intellectual property law program at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, said. “In an infringement action, a person can use a ‘fair use’ defense. That is, that they didn’t use so many words as to be guilty of infringement.”

    Lawrence Lessig, a prominent intellectual property scholar at Stanford Law School, also said that plagiarism and copyright infringement are different concepts.

    “If I use a sentence from another work and pass it off as my own without citing it or quoting it, that might not be copyright infringement because I wouldn’t necessarily need permission to use it,” Lessig said. “But since I’m asserting that I am, in fact, the author of that sentence, that would be plagiarism.”

    Though Viswanathan might not face copyright penalties from Random House, she could face a suit from her own publisher.

    Hughes said publishing and movie contracts normally include clauses requiring that the author’s work be original.

    “If she has a book deal, there is probably a contractual clause as to her work being original both with her publisher and with DreamWorks,” Hughes said. “This is a matter of contractual law, not of cut-and-dry copyright law.”

    He added: “Of course, we don’t know what the contract looked like, and they’re not going to show us.”

    * * *

    The New Yorker, as you may know, was famous for its team of fact-checkers: people who would check the facts of every piece of nonfiction the magazine published. I don't know if this team still exists; my guess is not. See this article from the Columbia Journalism Review. The tip-off for me came, as I said in class, when an article by Malcom Gladwell appeared with the word bacteria used as a singular noun.

    Pat said...

    Re the New Yorker's fact-checking team: please take a look at this opinion by David Robinson.

    I appreciate Mr. Robinson's statements and hope that my class—past and present—will read what he has to say. Well worth reading, his comments temper mine.

    Pat said...

    Ritchie, I neglected to answer your question about editors being more responsible about what they publish. Acquisition editors select what gets published; often, as I said before on the blog, their decisions have to be approved by editorial boards.

    Copyeditors do not decide what gets published; however, if they feel strongly about manuscripts, they may voice their opinions to the acquisitions editors. These opinions may or may not affect what gets on the publisher's list.