Vetting Memoirs A Tricky Problem For Publishers

The controversy surrounding Three Cups of Tea is only one in a string of alleged inaccuracies in memoirs and non-fiction books. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, explains why verifying seems to be so problematic for publishers.

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The controversy surrounding "Three Cups of Tea" follows a theme of serious errors being found in memoirs and non-fiction books. Remember "A Million Little Pieces?" According to "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortensen, his publisher, Viking Press, played no small part in the decision to dramatize his story.

So what do you think? Does a publisher have responsibility to check facts in books described as memoirs or non-fiction? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Sam Tanenhaus is editor of The New York Times Book Review and joins us now from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SAM TANENHAUS (Editor, The New York Times Book Review): Oh, my pleasure. Good to be here.

CONAN: And has Viking responded to the criticism of the facts and, well, its multi-time best seller?

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, not to my knowledge. I believe what the publisher initially said was that it, like other book publishers, holds authors accountable for the content of their books. And I think it's even written into contracts. I know it's written into the book contract I have.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And so there's a publisher - they made a lot of money over the past few years on this book. And do they have any accountability here for telling what essentially a lie?

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, I think we need to be careful about calling it a lie. Or to put it another way, books are, of all descriptions, are filled with mistakes, errors and sometimes outright falsehoods. So I think some of it is just in the nature of memoir. You know, the word memoir derives from memory. And people's memories - my own foremost, I know, are, you know, unreliable.

And it's one of the odd things in publishing, in media in general. Newspapers also don't use fact checkers. Publishers and newspapers don't use fact checkers. Magazines do. How this tradition developed, I don't know. I think there are two explanations that a book publisher is likely to give. The answer a newspaper would give, by the way, is that the reporters are accountable for...

CONAN: And their editors challenge their reporters.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Yeah.

CONAN: Where did you find that out?

Mr. TANENHAUS: That's right. And - but sometimes, mistakes are made, as the president once said. And then a newspaper will run a correction. Certainly, mine, The New York Times, seems, you know, often runs corrections. Sometimes (unintelligible)

CONAN: Sometimes reporters make stuff up, and they get fired. So, you know, that happens too.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Yes.

CONAN: I'm not saying newspapers are perfect. But publishers, don't they have any accountability here?

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, it's a little different, you know, because an author's book is more an expression of his or her own voice, his or her own world's view. That's not really the understanding someone has when he or she reads a newspaper, that whoever the byline journalist is, is giving you his or her perception of the world, unless it's a columnist. Otherwise, the assumption is the reporter is part of a bigger news gathering operation.

Books are different. They are individual statements or inventions by particular authors. I think book publishers would say two things. That would - they would make that defense, I think, that, yes, we are trusting to the author just as any reader would, and authors have the license to shape a narrative in a way they think will be most effective. That's the aesthetic explanation. The more practical one is I don't think they can afford fact checkers. To have a fact checking operation would increase the cost of each book that a publisher puts out.

CONAN: A cynic remark that after having a book on the bestseller list for four years, you have a real - you can afford - you can't - really can afford a fact checker because you don't want to find out the truth.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, that's a good point. It's very a good point. You know, I'm - of the more indulgent or perhaps naive school. Or maybe utterly opposite, someone say cynical. I think much of what's in most books is, to some extent, organized and orchestrated, if not invented, by the author. I don't read a book expecting to be given absolute fact. Maybe I should, but I don't.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Molly, Molly with us from Boulder, Colorado.

MOLLY (Caller): Hi. My question is, would you address the inherent conflict of interest between the publisher who is profiting off the book sales as well as the author? It seems that they might not have the utmost motivation to check the facts if they think that, you know, the book might sell...

CONAN: A story too good to check, yeah.

MOLLY: Right.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, that's a good point. It's a good point. I don't know if it's really of conflict of interest so much as it is a kind of what, you know, the French say it's a professional deformation, you know? It's just something that's going to happen in the nature of doing it. But, you know, more cynically, I think, publishers do kind of protect themselves with their contracts. So they say, well, if you get sued, it's you and not us. You know, it's like trainers for prize fighters, you know, whenever the fighter wins, they say, we won. And when their fighter lost, they say, he lost.

CONAN: He lost.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TANENHAUS: So I think there's a little bit of that in book publishing. And listen, we are living in the era of the memoir. It emerged kind of - there's a tremendous efflorescence of them in the late '80s and early 1990s; Frank McCourt's book, "Angela's Ashes," and Mary Karr's memoir, "The Liars' Club." Both of those were questioned as to their authenticity and accuracy. Not so much a deal was made of it. And over time, the memoir has become really the dominant nonfiction if not literally form in the culture. So more and more of what we're reading comes under the guise of memoir and memoir is a very tricky form.

CONAN: Molly, thanks very much. Finally, given that, do you expect anything to change as a result of this controversy and the previous ones? There have been several.

Mr. TANENHAUS: No, I don't think so. There will be a little - there'll be some outrage and back and forth and indignation and apologies, and then we'll get another one of these books.

CONAN: Sam Tanenhaus, thanks very much for your time as always.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Thank you.

CONAN: Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review joined us from our bureau in New York. The latest from Misrata in just a moment.

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