Why don’t publishers fact-check memoirs?

A memoir is discovered to be more fiction than fact, a scandal erupts, and the publisher cancels the book. How many times have we heard this story?

In this newest case, the book is a Holocaust memoir titled Angel at the Fence, the love story of Herman Rosenblat and his wife Roma. While Rosenblat was in fact in a concentration camp as a teenager, the love story that captured the imagination of his publisher, Oprah Winfrey, and a movie producer is false. Berkley Books, part of the Penguin group, just canceled the February publication of the book. No word yet on the fate of the planned movie.

You should read Gabriel Sherman’s New Republic article, “The Greatest Love Story Ever Sold,” and his follow-up piece, “Wartime Lies,” which uncovered the story and set the latest events in motion. You should also read Deborah Lipstadt’s series of blog posts titled “Apples over the Fence,” as she cast doubt on the story a year ago, was quoted in Sherman’s article, and has interesting information and commentary about this. Here’s the link to the Angel at the Fence website, and here’s the link to a statement from Rosenblat’s literary agent, Andrea Hurst.

Each time another false memoir scandal emerges, I ask the same question– why don’t publishers fact-check memoirs? I’ve always assumed that memoir was a form of biography and thus should be fact-checked. (I know you can’t fact-check every little detail, conversation, and memory, but shouldn’t the basic premise, events, and story be true?) Why, after James Frey, haven’t things changed at all? And the bigger question– why does a story become more interesting to publishers and readers when it is represented as truth rather than fiction?

Update: Here’s the link to the New York Times‘ December 29th article about it. Here’s TNR’s summary and chronology of the events.

5 responses to “Why don’t publishers fact-check memoirs?

  1. Why don’t publishers fact check more? Because our society is easily gullible. It was not just the history of the Holocaust that set this book to being discovered as a hoax, it was also the BLIND DATE part of the back story, which Oprah believed 100 percent and which you probably did too. When the media reported in October that Herman met Roma on a blind date in 1958, and on that blind date, they realized that they had known each other in the camps, in 1944, when she had thrown apples over a fence to a thin young teenage boy……THAT was the lie that gave it away to me on first reading the AP story in October. Yet, hundreds, millions of people read that same AP story and said wow and blogged all over about how magical this story was, the blind date especially. Why are people so gullible? Why Oprah so gullible? I will tell you why: we live in a false society, full of false lies. The first false lie is that there is a God. In fact, there is NO God…. Second falsehood in our society, believed by 80 percent of Americans, is that Jesus is the son of God and the savior of mankind. He is not. Jesus was never any son of any god. He was just a Jewish teacher who preached goodness and also some weird ideas. Third false idea we live by is there is a heavn to go to after death. There is no heaven. We live and we die, that’s all there is. DNA genepools to the max. So you see, dear, this is why people fell for the Herman Oprah blind date story, they are brainwashed to believe anything they read…….We are a sick society. Wake up.

  2. Lisa, publishers generally do not fact-check nonfiction books, including biographies and memoirs. Heck, many publishers nowadays barely edit what they publish. I believe they figure the author’s reputation is on the line, not theirs.

    And maybe they’re right — few book buyers distinguish between the various publishing brands.

  3. The Rosenblat story is so sad. Why is Atlantic Pictures making a film based on a lie? Why didn’t Oprah check the story out before publicizing it, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat’s story couldn’t be true.
    Genuine love stories from the Holocaust do exist. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt – the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children’s barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. It’s such a romantic love story. Another reason I love Dina’s story is the tremendous courage she had to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

    Dina’s story is also verified to be true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children’s barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

    Why wasn’t the Rosenblatt’s story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina’s be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.

  4. One of my genealogy friends uncovered a different Holocaust memoir hoax — Misha the Wolf Girl — and I’ve been asking the same question about fact checking ever since.

    Here’s the wikipedia entry about Misha: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivre_Avec_les_Loups

    Apparantly, non-fiction authors have a much better chance of being invited on the talk show circuit than fiction authors. The producers are craving that “I was there” angle — as opposed to “my fictional characters did x, y, z.”

    And everybody knows how much an appearance on Oprah is worth…

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