Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Liars and Fabulists

The continuing hoo-ha over the latest publishing fraud, the Valley girl who posed as a druggie gang member, brings up the question of where to draw the line between writers with vivid imaginations and out-and-out liars.

Truman Capote, who invented the non-fiction novel, was not always the most fact-checkable of journalists. As his editor and friend, I found he had a storyteller’s way with the truth. His writing and even his casual conversation abounded in astonishments, wondrous coincidences and weird juxtapositions.

He would tell colorful tales, unlikely but not necessarily untrue, often at the expense of macho figures: how Marlon Brando tried to get him into bed after an all-night interview in a Japanese hotel; how during the filming of "Beat the Devil," he bested Humphrey Bogart, who persisted in calling him Caposy, at arm-wrestling for $150 and sealed the humiliation of the actor, known for his nightclub brawls, by using judo to put him flat on his back.

But Capote was a novelist at heart, and his talent earned him some leeway as a fabulist in matters of little moment. In fact, the writing of "In Cold Blood" was, in part, a challenge he set himself to tell a journalistically pure story that would have the richness of his fiction. He knew the difference.

Today's fake memoirists either don't know or don't care, and their publishers are hard-pressed to verify their authenticity in an industry with a tradition of trusting writers to be truthful.

Under the headline, "Tracking the Fallout of (Another) Literary Fraud," the New York Times today reports the dismay of editors and agents who are embarrassed to find themselves vouching for lying writers.

Yet, a freelance reporter, who wrote a profile of the fake gang girl for the Times itself, did not question her story.

“The way I look at it," the reporter explained, "is that it’s just like when you get in a car and drive to the store—-you assume that the other drivers on the road aren’t psychopaths on a suicide mission.”

Sadly, the clubby world of book publishing is not in Kansas any more. It will have to do a lot more checking up on who is behind the curtain before putting into the book stores the story of the latest self-styled Wizard of Oz.

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