So everyone is arguing about who is to blame when fake writers (a la Frey, Jones, Nasdijj, et al) are discovered. A lot of the blame is heaped on the part of editors and agents for being to quick to swallow lies and embellishments. Other people criticize the publishers since they don’t (and can’t) fact-check in the same way magazines and newspapers do.
However, the sad truth of the matter is that we — American culture at large — are to blame for these fabricated memoirs.
We love archetypes. Every boy band has the quiet one, the tough one, the sensitive one, the funny one. Every reality show has the schemer, the siren, the caretaker. Every cop show has the hothead who always pushes the line, the ambitious detective struggling to escape his famous father’s shadow, the determined district attorney. And so forth. We respond to “types” of people.
And as much as we love these character types, we adore stories of triumph over certain standard kinds of adversity. I quit watching the Olympics some years ago. And the primary reason I changed the channel was because of the so-called human interest stories. It’s not enough that these people are among the top handful of athletes in the world. That achievement isn’t sufficient. To go even farther, the network pummels us with story after story about how Johnny Johnson was sent to his room without key lime pie one night as a child. But he fought back, he perservered and overcame the trauma to become the world’s best curler. And now his journey back is complete as he goes for the gold in Olympic curling.
It’s not just in sports. The entertainment business does this as well. When the next American Idol winner has had a few months in the spotlight, just as the glare begins to fade, we’ll hear how she fought an eating disorder earlier in life or how his dad was sent to prison. Winning the competition and being a helluva singer isn’t enough. We need to hear about their triumph.
So is it any wonder that writers feel like their story isn’t enough? One of my favorite memoirs is The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found by Don Snyder. It’s a quiet book from 1997 about a man going through a difficult career change. Today, for that book to stand a chance, it would have to feature him falling into drug addiction, his house getting blown up by by a gas leak caused by a evil corporation, a child mauled by a tiger, and an invasion of psychopathic circus clowns to stand a chance.
We’re the ones who buy the books that feature standard character types and “stories of triumph.” So it’s hard to blame agents and editors (as much as I like to do so) for publishing these types of books. Instead, we have to blame ourselves.