Lies, damn lies and misery memoirs
There was an interesting story in The Independent on Sunday yesterday about Forbidden Love, Norma Khouri’s memoir of fear and loathing among the lovelorn in Jordan. The book claimed that Khouri had fled Jordan with a fatwa on her head following a doomed love affair between her Muslim friend Dalia and a Christian army officer. Dalia was dead, Norma lived in fear and Islam was once more “exposed” to be less than tolerant of anything that transgressed its rigid rules.
Or so it seems. The book, which reflects the usual prejudices against Islam (generalisations about intolerance, cruelty, sexism and the most appalling retribution), turned out to be a fake. Khouri had lived in the US from the age of three, was married (and not a virgin) and had a US passport. It all came to light after the book topped international bestseller lists.
A film has been made about Khouri, Forbidden Lie$. Film makers were persuaded by Khouri that she had been viciously traduced, so they set out to clear her name. Instead they found out that Random House had been right to withdraw the book. Khouri was indeed more fertile in imagination than experience.
There have been a slew of misery memoirs later exposed as fakes, too many to mention here (besides the authors of some have a habit of writing every time I mention them and I don’t want to give them more publicity). What their publication exposes about publishers is less than savoury.
In their rush to release a bestseller, publishers pay too little attention to background checks on authors. Considering that man of the books feature serious accusations, usually of sexual and physical abuse, this is unbelievable and falls far lower than the standards of even tabloid newspapers when printing a juicy story.
Publishers may be unwilling to fact check because of the cost of getting in a professional or time involved. I suspect it is more often downright greed and an unwillingness to let doubts get in the way where potential bestsellers are concerned. Of course the books are legalled, but that isn’t fact checking, that is libel checking. Not the same. One is about digging out the truth, the other insuring against writs. You can’t libel the dead, so the standards of proof are far lower.
In conversations with editors, time and again I am told: “I hate to think that the person opposite me over lunch [the author] could be lying. You have to decide whether you believe them or not.” All are devastated if things go belly-up, but I can’ help thinking: “Duh! What do you expect?”
Having worked on magazines as news and features editor and edited Mslexia and one off reports on subjects as strong as racism and bullying, I can say from experience that a reporter who used that excuse for one-sided potentially libellous content would have their story spiked – no matter how juicy.
I know of only one case where a private investigator was called in to investigate an author, and that was by the author’s agent not their publisher after the newspaper planning to serialise the book raised serious doubts. Generally if nothing is said, then the doubts are left like the elephant in the room.
Should this matter? If the doubts don’t surface too prominently the author is making money, the publisher is making money and a few people I don’t wish to meet in a dark alley are being “entertained” by their horrible suffering.
Actually it matters for several reasons.
First, the book industry should be concerned by its increasingly grubby image in the eyes of readers. Books used to have an ethical kudos (if it is in a book, it is true). They do not now. By continually going down the route of the trashy (celeb or otherwise) and sensationalised, books risk being judged by readers as no more reliable than the Red Tops (actually readers are wrong, the tabloids have very rigorous standards in comparison to book publishers and need sources and backing for most of what they publish).
Secondly by publishing fictional abuse as fact, publishers risk betraying innocent people, living or dead, who are tarnished by fantasists’ “recovered memories”.
Finally, and most importantly, every time someone lies about serious abuse they belittle real victims. How? Because by crying wolf they raise the thought that others may be doing this when they make accusations. It makes it harder for victims to come forward and makes it harder for perpetrators to be punished. If you doubt that take a look at the statistics for rape convictions.