Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Fact checking memoir

With the controversial news of the Woody Allen memoir announced (being released next month by Hachette) and the backlash this received (particularly from Ronan & Dylan Farrow), I was wondering in general about the expectation of fact-checking in memoirs. I remember there being a scandal around A Million Little Pieces by James Frey back in the day, but I don’t know what (if anything) came out of the scandal in regards to publishing standards.

Are publishers expected to have some fact-checking completed with memoirs? Is the expectation different when the writer is a known public figure with known allegations of sexual abuse? Does this last answer change depending on whether the memoir covers that time period of life or mentions the accuser at all?

Obviously, the internet has opinions, but I was hoping for some general industry insight.

Publishers do not fact check memoirs. Memoirs by definition are one person's experiences, and what looked like baby food to you looks like refried beans to me, and of course we're both right.

What the publishing contract DOES require is a warranty that the book doesn't libel anyone, doesn't violate anyone else's right to privacy, does not materially misrepresent the Author or the Author's background or life story.

The specific wording varies publisher to publisher, agency specific contract to agency specific contract.

The only thing that's different for a public figure is the libel standard. It's harder to libel a public figure than someone who is not.

The Woody Allen memoir controversy didn't rest on the author's warranties.

The Woody Allen memoir controversy was that Hachette wasn't forthcoming with their employees that the book was in the works, and very specifically did not tell Ronan Farrow who published Catch and Kill with Little,Brown, a division of HBG.

Very understandably Farrow was furious.

Very understandably many HBG editors vehemently took issue with the idea of publishing the Allen memoir at all.

It was a tone-deaf decision, and the people who said so were very courageous.

The memoir has since been cancelled and rights returned to Allen.

Despite what Stephen King says, Allen was NOT muzzled. Given the number of publication avenues open to writers, and the number of sleazeball publishers who will print anything for a buck, there are lots of alternatives

Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post had this to say:

These Hachette employees who walked out did something extraordinarily brave in an industry that’s highly concentrated. But it’s also an industry dominated by women.

Maybe after all this country has gone through and on a day when Merriam-Webster reported that lookups for “misogyny" spiked 2,400 percent, the prospect of editing, marketing, selling or even being associated with the memoir of a man accused of abusing a girl was just one humiliation too many.

Publishers, after all, are not neutral platforms like Facebook or public spaces like a town square where free speech must reign. Publishers make extremely selective judgments, and when one of those judgments is morally offensive to employees, it’s encouraging to see those employees speak up and walk out.

The era of silence, of looking the other way, of playing catch and kill needs to end.


Mister Furkles said...

My problem with Woody Allen is that he married his pseudo step-daughter. It is Mia Farrow who had custody of their younger adopted daughter, age 7, at time the abuse is claimed to have occurred. Mia and Woody were going through a bitter separation battle. Also, there are no other claims of abuse by Allen, unlike Epstine, Weinstein, and even Bill Clinton.

If Allen can't publish his memoir why is Clinton on the loose?

Moses Farrow now claims that Mia, his adopted mother, made it all up to spite Allen. There's been no trial or even an arrest.

There are people who have committed proven crimes who have memoirs published.

I won't read Allen's memoirs because (1) I don't care and (2) I don't regard highly him marrying Soon-Yi Previn, very much his junior but whose real father whom she regarded as her father is Andre Previn.

Aphra Pell said...

For me, the key point in the Allen debacle is that he CAN publish his memoir. It's just Hachette no longer wants to be the publisher.

Allen isn't banned from publishing anything, but like thousands of other memoirists, he has to find a publisher who thinks it is worth their investment. Or do it himself.

Which means it isn't censorship - he's just not getting the privilege that famous guys are accustomed to when they want to tell their stories.

I'm not losing sleep over that.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

In my mind (and shocker I may be wrong) there is fact, fable and perception. Do we ever know the truth? Do we turn our backs? Do we surround the publisher with pitchforks and tiki torches? Do we care?

It is perception which forms the truth as WE see it.

Woody muzzled? No way. I don't see him walking around with duct tape over his mouth.

In my mind (and shocker I may be wrong) Woody is a sleaze and I wouldn’t pay a dime to learn otherwise. I trust Ronan. But that’s just me.

CynthiaMc said...

I've never cared for Woody Allen, even back when almost everyone else proclaimed him a genius. If I worked for Hachette I would've been one who said "Let's not do this."

But ever since I appeared in a play about the Salem Witch trials, I've been cognizant of the fact that we're not as far away from that time of hanging people we don't like as we think we are, the sense of hubris that we are oh-so-right and anyone who disagrees must be destroyed.

Part of me has studied enough history to know that who and what is derided in one era is lauded in the next and vice-versa.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was put in an insane asylum because fellow doctors thought he was crazy back in 1847. Why? Because he insisted on hand washing. We're grateful for him now.

Not to say we should be grateful for Woody Allen (I still don't like him) but part of what this country was built on and what makes it different from all others is that everyone gets to have their say. Even when we don't like them.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I would not read Woody Allen's memoir no matter who published it. I think the Hachette employees were well within their rights. I always found it gross that Woody Allen married his step-daughter. That was just a big pile of yuck. And I don't want to hear about it anymore. Glad the employees took a stand. And yeah, some other publishing house will grab up the book. Anything to make a buck, right? Icky.

I need a shower now.

Alena said...

My respect for Ronan Farrow only continues to grow, and people are finally starting to step back from supporting Woody Allen. False accusations of child sexual abuse are incredibly rare, that is to say, it is reasonable to believe Dylan Farrow's accusation, and reasonable to refuse to put money in her abuser's pocket. Hell yes to the people who protested his memoir. That was brave! Free speech doesn't garuntee you get a lucrative book deal, sorry, bye.

Alena said...

Uhg I really butchered guarantee :/

Casual-T said...

How is it “extraordinarily brave” to accuse someone of...anything, really, and then act as if the accusation alone equals a guilty verdict? “Innocent until proven guilty” is still a cornerstone of our legal system, and should be applied to society in general.

Many have sad that Allen marrying Soon-Yi Previn is “yucky.” I get it, but that’s not the point. Is it legal? If the answer is yes, then move along people, nothing to see here. If the answer is no, then point out applicable laws and sue the man. Accusations mean nothing until they are being brought up in court—And I don’t mean the court of public opinion! And the same goes for any accusations for sexual child abuse.

As CynthiaMc said, we are not as far removed from the Salem Witch trials as we think (or wish). And to drive the point home (and I respectfully disagree with Alena here): Just because an accusation is “rare” doesn’t make it any more or less true. I think it is fair to say that an accusation of witchcraft would be exceedingly rare these days, at least in this part of the world, but how would that mean that it is “reasonable to believe” that it is true?

I don’t think it was correct for the publisher to cancel the deal, based on, what seems to me, an example of mob rule, which is only too common in this day and age of utter tribalism and frenzied mob mentality, fueled by Twitter and Co.

Laura Stegman said...

Thank you Casual T. I'm posting in support of your viewpoint, which matches mine, particularly the references to the Salem Witch Trials and mob rule. In my opinion, one can appreciate Ronan Farrow's culture-changing "Catch and Kill" while disagreeing with him on other matters.

theblondepi said...

Based on some of your arguments here, it would seem you don’t have the facts of the investigation into the abuse of Dylan Farrow (then seven years old), especially the judge’s pronouncement that Allen’s behavior towards her was “grossly inappropriate and that measures must be taken to protect her.” Acting on rumor can go both ways--pronouncing that Allen has done nothing wrong, with no investigation into the facts, is acting on rumor. In addition, a man who thinks his step-daughter, whom he raised, is a sexual partner and marriage material should give you pause all on its own, and cause you to look further into the allegations of child abuse against him before making judgments that he has been wronged by having his memoir pulled. For those who would like to begin to understand the intricacies of this case, I recommend starting with Maureen Orth’s Vanity Fair article where she briefly summarizes her years of investigation: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2014/02/woody-allen-sex-abuse-10-facts

I agree with Janet and Ron Charles: the employees of Hachette were brave, and they demonstrated personal integrity that I hope I would have in the same situation.

Casual-T said...

@theblondepi... I assume you are responding to my post from earlier today.

I don’t think Janet’s blog is the appropriate place for any kind of back and forth about this, but I do want to say that I did not “[act] on rumor...pronouncing that Allen has done nothing wrong.” I merely stated that, until proven guilty in a court of law (as opposed to a Vanity Fair article!), we must presume his innocence. I am certain that if someone were to accuse you of any wrongdoing, particularly something as grave as child abuse, you would demand that very same principle to be applied to you.

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Alena said...

I actually said FALSE accusations are incredibly rare, which is not the same thing as saying accusations are rare. What that means is when a kid accuses an adult of sexual abuse, by and large, with the best science and psychology behind this statement, those accusations are true. Meaning it is totally reasonable to believe Dylan Farrow's accusation, meaning I believe Woody Allen is guilty of child sexual abuse and I'm really glad a major publishing house is no longer working with him.