Genre Confusion: “Autohagiographical Alger Story Foolscaps the New York Times”

The Imaginary News & Nonsense Agency (Brazil): Its “Danny the Elf” was interviewed by PBS, but no one by that name apparently exists in actual reality.

The Observatório da Imprensa (Brazil) has a nice little section called “the voice of the ombudsman,” in which it covers the art of the public editor as it is practiced (here and there) around the world.

It had this gisting of last Sunday’s column from Clark Hoyt of the New York Times.

Em sua coluna de domingo [16/3/08], o ombudsman do New York Times, Clark Hoyt, conta como descobriu, com alguns cliques no computador e a ajuda de Jack Begg, supervisor do departamento de pesquisa do diário, que o livro autobiográfico Love and Consequences (Amor e Conseqüências, tradução livre), da autora Margaret Jones, não passava de uma farsa. Em apenas cinco minutos, Hoyt tomou conhecimento de que não havia registro de nenhuma Margaret B. Jones em Eugene, Oregon, e que a casa da qual a autora dizia ter sido proprietária foi comprada por Margaret Seltzer em 2000.

In his column on Sunday, March 16, the Times’ public editor, Mr. Hoyt, relates how he discovered, with a few clicks of his mouse and the help of Jack Begg, head of the newspaper’s research department, that the autobiographical book Love and Consequences … by Margaret Jones, was [a complete phony.] In just five minutes, Hoyt learned that there was no one named Margaret B. Jones in Eugene Oregon, and that the house the author said she owned was sold to a Margaret Seltzer in 2000.

On confusing fact with fiction, see also

On the phony autobiography in question, see also

And compare

No entanto, esta simples checagem dos fatos não foi feita antes da publicação de uma crítica positiva sobre o livro, assinada por Michiko Kakutani no dia 26/2. Dois dias depois, o diário publicou outra matéria com Margaret e sua filha, em sua casa em Eugene, na seção destinada a artigos sobre o lar, na qual ela mostrava como conseguiu dar a volta por cima de uma vida marcada por violência e drogas.

This simple fact-check was not performed, however, before the publication of a positive review of the book bylined to Michiko Kakutani on February 26.

I like Michiko as a book reviewer.

Two days later, the New York daily published another article about Margaret and her daughter at their home in Eugene, in the section dedicated to articles on home life, showing how she managed to turn around a life once marked by violence and drugs.

Uma semana depois, o NYTimes reconheceu que, na verdade, a pessoa da foto não era Margaret Jones, mas sim Margaret Seltzer. Foi sua irmã quem viu o jornal e ligou para a editora Riverhead Books para dizer que a história não era verídica. Posteriormente, em uma entrevista a Motoko Rich, jornalista que escreve para a seção literária do diário, Margaret (Seltzer) admitiu que inventou sua biografia – ela não viveu nas ruas com gangues, nem se formou na Universidade do Oregon.

A week later, the Times acknowledged that, in fact, the person in the photo was not Margaret Jones, but rather Margaret Seltzer. It was her sister who saw the newspaper article and called Riverhead Books to say that the story was not true.

Fato vs. ficção

Fact vs. fiction

Não é a primeira vez que ocorre um caso deste tipo no mercado editorial americano. Há dois anos, o autor James Frey confessou que a autobiografia A million little pieces continha partes inventadas. Na suposta biografia Love and Consequences, a autora faz um relato de uma vida nada fácil: ela teria sido levada de sua família aos cinco anos, sofrido violência sexual e vivido em abrigos antes de entrar para uma gangue em Los Angeles. Mas não foi apenas o NYTimes que caiu no conto do vigário. Dentre outras organizações de mídia, a National Public Radio e o Los Angeles Times divulgaram artigos sobre a publicação.

This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened in American publishing. Two years ago, James Frey confessed that portions of his autobiography A Million Little Pieces were fabricated. In the supposed autobiography Love and Consequences, the author tells of a difficult life: Taken from her family at 5, abused sexually and raised in shelters before joining a Los Angeles street gang. But the Times was not the only news organization to fall for it. NPR and the Los Angeles Times also published articles on the book’s release.

Yes, but the first line of defense really ought to have been the editor at Riverhead/Penguin USA, don’t you think?

This was a publishing professional in charge of not screwing up a project with enormous overhead and very tight margins. Publishing professionals used to be notorious sticklers for detail. You used to be able to take that to the bank.

Hoyt questiona como o diário pode ter caído na farsa. A crítica literária Michiko Kakutani e a editora Penelope Green, da seção sobre lar, receberam o livro da Riverhead Books. Ambas consideraram o material interessante. Penelope achou que Margaret seria uma ótima personagem: era alguém que não teve casa e viveu uma saga em busca de um lar.

Hoyt questions how the newspaper could have fallen for this farce. Kakutani and editor Penelope Green of the home section had received the book from Riverhead. Both thought the subject was interesting. Penelope thought that Margaret made an interesting personality: She was someone who had no home whose life turned into a quest to find one.

Tried and true best-selling literary masterplot No. 1: Getting lost, then trying to get home.

The Odyssey, for example (and the Aeneid, of course.) The Book of Exodus, for that matter.
Conflito de interesses?

Conflict of interest?

Alguns blogueiros chegaram a escrever que tudo não passava de conflito de interesses. Sarah McGrath, editora do livro, é filha de Charles McGrath, crítico do NYTimes que já editou a seção de crítica literária. Hoyt alega, porém, que ele não teve influência nenhuma na publicação da matéria. Michiko nunca conversou com McGrath sobre os livros que resenha e eles mal se conhecem. Ela trabalha de casa e raramente vai à redação. Michiko diz ainda que não sabia que McGrath tinha uma filha.

Some bloggers even wrote that it was all a matter of conflicts of interest. The editor of the book, Sarah McGrath, is the daughterof Times critic Charles McGrath, who used to edit the books section. Hoyt argues, however, that this had no influence on the publication of the article.

It is not like Penguin USA has trouble getting its books reviewed. It publishes

… Thomas Paine, Dorothy Parker, Robert B. Parker, Iain Pears, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Dave Pelzer, Anne Perry, Nathaniel Philbrick, Kevin Phillips, Steven Pinker, Plato, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Mario Puzo, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Queneau, Francisco de Quevedo …

Michiko never spoke with McGrath about the books she reviews, and they hardly know one another. She weeks from home and hardly ever visits the newsroom. Michiko says she did not even know McGrath had a daughter.

A crítica alega que não verificou os dados de Margaret porque a editora havia lhe enviado uma entrevista de 10 páginas com a autora. Mimi Read, que recebeu a pauta para escrever o artigo para a seção de lar, passou cinco horas com a suposta “Margaret Jones”. Ela não duvidou da veracidade da história porque a pauta havia sido enviada pelo NYTimes e porque ela não deveria entrevistar mais ninguém em uma matéria de perfil. “Margaret contou tudo com muitos detalhes. Havia fotos de membros de gangues em sua casa”, relatou a jornalista. No entanto, uma foto de um casal branco, que Margaret disse se tratar de seus pais biológicos, chamou a atenção da repórter, já que no livro ela se dizia mestiça de índios. Questionada por Mimi sobre as pessoas da imagem, Margaret afirmou que havia reencontrado seus pais biológicos quando tinha 20 e poucos anos. Hoje, ela tem 33.

The critic says she did not verify Margaret’s information because the publishing house had sent her a 10-page interview with the author. Mimi Read, who was assigned to write the article for the home  section, spent five hourswith the supposed Margaret Jones. She did not doubt the veracity of the story because the assignment had come from the Times and because a profile piece does not include interviews with anyone but the main subject. “Margaret told the whole story with many details. There were photos of gang members in her home,” the journalist said. However, a photo of a white couple, whom Margaret said were her parents, called the reporter’s attention, given that in the book she says she was of mixed Native American ancestry. Asked about the persons in the photo by Mimi, Margaret said she had reunited with her biological parents in her early twenties. She is now 33.

Points for Mimi: She actually read the book before doing the profile.

A repórter então a questionou sobre o abuso sexual, mas Margaret afirmou que não foi violentada por ninguém da família. A partir daí começaram as dúvidas: se o agressor não era da família, por que ela foi tirada de sua casa? Mimi e seu editor, Tom de Kay, concordaram que deveriam procurar outras fontes para a matéria. A jornalista conseguiu conversar com um homem que alegava ter sido noivo de Margaret, mas não conhecia nada de seu passado. Outros esforços para falar com conhecidos não deram certo. Ainda assim, o texto foi publicado.

The reporter than asked Margaret about sexual abuse, but Margaret said she had not been violated by anyone in her family. That is when the doubts began: If the assailant was not a family member, why was she taken out of the home? The journalist managed to speak with a man who claimed to been Margaret’s fiancé, but knew nothing of her past. Other efforts to speak with acquaintances of the author did not succeed. Even so, the article was published.

Lições aprendidas, na visão de Hoyt: Michiko diz que, no futuro, será “extra cética em relação a este tipo de literatura”. Craig Whitney, editor de qualidade do diário, reforça que perfis devem ter checagem de dados de maneira independente. A Riverhead Books recolheu os exemplares dos livros das livrarias.

Lessons learned, in Hoyt’s view: Michiko said that in the future she will be “extremely skeptical about this type of literature.”

The way these cases are piling up, Michiko may soon be reviewing an interesting book on 21st century sons and daughters of Tristram Shandy.

If I remember right, when Defoe’s Moll Flanders came out — the first-person confessions of criminals were a hot commodity in the nascent publishing work at the time — its fictional character was not exactly disclosed with complete transparency to the reading public.

Never mind how a poor servant wench turned slave-owning Jamaican planter learned to spell and round out an elegant period so competently.

Craig Whitney, the newspaper’s quality editor, reinforced the principle that profiles have to be independently fact-checkied. Riverhead Books recalled the book from bookstore shelves.

Quality editor: Now there is an interesting job description. Is that really his new title? He used to be assistant managing editor for standards. And sometimes things get lost in translation. I will check when I get a chance.

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