I'm really sorry about the Holocaust, but I call Liarpants.

So one of the current skerfuffles in the literary world deals with yet another big ol' scam. It seems like maybe in schools they are not so much covering the difference between fiction and non, especially with regard to personal memoirs. (Yes, James Frey, I'm looking at you and your Million Little Crap Lies, and don't you think I'm ever going to read anything you write, ever.)

The latest truth-stretcher is a Holocaust survivor named Henry Rosenblat, who over the years shared the story of how a Polish girl outside the camp saved his life by throwing bread over the fence to him. Later he met her again on a blind date and they got married. Their story was featured on Oprah Winfrey's show and then author Laurie Friedman got permission create a picture book about their story. The book, Angel Girl, came out a few months ago and I have a copy in my juvenile biography section. Another publishing company paid Rosenblat an advance and was going to publish his story as an adult memoir.

When details of his story were challenged by scholars and friends, Mr. Rosenblat admitted that not everything in his memoir exactly actually happened. There was no girl throwing bread over the fence. So now the publishers are recalling the children's book and issuing refunds, and the memoir project has been scrapped. Sucks to be Laurie Friedman right about now, since it wasn't her fault people are big fibbers. And now I have to pull the book and send it back to the publisher.

Now, here's the thing. Do I think Henry Rosenblat's life (his real life) has meaning? Absolutely. Do I think his story of survival and the stories of other Holocaust survivors are important? Yes. I mean, my gosh, it's the HOLOCAUST. Those stories are enough on their own and don't need to be embellished to be impressive and inspiring.

So then what's with all the lying everyone is doing? I mean, if you think your own story isn't spicy enough, then don't bother telling it! Or, tell bits from your life and bits of spice but, (and here is the most important part) label it as "FICTION." Because see, there's this WHOLE SECTION of the library entitled fiction, and it's okay to have books go there.

Like today. I left a message with the library saying that I would be coming in late because I had a few things to take care of this morning. Now, what they did not know was that the thing that needed taking care of was my need to sleep in. But that's okay. What would NOT have been okay is if I'd turned up at work and then told this huge long story about all the fictional things I did and places I went this morning. And then maybe written them down in a book and gotten them published with the title, "True Things I Did the Morning of January 6th: A True Story To Be Shelved in the Nonfiction Section."

Actually, now that I think of it, that's probably the best story title EVER.

Nobody steal it.


Melanie said... [reply]

I think that the most damaging effect of this "stretch of truth" is that it, in a way, trivializes the stories and experiences of "regular" Holocaust survivors. Like you said, this man's experience absolutely has meaning. I'm sure that there are dozen of projects and organizations that would love to record his history - albeit not in a way that will bring him nationwide fame and thousands of dollars. I think it's really sad that, for whatever reason, he felt the need to embellish his story.

But let's face it, in the end, it's all Oprah's fault.

Jenny said... [reply]

I read this and was like, why oh why can't people just say HISTORICAL FICTION from the get go. Oprah's going to be mad at him, I bet.

Sherry said... [reply]

Yeah, I read Roots a little over a year ago, and then I blogged about. And then one of my best friends was all, "Hate to tell you that it's mostly made up and based on TERRIBLE research."

Bummer. Because it was an AWESOME example of genealogical research forming a really compelling story.

Janssen said... [reply]

Well, that's a downer - I absolutely loved Angel Girl. And now I'm forced to sort of hate it for being made up. Off to Google more of the story. . .

Jenny said... [reply]

Great post, by the way, and I think the ironic thing is that it would probably be safe to say that most people (who are criticizing the whole fake bread over the fence thing) walk around fictionalizing their lives and call it okay, and if it were live journaling, they would, in fact, be throwing lies at the nonfiction shelves. I think you should seriously consider authoring a book with that fab title.

hannah said... [reply]

Ack! I heard about this on the news. It's horrible, but they got what was coming to them...

Faith said... [reply]

Angel Girl by Laurie Friedman was a fiction title! It was based on Herman Rosenblat's story, but it was classified by the publisher as FICTION.
At least Oprah was just telling Herman's story and not endorsing his memoir. Poor Ms. Friedman. Her book was beautiful!

Anonymous said... [reply]

This exact issue is what I found so disgusting about the Paul H. Dunn affair. A man called of God to be a special witness behaving in this manner is even worse than coming from a holocaust survivor. His half baked attempts at apologising left a lot to be desired. The Church leadership really didn't cover themselves in glory with the handling of the issue either. Sorry for digressing a little, but there are some strong similarities between this case and the Dunn affair.

Audra and Levi said... [reply]

When your book comes out, I will check it out and read it!

Science Teacher Mommy said... [reply]

I read about this today. I agree with the fiction thing. I know it is harder to get fiction published than an actual larger than life memoir, but if it is a good story then it will make it. Still, people are sometimes afraid to publish fiction about such difficult topics for fear of trivializing them. But such an outlook is total crap. Did "Cry the Beloved Country" marginalize Apartheid because it is fiction and the author is white? NO. Did "Heart of Darkness" make the Belgian colonization in Africa any less horrific because it is fiction and the author was Polish? NO. Did "Grapes of Wrath" trivialize the Depression? NO. Instead these novels and hundreds of others have shed light on terrible situations, educating millions for generations to come.

Remember the one last year about the girl who'd written a memoir about being Native American and growing up in the gang culture in LA? She was a white girl from Oregon or something. The funny party is that after this really critically acclaimed story was everywhere, and the truth came out, all the of the critics backpedaled saying things like, "The language seemed stilted." "She didn't really carry that genuine ebonics voice." Yada. Yada. (There was always something about Mr. Willoughby's eyes, you'll recall, that I didn't like . . .")

Oooo. . . I really ranted here. That feels good.

Nemesis said... [reply]

Melanie, word.

Jenny, I agree. Because after that James Frey thing I bet she's sick of people lying to her. (Actually, I wonder if lots of people try to lie or stretch facts to her to get help/sympathy/publicity.)

Sherry, yeah. I read Roots and thought it was a good story. I guess if I'd thought more about it I would have wondered how the author could have gotten so much of the earlier information and assumed he probably had to imagine a lot.

heidikins said... [reply]

So....if I simply change the date of your book title to something like, say, January 7, can I use your title? ;o)

Janssen linked me up with you and I'm loving your style so far. Off to read some more!


Nemesis said... [reply]

Janssen, I'm sorry. Feel free to keep loving Angel Girl!

Jenny, yeah, it's funny. I mean, we exaggerate all the time, some of us (coughMEcough) more than others. And maybe some people don't know where to draw the line.

True that, Hannah.

Faith, yeah. Maybe the publishers can just remarket it as a picture book, but I'm thinking with the subject matter and the scandal they probably won't.

Anon, I hadn't known about the Paul H. Dunn stuff so I had to go look it up. That was really sad. I'm wondering if people get into this because they feel SO VERY STRONGLY about the message they want to get across and they figure that if they combine stories or embellish details then it's okay because it's all in the name of sending a Very Important Message. And then maybe once they get started the made-up story feels real to them. Or they've told it so many times that they can't go back and retract without embarassment. But yeah, mess mess MESS. Which is why, boys and girls, we don't do stuff like that.

Nemesis said... [reply]

Thanks, Audra! I knew I could count on you. :-)

STM, that's a great point about the quality of the actual writing suddenly being called into question when the world realizes the narrator isn't who you they thought she was. And speaking of, did you know that "Go ask Alice" (which was supposed to be an anonymous journal written by a teenaged drug addict) was actually written by an LDS youth counselor?

Heidikins, welcome! And don't even think about it. ;-)

i i eee said... [reply]

Technically memoirs ARE fiction. Publishing companies do not have fact checkers, nor do they require a memoir to be "truth." If people did enough research they'd discover that ALL memoirs are fiction.

Everyone can perceive things differently; eyewitness reports are often faultu. Nothing can be recaptured the way it exactly was. Memory is always flawed; journalism is always biased.

If Oprah gets angry at these people, it's due to her own stupidity. Authors of memoirs do not sign contracts claiming what they write is exactly happened.

Memoirs are usually crap anyway -- if readers are so concerned about reading truth, stick to the fiction section of your bookstore.

i i eee said... [reply]

Also, even our friend Wikipedia details that there are different types of memoirs, an example being one that, "combines factual material with fictional material as it tells the author's story and the story of her family."


Natalie said... [reply]

Thank you for this important and timely rant. But, thank you more for the hilarity of your book title. I would totally read that, and watch you on Oprah. Then, when you were disgraced, I would say nice things like the things you said about Paul H. Dunn.

Nemesis said... [reply]

In that case, i i eee, do you think that maybe because it's about not just a "normal" person but a Holocaust survivor that makes the publishers so quick to retract when the fabrications come out, whereas maybe they would have just brushed it off as "So, it's a memoir, what do you expect?" I don't know the answer, of course, but I'd be interested to hear what people think.

("You made out during SCHINDLER'S LIST???")

i i eee said... [reply]

Publishers retract because people are pissing their pants about it; publishers want to appear as though they care. They could care less about whether or not something really happened. Anything in the entertainment industry is usually based off of lies. Celebrities lie about their lives. Is it possible for "reality" to exist in a world of entertainment? I don't necessarily see the difference -- whether it was a lie about a Holocaust victim or a lie about Nicole Kidman having plastic surgery -- I just don't think there's a need to be surprised when you finally find out something's been fabricated in the entertainment industry.

Now Lerner Publishing is an independent publishing company -- they probably are a lot more concerned about their reputation, and that's why they're pulling the book from the shelves. Indie publishers probably have some integrity left. The 4 or 5 main publishing houses are owned by international companies that also own most of Hollywood. They're only out to make money -- they could care less about integrity.

Sure, it's understandable for the public to become angry when they find out that someone made something up, but that's the whole idea behind a memoir: it's based on memory, not fact. The two are not the same. So if Rosenblat had imagined that some little girl threw him bread over the fence, maybe that was a virtual reality that helped him survive the Holocaust. It's still part of his memory, it's still part of his life's story. Did it really, physically happen... does it matter? It sounds like a nice enough story, why not write a book about it?

Nells-Bells said... [reply]

i too saw this and was hooked. but then, when i saw the report in the news that it was fabricated, i started to spoon out their eyes in the newspaper. how can you do that? hello! we LOVED you and now...we don't. simple as that. too bad, so sad.

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