Saturday, June 9, 2012

Stretching the Truth

The news has been swamped with clips of the America’s Got Talent contestant, Timothy Poe. For those who may not be familiar with the story, this contestant won the hearts of the judges, not just for his stellar performance, but also for his personal story and the odds he overcame as a soldier injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, inconsistencies in his story ranging from unverified injuries to presenting false photos have caused quite a stir on the airwaves. There are even reports of death threats.

Now while I don’t endorse lying or exaggerations, some authors have been known to exaggerate personal stories in order to sell more books. Of note is the embellishment and outright lies in the autobiographic memoirs of James Frey’s bestseller, A Million Little Pieces or as some articles describe it, A Million Little Lies. Then there was the Herman Rosenblat memoir in which the events that made the book endearing had been fabricated. The repercussions were swift as his contracts were voided.

But what about a little exaggeration? I’m not talking about touting fiction as a true biography or memoir. I’m talking about authors claiming to have experiences that they don’t have; fabricating little personal stories to gain interest in their books, even if those stories have little to do with the books they write. It’s often considered as an alternate “persona”. There are even some who write “how to” books who invent qualifications that they don’t have. I’ve even heard of authors who exaggerate the difficulties they experience on the road to publication just to look like the underdog overcoming obstacles.

Why do authors stretch the truth? The answer is simple: it sells books. The more interesting the author’s story, the more intrigue, the more sales. But the repercussions when the truth is discovered could be horrendous. Once people feel that they have been deceived by the artist, the art itself becomes lost. There is no doubt that Timothy Poe is a talented artist, but the focus now is not on his singing. It’s on his fabricated or exaggerated personal story. In the same vein, if you do a Google search for James Frey, you will find more articles about his scandal than about the books and screenplays he’s written since the scandal.

Personally, I don’ think stretching the truth is ethical and it certainly isn’t worth it. So what do you think? Is it ethical to stretch the truth a little about your personal story if it would increase book sales?


Charles Gramlich said...

It's a delicate situation. Exaggeration seems OK to me, especially say if it is for humorous effect and the author writes humor. But to completely make up things with no basis in reality, such as claiming to have won a military medal you didn't win, is not acceptable and would bother me.

Liane Spicer said...

Toying around with reality in your fiction is one thing; lying about your life with the aim of deceiving people is another entirely.

I've heard James Frey is doing extremely well as a book packager or something like that. I've also heard he was initially advised by his publisher to change his marketing strategy for OMLP by presenting his fiction as memoir. Maybe after going along with that and dealing with the fallout he feels compensated for the fact that his name crops up in every article about lying authors. Somehow I don't think so.

William Doonan said...

A little exaggeration should be not only be accepted but appreciated. When writing our histories, we try to put our best foot forward, reexamining our past for opportunity. Who hasn't deleted "paper boy" on a resume, and written "media distributor" instead? Is that just me?

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles, I agree with you, it is a delicate line, and yes, donning a cowboy hat and boots because you write Western Novels is quite different to claiming that you were born and raised on a farm in Texas when you were actually raised in the hood in Harlem.

There is a big difference between adopting a "personna" to reflect your genre, and outright lying, but when the truth comes out, it's very hard to control the damage or even for the general public to see the distinction.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, when I checked Wikipedia (my bible lol), I realized that James Frey had gone on to write some very notable fiction. Aparently "I am Number four" was one of his collaborations. I saw the movie, and it was really good.

Yet when you google his name (I'm not talking about entering the term "Lying authors") most of what you get are articles about his lies.

So whether it was the publisher who encouraged the stunt or not, he is the one bearing the brunt of the fallout.

Jewel Amethyst said...

William, I'm not sure I agree with you there. A little exaggeration could come back and haunt one, especially on ones' resume. I've heard of cases where people exaggerated a tiny bit on their resume and got decimated in their interviews when asked about it.

In fact I was looking at an article recently about a company whose major service is to verify that what people write on their resumes submitted to companies, is true. That company has been doing good business.

As writers and readers, though, we have certain expectations of books and authors. We expect a memoir to be a true story as is an autobiography, and if there is exaggeration that it will be tongue in cheek for humor. We expect fiction to be made up and clearly labeled as fiction.

What we don't want to see is fiction touted as a true story or exaggeration that results in distortion.

marja said...

I might exaggerate for the sake of humor, but anyone can read my exaggerations and know that's just what they are. No, I wouldn't exaggerate in order to sell books. Most of us have had enough interesting situations in our lives that we don't need to make things up or stretch the truth too far. Or in the context, tooooooo far.

I like the old saying about what you see is what you get.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Marja, agreed. Exaggeration that's obviously for humor, irony or sarcasm is quite acceptable. Outright misrepresenting oneself to generate reader interest I think is unethical.

Anonymous said...

Consider your exaggeration. Would you include it in your curriculum vitae (resumé) for a job application? If the answer is no, then don't use the exaggeration for any marketing purposes. That's my 2p worth, anyway. I hate advertising which, these days, is tantamount to outright lying.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Nice tip, Captain Black. I don't quite agree that advertising is lying. As long as the product delivers what you say it does, it's not lying. If however you overdo and exaggerate the wonders of the product then it is lyiing.

One of my favorite ads that I love to hate is the "Head On" commercial. It just annoyingly repeats "Head on, apply directly to the forehead." There are no false claims, no exaggerations, you don't even know what "Head On" is from the commercial. That commercial worked in telling people about the product, because every comedian ran with it, mocking it, spoofing it, you name it.

G. B. Miller said...

I'm in the camp that if you creatively stretch the truth with your fiction, it isn't a problem. But when you creatively stretch the truth in your real life, it becomes a major problem.

I've seen it up close the devastating effect of losing one's job because that person got creative with their background and/or their life.

Losing your job and losing your reputation is not worth the risk of creatively rearranging the truth about your life in order to suit your own needs, no matter how much justification you give it.