Truth & Books: Why you shouldn’t believe everything in Sarah Palin’s book

The Associated press and staff members of the McCain campaign have called into question facts and quotes in Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” even before the book has hit the shelves.

This doesn’t surprise me.   And it’s not because I think Sarah Palin is full of moose crap, it’s because no one fact-checked my book except me.  Mind you, I did it over and over again until I wanted to rip my eyeballs out.

When David Sedaris wrote about buying a box of condoms in the New Yorker a fact-checker called Cost Co and asked if he had the quantity in the box right.  Isn’t that ridiculous? It had zero to do with his story.  But, you know, you have to respect every word written in the New Yorker that much more.

Magazines and newspapers are less permanent.  They line birdcages. They’re used as stuffing when we mail breakables.

Carry out a box full of magazines and newspapers and burn them in your drive and the neighbors won’t care.  Burn a box of books and you’ll be on the local news, you radical, you.

Books are far more permanent, yet they can be filled with a lot of trash facts and fabricated quotes that are validated only by the four-point font label on the inside of their jacket – “nonfiction.”

I recently saw Ishmael Beah, author of “A Long Way Gone,” speak at Ball State.  His talk was full of amazing stories about being a child soldier in Sierra Leon and how the human spirit is able to overcome the world’s worst evils.  His book became a bestseller and some of the facts in his book have been called into question.  During the Q&A one of the students asked him about some of the controversy dug up by an Australian reporter.

His answer was two-fold:

1)    While he was being chased and shot at and while death and violence were all around him, he didn’t stop to take notes: “How many soldiers are shooting at me?  Let me stop and count so, when I write about this in my future bestseller, I’ll know the exact number.”  He said that anything he didn’t remember well he left out.

2)    The publisher fact-checked his book.

He lost me at #2.  A copy-edit is not a fact check and I doubt that his publisher went to the great expense of fact-checking events that happened a decade before in Africa.  I have no reason to doubt Ishmael and his story, but this argument is weak.  Why not stop at #1 and be done with it.  If anything, point #2 didn’t smell right.

Even if some of Beah’s facts are a bit loose (I’m not saying they are), the greatest value in his story is how he felt when the events were happening and how he feels now that he reflects upon them.  But that’s the thing about the truth, messing with it can undercut a good story.  Ask James Frey author of “A Million Little Pieces.”

The truth might seem as insignificant as the number of condoms in a box, but nonfiction authors must be its slave.

In my office looking over my notes, I often wished I had asked a certain question during an interview while in Cambodia, remembered a certain quote from a worker in Bangladesh, or lived a set of things in a different order.  That was my challenge.

The truth is the truth and it filled my notebooks.  If it wasn’t in my notebooks, I didn’t have the luxury of calling up a worker in Cambodia to have them elaborate.

I did my darndest to crosscheck my facts in Where Am I Wearing?  I would’ve liked to support them with an appendix full of sources cited, but I would have had to pay for that.  That’s right.  My contract was setup so that I would have to pay for any additional back matter. In fact, four months before my book’s release I got an email from my publisher stating that I needed to have an index done at my cost (against my royalties).  The cost would be around $3 or $4 per page – approximately $1,000.

I talked them out of that.

So instead of a costly appendix, I have a Word file in which every fact and quote is followed by the source.  If my book became a bestseller like Beah’s or Sarah Palin’s and came under the accompanying scrutiny, my sources are at my fingertips.

Until then, I can only dream about the day the AP starts fact-checking my writing.

Elizabeth says:

TOO true!! As I write my book on SE Asian paper, I’m slapping my head and saying: “Why didn’t I ask that lady from the LenDen village in Laos how many sheets of paper she makes on a sunny day?”

And good on you for talking them out of that extra index.

Let your voice be heard!