Turbulent year for books was a page-turner

Times Staff Writer

It started off with bestselling author James Frey admitting his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," was in fact a work of fiction, and ended with celebrity publisher Judith Regan getting fired for allegedly making anti-Semitic comments after her proposed O.J. Simpson confessional book-TV deal got shot down.

In between came charges that 19-year-old Harvard novelist Kaavya Viswanathan had lifted passages from a rival chick-lit author, and hotly disputed allegations that Ian McEwan, one of the most respected names in modern literary fiction, may have been guilty of plagiarism.

It was that kind of year in publishing -- one the literary world would like to forget.

"A lot of this is pretty tawdry stuff," said James Atlas, biographer of Saul Bellow and a longtime editor. "It was, in so many ways, a year of miscreancy in the American book business."

In 2006, the once-genteel publishing industry learned to its dismay that it could no longer escape the relentless media coverage and Internet scrutiny that have become part of modern life. Although the book world has had scandals in the past, the furious pace and intensity of negative publicity in 2006 seemed to buffet publishers harder than ever.

Among those hit was Ira Silverberg, a New York literary agent who was stunned to learn last January that his client J.T. Leroy -- a bestselling author believed to be an HIV-positive teenage prostitute -- was in fact a 40-year-old San Francisco woman who had concealed her identity for years.

"I was duped, it made me question my faith in publishing, and I was bracing for a stretch of bad media coverage," Silverberg said. But then, within 48 hours, yet another scandal broke in the book world: This time it was Frey's turn, and the ensuing uproar -- which included his groveling mea culpa on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" -- quickly superseded the news about Leroy.

Despite this wave of negative publicity, many observers insist that the book world continued to thrive in 2006. Although sales were generally flat, quality fiction and nonfiction shared spots on the bestseller lists along with more commercial works, and books continued to find new customers in outlets such as Starbucks, gift shops and other venues. Still, it was a year that many in the literary trade will remember as a time of scandal and controversy.

Among the contretemps:

* Even though he was exonerated, reporters from around the world converged on "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown's trial in London, where plaintiffs claimed he had lifted material from nonfiction sources.

* There were allegations of plagiarism against former President Carter; critics said two maps in his new book on the Middle East conflict were taken from another author, without giving him credit. A spokesperson for publisher Simon & Schuster said, "We stand behind the book fully."

* In the spring, charges surfaced that Augusten Burroughs' runaway bestseller "Running With Scissors," a memoir, contained major distortions and invented material.

* The annus horribilis ended with the firing of Regan, publisher of ReganBooks. She was terminated after allegedly making anti-Semitic remarks to a HarperCollins attorney about her plans to publish yet another controversial book -- this one a "fictional biography" of New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle that included unflattering (and invented) sex scenes between the slugger and Marilyn Monroe. Regan has denied making anti-Semitic comments and has vowed to file suit against HarperCollins over the termination.

Five ago, Silverberg noted, the book world didn't experience such scrutiny, "and now anything even vaguely scandalous is going to get picked up and amplified. We live in a culture hungry for the scandal du jour, and then the next one. We'll see more unflattering episodes in the future."

Others were more blunt, calling 2006 a turning point. Roxanne J. Coady, owner of a Madison, Conn., bookstore and co-editor of "The Book That Changed My Life," said: "There's just no place for the book world to hide anymore. Any idea that our business is somehow above the fray seems ridiculous now. We are as vulnerable as any other business."

Financial temptations

For some, this is inevitable in a corporate-run publishing world that is pressured as never before to show increasing profits. Publishers pay large advances to authors who, they hope, will connect with a public hungry for sensational material. In their haste to find the next bestselling memoirist, the next "Da Vinci Code," there are bound to be more incidents in which writers (and publishers) are caught fabricating stories, stealing material from others or pushing projects in dreadfully bad taste.

Why do writers steal or falsify? Some cannot resist the financial inducements to get big advances, even if it means "openly lying" on television, according to Wendy Lesser, a literary critic and editor of the Threepenny Review. Others succumb to peer group pressures. Atlas said Viswanathan's case showed "there's so much pressure now on young novelists to have an early breakthrough. Everybody wants that six-figure advance by the time they're 22."

But others worry that the rush to identify plagiarists may have gone too far, to the point that it may be scarring innocent authors. Robert Caro, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson and power broker Robert Moses, offered a cautionary story.

Just as Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) new book "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream" was published in October, Caro recalled, he was contacted by a reporter with the New York Post's Page Six gossip column. The reporter said she had been looking through Obama's book and found what she called "some very disturbing similarities" between his book and Caro's most recent volume in his biography of Johnson, Caro said.

Pressed for a comment, he asked to see the material, and the newspaper delivered the pages to his office.

"When I checked what they had sent, there was no similarity between us except for the use of the phrase that the U.S. Senate is 'the world's greatest deliberative body,' " the author said. "And of course there was a similarity, because I and Senator Obama and perhaps 40,000 other writers have used that same phrase. Otherwise there is no similarity, and no reason to call anything plagiarism I told them [the Post] that and hung up the phone. And the item, thankfully, never appeared."

Others say the furor over "invented details" in memoirs can also be carried too far. The notion that every memoir should contain verifiable fact is absurd, some believe, because recollection -- by its nature -- is subject to change over time.

Apology and healthy sales

To be sure, Frey crossed the line by going on television, in an earlier appearance on the Winfrey show, and claiming that made-up incidents in his memoir were true. But a simple reading of his book would reveal that "this was self-mythography," said Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a respected independent publishing house. "If you read it with clear eyes, you couldn't possibly take this stuff literally. And so in that sense, it wouldn't really matter if it was true or not."

The bottom line, he added, is that even as Frey was forced into a humiliating public apology on Winfrey's show, sales of his book continued at a healthy clip.

"At the height of all the negative coverage he was getting on television, I'd still see people walking down the street who had just bought the book," Galassi said.

Others suggest that even the worst publicity does not necessarily destroy books and authors. Silverberg, for example, said that Regan's proposed Simpson book, "If I Did It," could have been a huge national bestseller if only she had refrained from attempting to package the book with a two-part national television special.

"The TV thing, the advance buildup to the broadcast hurt this project," he said. "If it had simply gone out to the stores with no pre-publicity, the book would have been flying off the shelves. Of course people would protest, but the book would be selling. It was a classic case of public relations being handled poorly by a major corporation."

Asked what could be done to cut down on future book-related scandals, some publishers offered pledges to do better; others conceded there was little they could do. The book world has to operate on trust between writers and publishers, they said, and it's hard to know when trust has been breached.

At Random House, which was stung by the Frey scandal, editors "throughout our more than 100 imprints are asking tougher questions of the agents who bring them nonfiction proposals and their verifiability.... If there are serious questions that are not being answered satisfactorily, we're more than likely to pass on publishing," spokesman Stuart Applebaum said.

At Simon & Schuster, which has recently fielded charges that several maps in former President Carter's new book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" may have been lifted from another source, publisher David Rosenthal said it was impossible to double-check all the information contained in new titles. "No publisher could possibly fact-check every single line of information," he said. "No publisher ever has."

Does the public ultimately care about these scandals?

Kerry Slattery, general manager of Skylight Books in Los Feliz, said "all these tabloid-like scandals blow over. Until the next one. Some people might feel betrayed if an author is shown to have made things up," she added. "But are people disillusioned with publishing? Absolutely not."

For some, the new wave of negative coverage may simply be the price that publishers pay for increased media visibility.

"If the goal is to make books the next cool thing, and to gain an extra 50 million readers, then book scandals are part of the deal," Coady said. "If some authors have to get caught, and a few are going to take the fall, so be it. As long as it's not me."

josh.getlin@latimes.com

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